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Splinter Cell steps into the light

Feature: Crowds are the new shadows when Sam Fisher gets lost in the light

The rules of stealth are about to change. After four games using light and shadow as allies, Splinter Cell is about to take a whole different direction. A direction towards daylight.

"Crowds are the new shadow," says Ubisoft man Dany Lepage, producer of 360 exclusive Splinter Cell: Conviction. "We've consciously decided to stay away from light and shadow game play since it was such a staple of previous Splinter Cell game play."

He continues: "We wanted, instead, to push a new game play mechanic that would be as innovative gameplay-wise and technology-wise, in the era of 360 and PS3, than light and shadows were on the Xbox, PS2 and GameCube."

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The result is a system not a million miles away from what Ubisoft is doing in Assassin's Creed. As a fugitive, Sam is out to achieve his goals without drawing too much attention to himself. In a bustling city this means passing off as 'just a face in the crowd', sneaking past cops with a bowed head and thralls of street riffraff giving you the perfect urban camouflage.

"But," says Lepage, "crowds have another useful role when you're a fugitive: they're a great way to distract the authorities." Sam can push an innocent bystander for example, or steal newspapers from a kiosk owner, then slowly walk away among a group of people as the cops come to investigate.

"In previous Splinter Cells, your goal as a player was not to disturb the AI so you could slip by unnoticed. In Conviction, you HAVE to disturb them if you want to avoid their attention, so more than likely, you'll be creating chaos and mayhem to reach your goals." Just with shadows in the previous games, the crowds are now Sam's greatest asset.

Ironically enough, even though lights and shadows are no longer at the core of Splinter Cell, Conviction sports the best-looking shadows the series has ever seen. In an effort to show off its new visual toys, Ubisoft Montreal has set Splinter Cell 5 in the autumn, where low suns are causing shade to become a big part of the visual environment.

"We haven't tried to reproduce a 'classic' feeling from previous Splinter Cells," Lepage notes. "Our ambitions in regards to previous instalments are more grandiose: to provide players on 360 with the same feeling of awe that Xbox and PS2 owners felt when they first played the original Splinter Cell."

A tall promise indeed. The producer lays out how Ubisoft Montreal plans to induce this feeling of awe visually by listing some of Convictions' many visual advancements, including a number of new lighting techniques which you can see in our exclusive screens.

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"When we released Splinter Cell, it was all about dynamic lighting. We developed this technology and it was the next-gen technique of the time. We have been working on several technologies to once more give a next-gen feel to the lighting in the game, through global illumination and reflective lighting."

The most important technique up Conviction's sleeve is the intensive use of per pixel Ambient Occlusion (AO), which Lepage says, because of the fully interactive environment, is the perfect technology to make the large number of objects on screen look absolutely integrated, and not part of a simulation.

Although lighting is no longer the source of Splinter Cell's gameplay, according to Ubisoft Montreal it's still an incredibly important part in making the environment feel credible, and ultimately easily readable for the player - and that's what Conviction's stealth gameplay is all about.

"We want to have the player acting in a reactive mode, not in a proactive mode," says Lepage. "Strategy has to be there, but we want the gamers to think fast, to be pressured just like a fugitive or rogue agent would be"

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