First things first: this isn't Splinter Cell as you know it, and if that's going to be a problem, you're better off steering clear. After the diversions of Splinter Cell: Double Agent and an initial, aborted attempt to radically reinvent the series with Conviction, fans might have expected a more back-to-basics final game. In actual fact, however, the new Splinter Cell brings in new ideas, new features and a whole new tone. Provided you're prepared to accept these, it's a stunning tactical action game.
Out, for instance, go such Splinter Cell hallmarks as the rubber suit and goggles and - to a degree - the gadgets and ceiling hanging, corridor straddling, moves of old. In comes a faster-moving, more aggressive Sam Fisher, and a more action-oriented brand of gameplay. There's still a lot of sneaking to be done but there's a sense that, rather than avoiding guards and evading surveillance, you're using Sam's skills to whittle down the numbers of the hired heavies, private contractors and corrupt agents ranged against you.
With your foes heavily armed, well-trained and working together, it's almost impossible to survive in a straight-up gun battle - this is no Uncharted 2 or Gears of War. Sneak, snipe, blast out the lights and think your way through each situation and you might just have a fighting chance. If earlier Splinter Cells were always a little in thrall to Metal Gear Solid, then this one's closest point of comparison is last year's Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's all about knowing when to hide, and when and how to strike.
The game has a range of mechanics to encourage this approach, and some will inevitably prove controversial. The biggie is the "execution". Sneak up on an enemy, and Fisher can take them down with a quick-and-dirty burst of close-up combat. This earns you execution points, and you can use these to tag two enemies then wipe them in a single blast of cool, slow-mo gunplay. Some fans will doubtless hate this feature, but to my mind if works brilliantly. Play the game right and you get to feel like a Bourne-style agent; fast, decisive and deadly.
There's also a neat "last seen position" mechanic. Get spotted, and you leave a bright white outline where you were last seen. Bad luck? Not necessarily. This will send them rushing towards your location, but if you're clever you can use this to your advantage, getting spotted, then out-flanking your foes while they're searching. Throw remote-controlled mines into the mix, and it's not hard to imagine new tactics.
On top of this, the game has an actual rewards system where specific actions - say, pulling off a number of headshots without being seen or escaping after you've been detected without killing anyone - will net you an award. Unlike normal achievements, however, these awards come with points that you can spend on new weapons or upgrades. The more skilfully and intelligently you play the game, the more accurate and powerful your firearms become, as you find yourself able to fit a silencer or tag more than the default two enemies for execution.
The overall effect is to make you feel like the hunter, not the hunted. Detection still has consequences, so there's still plenty of tension and suspense, but the new moves give the game a more immediately exciting style. And everything else about Conviction works with this. The look is more gritty, textured and film-noir than previous Splinter Cells, and Ubisoft has cleverly used a nifty monochrome effect to tell you when you're in cover and when you can be seen. The storyline, which begins with an AWOL Fisher searching for the man who killed his daughter, strides away from the usual gung-ho Clancy nonsense into a darker world of conspiracy and betrayal - again reminiscent of the recent Bourne and Bond films.
Conviction is ingenious in the ways it holds you within the fiction, and away from distracting UI. Scenes projected onto blank walls elegantly convey snatches of the story, while projected instructions keep you moving in the right direction without any need to stop and look at maps. Flashbacks, flashforwards and dialogue are all used to brilliant effect. As a hard-edged cinematic thriller, Conviction takes some beating, and moments like a chase sequence through the middle of a busy Washington event show an admirable willingness to mess with the Splinter Cell formula if it makes things more exciting. Well done.
Unfortunately, Conviction also has flaws. One is that the AI isn't always 100% convincing, and you will still have moments where one guard fails to notice that his colleague 6 feet away has just been shot dead (though these are few and far between). Another is that checkpoints are sometimes placed too far apart, and when you can only take a few hits before collapsing, this can mean stretches of playing the same chunk over and over again until you get it right. These, however, are fairly minor. What could have been the deal-breaker is the game's length. I'd take some of the 5-hour reports on the Internet with a pinch of salt - if a skilled player dials the difficulty down to Rookie and blasts his way through it's possible, but what sort of twit would do that? All the same, you could definitely get through in 7 to 9 hours without ninja skills on Normal.
Note the words "could have been". Conviction's long-term power lies in the generous range of multiplayer, co-op and side modes available. The co-op story mode, for example, gives you a complete, dedicated co-op campaign featuring two agents, Archer and Kestrel, in a proper story that complements the single-player game. Both Archer and Kestrel have all of Sam's skills at their disposal, and the game makes some cunning moves to ensure proper co-op play. For one thing, execution tags are shared, meaning one player can tag a bunch of enemies using the under the door scope device, making it easier for the other to burst in from another door and execute.
For another thing, if one player dies the mission's failed, practically forcing each spy to watch the other's back and heal when necessary. Frankly, the combination of stealth, suspense and sudden action makes Splinter Cell co-op an unmissable experience, and even once you've made it through the campaign you'll find a trio of challenge modes available, which can also be enjoyed by lone players in the single-player Deniable Ops mode.
The collection of co-op and challenge modes is enough to elevate Conviction from a superb but disappointingly brief experience, into a must-have slice of espionage action. It wouldn't hurt Splinter Cell to have a little more single-player substance next time around, but enrol a friend, add voice-chat, and you'll find arguably the best co-op action outside of Left4Dead.