Sam Fisher's turning out to be a nasty piece of work. No longer content with merely bonking people on the head and gliding unseen, as quiet as the dead, Ubisoft's stealthmeister wants to show us how many evil death manoeuvres he can come up with. And we love him for it.
At first it's quite disconcerting observing the grizzled Third Echelon Clooney wannabe delighting in his new stealth kills, but we could get used to it. Maybe he was a bit of a Goody Two Shoes after all. The story's never exactly been Splinter Cell's strong point, but here's the deal anyway. It's 2008, and Information Warfare is apparently causing much havoc to global stability. We feel that every day, we really do. Just try ever being honest about a forthcoming big new release and just wait for the phone to ring off the hook as the companies responsible have a fit trying to get you to remove the offending content. Honestly.
Feel my icy hands of death
Anyway, resuming your role as Sam Fisher you've been tasked with undertaking a "hazardous series of operations to investigate and eliminate a new source of information attacks, originating in North Korea". Apparently in order to win out Fisher must "employ a host of unconventional counterintelligence activities to gather Intel, disrupt enemy operations and neutralize adversary targets." Nothing new there, you might think, but this time you've been armed with "a lethal array of tactics", meaning knives, prototype weapons and "more radical hand-to-hand techniques". Oh yes, the Inverted Chokehold; feel my wrath.
In a three part run through of the PC version of the forthcoming stealth bonanza, we get to see these brutal death moves - some of the most realistic and horrifying ever committed to a videogame. We don't get to play it, but we get to see it for the first time in all its glory on a screen the size of most people's living room walls. And we like. Oh yes we like.
Sat on the back row of the huddled auditorium in the dark you can't help wince at the sight of various neck snapping manoeuvres, no matter how many different way Ubisoft contrive them. First up in the grizzly parade of death involves Fisher hanging upside down from a pipe (as you do), hanging by his ankles before grabbing an unsuspecting passer by by the neck, hauling him up, twist, crunch, one down.
Candle in the wind
In Pandora Tomorrow attracting guards wasn't always as simple as it could have been, with only the odd bottle, can and your annoying whistle to distract them from their sentry patrol. This time, there appears to be any number of ways to get them to peer into the darkness like lambs to the slaughter. Whereas shooting the lights out had little impact on the AI behaviour, this time around you get to take advantage of several layers of subtle design decisions. In one section the dividing walls are no more than translucent paper, meaning that when Sam sneaks in to blow out a candle, guard on the other side notices immediately and saunters through to relight it. Only, what this foolish drone doesnt realise is that- crack - he's just become another unwilling subject of Fisher's neck snapping practise session.
How scripted these events are is open to question, but we're shown how the AI reacts to numerous unexpected events, namely how a guard will bash the side of a TV set that Sam's just shot out, or the investigation of a squirting sprinkler system. In both instances they check out what's going on, but merely leave them selves perfectly lined up for a spine shattering manoeuvre - and the game looks all the better for allowing the player opportunities to make the most of their naivety and interact with whatever environmental factors they come across to amusing effect.
One classic example of this new gameplay thinking within Splinter Cell 3 is a rainy section, which not only looks utterly jaw dropping in terms of its glistening realism (including on the character models and the general environmental surfaces) but has a palpable effect on how the AI reacts - causing Sam's next victim to hold out his hand to check for the rain, and then cower in the shelter. Not only does this add to an already convincing spectacle, but gives Fisher the opportunity to once again creep through and cause irreparable damage to his spinal column.
Best of the bunch, however, has to be a scene on a similarly rainy lighthouse section, which enabled Fisher to hang from a walkway, await the arrival of a guard and then haul the poor unfortunate soul screaming headfirst down into the abyss. It's these moments that are likely to get even the most jaded stealth gamer excited against once they see the range of possibilities promised.
The much missed possibilities of close combat knife play are even explored, and you even get the impression that Fisher has no problem at all with throat slitting. Told you he was getting to be a sadistic little sod. But it has other uses, and gives Sam the opportunity to slice his way through plastic sheeting in a thoroughly silent and deadly manner. Inside one particular area it gives Fisher the chance to get up close and personal behind a computer technician busy tapping away on a terminal. Again, it's simple, but it's effective and you can feel the tension of the whole thing just watching it play out. Superb.
In the final section of the 20 minute demo we were shown a few minutes of how the game's co-op multiplayer will play out. Shown off in real-time, the mission was simply to infiltrate a building and nab some top secret info. With no obvious entrance to the glass fronted block, a little bit of improv was called for, and with a quick boost manoeuvre one of the players was in. After finding a pipe to climb, the other player was brought into the fray once a rope was chucked down - but even then one player has to act as lookout to make sure the climbing player isn't caught out by the guards.
In the final part of the demo there was a pure Mission Impossible moment, with access gained to the computer room via air ducts (what else?!). And, as if you couldn't already guess, one player has to lower the other via rope and pulley above a sleeping guard. If it plays out as good as it looks, frankly Ubisoft has itself yet another sure-fire success. With some truly spectacular graphical effects, well considered level design and a degree of free thinking given to the player, it's great to see a publisher thinking about how to use technology to take the game forward rather than merely churning out another samey looking sequel to please the shareholders.
What's even more pleasing to note is that it's not even two years since the first in the series came out, so no-one could accuse the company of slacking. How the game translates to the consoles will be interesting to note, but owners of highly specced PCs will most definitely be in for a treat when this arrives in time for Christmas.
Splinter Cell 3 will be released on PC this Christmas. Console formats have yet to be confirmed.