Only three years have passed since the last Splinter Cell game, Double Agent, took a bow and received the critical acclaim to which the series had become accustomed, but it feels a lot longer. After four releases in four years, the series' hiatus wasn't deliberate - Conviction had been scheduled for release in late 2007 - but after a mixed outing at the inaugural Ubidays that May, the game disappeared from radars amidst rumours the team had gone back to the drawing board.
All came good again at E3 in June, however, when the game was demoed during Microsoft's conference and recaptured everyone's imaginations. After playing the game ourselves recently, we sat down with production manager Andréane Meunier to talk about what happened after Ubidays and Ubisoft Montreal's continuing success with the sometimes-derided stealth genre.
Please note that this interview was conducted before the delay announced in July.
Eurogamer: The Splinter Cell: Conviction demo today is very different to the one we saw at Ubidays in 2007. How did you go from one to the other?
Andréane Meunier: We receive a lot of feedback, and we listen to those comments, and our main conclusion was that we strayed away from core Splinter Cell values and gameplay - light and shadow, all the gadgets. You couldn't feel you were playing a Splinter Cell any more and it didn't look like Splinter Cell, so a lot of people were very turned off by that idea. When we started working to build that back in, we felt that we had to rework part of the basis of the game in order to bring that back in. So we have the same technology, but we actually reworked most of the gameplay.
Eurogamer: It seems that like a lot of Ubisoft Montreal games, this one has principles that will be familiar to fans but also wants to expand to a broader audience.
Andréane Meunier: Exactly. We went back to putting a couple of things that we knew that worked and were very good with the brand, and then worked from there to add new stuff.
Eurogamer: Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell both seemed to have similar crowd elements at the time. Was that also a factor?
Andréane Meunier: Yes and no. Because actually we felt that the game wasn't well received [at Ubidays] and some of the critics were actually saying that we were missing the gameplay, when we started having maybe a bit of trouble bringing back the core gameplay, and we saw the success that Assassin's was going to have, Ubisoft made the decision to say, 'look guys, take the time you need to do this game, we've got someone bringing in the money for the next year so we're okay, we won't ship a game that's not good, so go ahead and take the time to do it'. That took the pressure off us and allowed us to rework the core values that we wanted to bring out.
Eurogamer: Sam's using the Krav-Maga self-defence style employed by Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Why did you settle on that?
Andréane Meunier: Actually we realised that in the previous Splinter Cell it was mentioned that Sam had a training in that, and that was part of the back story he had, and we started looking into it in Montreal and the type of moves that it involves, and when we did that we found that a couple of well-known actors in Montreal were trained in Krav-Maga, so we brought them in and we mocapped them. So we were lucky to find both Krav-Maga and acting in the same persons.
Eurogamer: You're suggesting it's not easy to find people who are proficient in secret agent fighting styles to help you out?
Andréane Meunier: Exactly [smiles]. Fortunately we called the trainer and he said he had an actor, and then we saw who it was, and the guy did a lot of big productions in Quebec.
Eurogamer: You're still on the same formats as you were in 2007, but did the delay have a material impact on the technology too?
Andréane Meunier: Well, obviously what it does is it gives us what I call tools in the artist's hands, so we have more time on the programming side to develop rendering features, shaders, things like that, that allow us to give more wow in the hands of the artists, and then make maps that benefit from that.
Eurogamer: Stealth has declined somewhat as a genre over the past few years and is almost a derisory term nowadays - "Oh, there's a stealth section" - whereas you guys in Montreal seem to do rather well out of it between Splinter Cell and Assassin's Creed. What is it about stealth that still excites you?
Andréane Meunier: When you think about stealth in every day life, it appeals to everybody. We've all had sneaking around as kids and surprising somebody. Stealth is something I think people enjoy, and even if you watch movies about spies and infiltration or whatever, it's interesting that people like stealth. The way the gameplay was done, it was really constraining, and it was really hardcore: you do this or not, I'm going to slap your wrist if you do it that way. Maybe that's not the way people feel they should play stealth. Some people just say, 'oh, the stealth genre is dead' or is too hardcore, but we're saying no, there is a feeling that people want to play stealth, we just need to give them a way to play with it.
Eurogamer: The early stealth games had gone a certain way and people were following them down a cul-de-sac instead of thinking from first principles.
Andréane Meunier: Obviously if something works you try to copy and take advantage of it, but we're questioning ourselves and saying let's push this a bit further.
Eurogamer: How do you feel about the fact Eidos Montreal is doing Thief 4? Bit of competition there?
Andréane Meunier: Not really [laughs].
Eurogamer: I suppose they're only similar games in a superficial way.
Andréane Meunier: Yeah, and we do know people from the other studios in Montreal too, but Thief isn't coming out at the same time as we are, and we haven't heard anything about the gameplay, we've only heard that it's being produced.
Eurogamer: Yes. It's very stealthy of them, actually.