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.