"Fisher? You'll pay for what you did to Robertson! Hear me, Fisher? This won't end like it did at the airfield!"
Airfield? What airfield? And who's Robertson again? Splinter Cell: Conviction isn't just my game of the year, it's a game it took me most of the year to finish, even though a lot of people complained about how fleeting an experience the single-player campaign was. I played it between work, between moving house, and between playing games I was actually meant to be writing about. Each time I picked it up again I had to remind myself of how the controls worked, whether I'd inverted the camera, and of the best means of wringing entertainment from Ubisoft's super-powered reinvention of stealth.
I got my money's worth, I think, but there were certainly casualties to this approach. Casualties like narrative consequence, with pivotal moments at airfields simply blinking out of existence for me. Casualties like Robertson, too, who I appear to have murdered without realising it. Apologies, Robertson: I'm sure you deserved better.
Splinter Cell: Conviction took much longer to make than it did for me to play, of course, but lengthy delays are rarely a guarantee of quality when it comes to videogames. Actually, I can think of at least four or five games I've played in the last few weeks that are easily better than Sam Fisher's latest - games that are more considered, pacier, and less fundamentally ridiculous.
Rewind even further, delving into 12 months that saw Mario blasting back into space, that had Super Crate Box tying weapon sets and scoring systems together deliciously tightly, and sent Solipskier racing through the greyscale snow, hurrying towards his inevitable date with both destiny and Chopin, and Clancy's super-spy, gruffly competent as he is, really has no place in too many end-of-the-year lists.
So no, I'm not suggesting that Conviction is the best game of 2010 by any means. Instead, I'm admitting that it's the game I had the most fun with: the game I enjoyed for all the things it unexpectedly gets just right for me, and some of the things it makes such an entertaining mess of.
Here's another caveat: if you've played the previous Splinter Cells, Conviction appears to be a bit of a disappointment. Mechanics have been simplified, and approaches have been reined in. The possibility space of the adventure, as Will Wright might say, has been significantly diminished, in favour of speedy traversal, unlikely set-pieces, and the fact that the design team spent two or three years plugging helplessly away at a project apparently called: Sam Fisher, The Deadliest Hobo, and then had to knock something sugary together pretty sharpish when that fell to pieces.
But I haven't played the previous Splinter Cells - I'm fundamentally lacking the patience, the intelligence, and the eyesight to navigate their gloomy playgrounds - and so I brought none of those grumbles to the table with me. Rather than the neutering of a once-great franchise, Conviction struck me as a sustained rumination on a single, fascinating question: What would happen if Captain Haddock out of Tintin went totally mental one day, and turned out to have the double-dangerous voodoo-ninja skills to do some real damage?
Again, I'll admit that, strung out across the best part of a year, the niceties of Splinter Cell's plot have kind of passed me by. I know Fisher's grumpy and bearded because his daughter's been killed, and I know that Anna Grimsdottir, a red-headed lady who looks a bit like Tanya Donnelly, lead singer of the much-missed mid-nineties band Belly, is involved. I also know, this being Tom Clancy, that the rot goes all the way to the White House, and that the Geneva Convention, with its, "try not to torture people too much", and its "don't shoot people in the dark, right?" is just a load of Commie bunk.
(Have you ever seen a photo of Tom Clancy, incidentally? It's enormously disappointing. Real-world Clancy resembles a man who made an enormous amount of money in the fried chicken business before entering the celebrity golfing circuit, while his paranoid, militaristic ramblings have always made me assume he's a sinewy cross between Glenn Beck and the Unabomber. He has a huge, matted facial hair, in my imagination, dresses exclusively in a soiled flight suit, and talks to most people through the letterbox of his heavily-fortified house lest they try to read his mind with microwave brain-cannons when he opens the door.)
The plot doesn't really matter, however. What matters is how Conviction, like Arkham Asylum before it, reimagines stealth. For Batman, stealth was all about toying with baddies in vertiginous locations, swooping through the dark, striking, and disappearing again with a burst of unspooling zipline wire and a rustle of bullet-proof velvet. For Fisher, it's something else. It's a puzzle game, actually. Something like Tetris, but with more head injuries.
Stealth has always been a bit puzzly, of course, but by bringing the walls in snugly, throwing in that quick-move cover mechanic, and coming up with the Mark & Execute system - which gives you three or four insta-kills for every risky melee takedown you pull off - Ubisoft has brought it far closer to the realm of pure abstraction.
Conviction may rob you of your night-vision goggles for the most part, forcing you to play through the game taking in a range of office suites, fairground tents and national monuments with no grimy filter to obscure the realistic detailing, but its primary gimmick forces you to read these spaces in an entirely different way.
With enemies, for the most part, thrown at you in clusters of four or five at a time, memorising patrol routes is shoved aside in favour of a much brisker take on human geometry: you tag the trickiest of your foes for one-shot death, isolate a straggler, take him down up-close, and then plug the others with a single button press once you're in range.
At its best, it's pure spatial challenge, in other words - a challenge where most of the fun comes from finding the magical spot on each map that puts your tagged enemies within reach, while allowing you easy access to a melee kill. As such, it strikes me as being strongly reminiscent of another of 2010's unexpected charmers, the iPhone game Helsing's Fire, which has you working out the best place in a room to stick a torch that will illuminate multiple members of the undead, before blowing them to pieces with potions.
Sure, one of these offerings costs 59p and probably took the developer a few afternoons in a pub to hack together, while the other's a triple-A production with a runaway budget and impact on share prices, but that merely illustrates two of the reasons I continue to love games so much: mechanics trump staging regardless of the scale of the production, and big publishers like Ubisoft occasionally have the guts - or the insane desperation - to turn their precious world-famous intellectual properties into lavish mega-spend puzzle titles without telling anyone in advance.
Mark & Execute is easily one of 2010's most pinchable ideas - Bond's already had a go at it in Blood Stone - but it's not the only smart concept lurking within Conviction. Interrogations are a reliable source of brutal Looney Tunes fun, their linear conversations replacing the thick roots of a dialogue tree with an option to stick your companion's head through a TV monitor, while Last Known Position clarifies the limits of the game's AI - a must for any title that encourages you to toy with your foes - whilst simultaneously allowing you to herd enemies into smart traps.
Tying the whole thing together, meanwhile, is a conceit that DICE used with Mirror's Edge: make sure the guns are all dismally unsatisfying, and people will have to explore the full range of their offensive options just to avoid using them.
Elsewhere, Conviction offers a strangely intoxicating mix of slick presentation and cheese-brained design to enjoy: objectives are projected onto the sides of buildings in an astonishingly stylish meeting of form and function, for example, while a bizarrely wretched Iraq flashback sequence makes you appreciate all the clever new gimmicks a little more intently, simply by taking them away from you for a half hour.
Beyond all that stuff, though, there's something shamefully compelling about Sam Fisher on a fundamental level, and it only grows stronger when his most complex behaviours are reduced to contextual button presses. A bit like Lara Croft, Fisher provides awkward lumps like myself with the briefest hints of the pleasures of being physically skilled.
After years of putting up shelves that store books at a series of risqué angles, of making cakes that taste a lot like poison, and of accidentally sitting on sleeping cats, I get to experience what it's like to be canny, decisive, and light on my feet: to size up situations in an instant, to take out foes with the twitch of an eye, and to pick my way through the darkness with assuredness.
For that, then, I'm eternally grateful - even though I still can't quite remember what I did at that airfield.