We're led on a fairly circuitous route through Ubisoft's Montreal offices - riding an elevator to the fourth floor, walking across the building, taking the stairs back down to the third floor and entering a room at the very end of the corridor. It's all terribly cloak and dagger, but Splinter Cell Conviction has been in development for twenty months already, we're the first people outside Ubisoft to see it, and they don't want the surprise spoiled by what we might see on a programmer's computer as we stroll by.
In game terms, two long years have passed since Sam last saved the world in Double Agent, and he's spent his days since living alone, chopping wood in a manly fashion and generally sulking about the place. But, as you'd expect, trouble soon arrives at his cabin door and - before he can even think about cultivating his beard any further - he's heading back to the government for a spot of 'slippery business'. Or at least he would have been, were it not for the fact that the modern day Third Echelon is all tied up in red tape and bureaucracy, Sam seems to have pissed everyone off... and gone rogue... and become an enemy of the state. Urgh. What a day.
Conviction's creators are keen to labour just how integral the story is to this, the latest Splinter Cell, but are less keen on spilling anything other than the above. But that's fine. Because it gives us more room to talk about the changes Conviction makes to the Splinter Cell formula. Like, shadows. You liked hiding in them during previous Splinter Cells, right? Bad luck - they're gone. All of them. And gadgets? You liked having dozens at your disposal on every mission. Well, they're out too.
'In' is a new system that allows Sam to hide in plain sight and utilise every part of his surroundings as a weapon or means of hiding. As a fugitive, Sam operates both night and day in public spaces where dressing up in rubber and squatting in a dark corner is frowned upon. Dressing down in a hoody and jeans, Sam is able to disappear into crowds and hang with the regular folk.
Producer Dany Lepage explains: "Crowds are your shadows now - every civilian is like a pocket of shadow for Sam, except that shadow is moving and disappearing because people will get angry with you for following them. In Conviction you're going to have to act all the time." The game's civilians react intelligently and uniquely to what Sam does - snitching you out to the rozzers if you look a bit shifty or cussing at you if you steal their things. When bullets fly, some will run, some will beg for their lives and others will take cover, and like Sam they can use the objects that litter the environment however they damn well please.
We've heard it all before, of course - games that let you interact with 'anything' and use 'any' object - but Conviction may just be the first game to deliver on the promise. Sam doesn't have his toys from the get-go, but everything you see, from a desk to a bookcase to a biscuit tin can be picked up and used, and every tool you pick up is then a weapon if you hold it right. "Improvisation is the key to Conviction," says Dany, "You have to give players a lot of options if you want them to be able to improvise properly." The only objects in the game that remain immobile are the tables - you can hide under them or flip them over for cover, but you can't move them - apparently because the AI wouldn't know how to react to Sam hiding beneath a desk in the middle of a park.
Improvisation is a skill you're going to have to get to grips with quickly because Ubi have worked to make their AI almost frighteningly smart. No two games are the same, with enemies that navigate levels on ever-changing paths until an object or situation catches their attention. When searching for Sam, police and soldiers prioritise likely hiding places and will make intelligent decisions based upon where Sam was last sighted. Every decision an NPC makes is a two-step process - if fired upon they'll immediately react, whether it be to return fire or flee, and will then begin to formulate a more complete plan, flanking you or turning over a table to take cover. Like Sam, they can manipulate the environment to make their own cover and will intelligently figure out routes around obstacles you have decided to place in their path.