It's okay everyone, the nastiness and xenophobia is all over. America and Russia are videogaming friends again. All these years of digital conflict, and suddenly it's all resolved. Splinter Cell: Conviction's multiplayer features a US agent and a Russian agent working not against each other, but together for the common good. Is this a videogaming first? Probably not, but I'm going to say it is anyway, because I like making grand statements. For instance: cats are smarter than monkeys. Baked beans can cure leprosy.
All these things are true, but this one is double-true: Conviction features a surprisingly beefy co-op mode (think Modern Warfare 2's Spec Ops sub-game), pairing a Russian spy with an American one. Ubisoft compares it to a buddy movie - an odd couple who loathe each other on sight, but grow to like each other. Maybe even to... love each other.
Sweaty wetsuit-on-wetsuit cuddles in a darkened air vent? Conviction's not quite that bold, but it does aim to re-establish Splinter Cell as a top-notch multiplayer game. It was once so, with the splendid Pandora Tomorrow's online mode, but it's never quite recaptured that. Conviction's fighting back with a bespoke co-op game, a prologue to the newly angry Sam Fisher's Jack Bauer impersonation in the single-player.
It's made of four maps unique to it, it lasts five to six hours, and it concerns the retrieval of four stolen Russian EMP bombs. Fisher's erstwhile employers Echelon team up with their Russian equivalents Voron to track 'em down. And so brash US agent Archer is paired with haunted Russian veteran Kestrel.
They might be bickering like siblings at Christmas, but they know their spy tricks. When you and a chum take control of them, you'll be "two wolves taking down your prey", reckons Ubisoft's producer for multiplayer Patrick Reading. "We talk a lot about the fantasy of being this elite ruthless agent who stalks the shadows and is very predatory in terms of how he takes down his enemies. We wanted to give that to the plays in multiplayer, and it became apparent that the best way to do that was in co-op."
While there's room to wand off and work (i.e. kill) separately to some extent, it's rigged so you do have to work together. Heaving open a locked door takes four meaty hands, for instance, and then there's the dual Mark and Execute system. This a carry over from the single-player, wherein old Sam gets, essentially, a free auto-takedown if he manages to successfully stealth kill an enemy. If one of you manages the silent assassin thing in co-op, the other guy gets to share the prize - so you can then lock-target a lurking goon each, click a bumper button and they'll both go down.
It might sound a bit hands-off, but in practice it nails that hyper-efficient government-endorsed killer thing in a way that both of you flailing around with a thumbstick and lightly wounding someone in the kidney never could. "We're two elite agents, highly trained, with perfect situational awareness," says Reading. "It's the perfect way to set up ambushes and traps, if we're being very synchronised and co-ordinated lines of fire, where we can take out huge numbers of enemies at the same time."
While the co-op prologue is its own tale, made by a separate team to the main campaign's, much is shared. The project-o-vision mission objectives appear, beefed up by a chum's-eye-view beamed onto a nearby wall if you manage to reach an objective before him. Rather than hanging around and worrying about whether wearing rubber suits for too long can cause fungal infections, you can keep an eye on what he's up to, and dash over to be Mr Hero if he's in trouble.
All told, it works well - clearly based around the same structures as the single-player, but with the added tension and adrenaline of yelling "there's one shoot him in the eye oh god" and "he's got me he's got me hellllllllllp" in your most pathetic voice.
I only get to try one of its four missions, set in a Cold War bunker deep underneath Moscow, but even in the space of that it's hugely apparent that you'd never tackle it in quite the same way twice. Multiple routes, multiple opportunity to leap betwixt frying pan and fire and, as will likely be one of Conviction's major talking points (Sam manages some especially gruesome human rights violations in single-player), multiple ways to brutally torture people for information.
On top of the prologue are the Deniable Ops missions, a collection of multiplayer mini-games using a clutch of maps recycled from the single-player and co-op, plus two new ones entirely. Hunter mode's a straight elimination game, the two of you using brains and bloodshed to clear a zone of all its enemies as quickly as possible.
Alternatively, there's the stealth-off of Infiltration, wherein you're both trying to get through the area without being spotted - Reading describes this as a throwback to classic Splinter Cell, and a nod to the series' long-term fans.
It's much-needed, to be honest - largely speaking, Conviction is a long way away from the precision stealth of its predecessors, with Sam-Jack, Archer and Kestrel are much more akin to the pantherlike Batman of Arkham Asylum than to traditional, frail Sam. To producer Patrick Reading's mind, Conviction is "evolving what we think of as stealth action gameplay" - but some more veteran players are likely to accuse it of doing quite the opposite.
It's not been a good year for classic (for lack of a better word) stealth, as there's been a general industry movement to more accessible sneaking, featuring characters who kill from the darkness but don't crumple like a wet paper bag when they're shot in the face. While it'd be a stretch to call anything about Conviction realistic, Infiltration is very much game over if you're spotted. As a polar opposite, there's Last Stand - wherein the pair of you are besieged by waves of gun-toting nutters and endeavour to survive for as long as possible.
If you're one of those frowning souls who feels co-op is the coward's approach to multiplayer, you'll want Face Off mode. Essentially, it's deathmatch between the two players, but it also throws perma-angry AI enemies into the mix. An adept and sadistic spy can use his arsenal of future-gadgets to lure these brawny chaps into hunting and attacking his opponent. "It's a chance for the two players to pit themselves against each other to see who really is the biggest predator on the block," says Reading. "It becomes a really interesting, strategic type of game even while you're hunting down your fellow player."
Across all of this, there's - wouldja Adam and Eve it - an unlock/experience points metagame. For some it'll sweeten what's already a tantalising deal, but for others (hello!) it seems faddish and unnecessary, a distraction from the game's inherent challenges.
It's called, awkwardly, Persistent Elite Creation, and it'll win you kit upgrades and visual customisation tweakery. There's only so many bells and whistles you can stick onto a man who dresses in black so he can hide in the dark, so it'll be fun to see what they come up with for that. "We had a strategic goal to keep people playing the game, to have a reason to fire it up weeks or months later," explains Reading.
So, it's far from a tokenistic multiplayer mode, and probably instrumental to making Conviction a seriously impressive rival to BioShock 2, Mass Effect 2 et al for our February and March affections. And again, after all that Modern Warfare 2 hoo-hah, it'll be nice to play a game about being Americans and Russians slapping on rather than stabbing each other in the back for a change. Not quite Red Heat: The Game, but we can only hope.
Splinter Cell: Conviction is out for PC and Xbox 360 on 26th February 2010.