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Which Console Did You Buy/Receive Over The Holidays?

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Game Profile
 Written by Troy Matsumiya  on June 27, 2007

First Impressions: Because the hoodie is mightier than the sword.

The upcoming fifth game in the hugely popular Splinter Cell series will be unlike anything you've seen before ? which is probably a good thing. Despite how fun Splinter Cell: Double Agent was, you still got a sense of ?been there, done that? ? but Ubisoft pretty much guarantees you won't get that feeling with Conviction.

Ubisoft Montreal recognized early on that simply churning out the same game with slight upgrades would only dilute the franchise and hurt sales. So right after completing Chaos Theory they started work on a radical make-over of the series that will essentially turn everything over on its head. Instead of hiding in the shadows and avoiding NPCs, now you'll be walking around in plain sight and actively engaging NPCs. If you felt naked during the daytime missions in Double Agent, you ain't seen nothing yet.

You can kiss the familiar light-and-shadows gameplay goodbye as Sam will no longer be able to rely upon the darkness to hide and escape. He also won't have his support team, fancy gadgets, his signature goggles or his famous wetsuit, all of which will be replaced with grungy jeans, a hoodie and a shoulder bag to carry a few items in. Even his clean-cut visage will change with long hair and a scruffy beard. Sam's gone hippie!

So what's a former shadows-loving super ninja to do? And how the heck did he get into this position in the first place?

The story will be a bit more personal than before and focus on Sam's private struggles. Conviction will start soon after Double Agent with Sam happily retired in the Mediterranean. However, his friend and former support team member Anna Grimsdottir gets into trouble, which pulls him back to Third Echelon. Upon his return, he is dismayed to find that the former crown jewel of the NSA has fallen into a bureaucratic mess, but the real kick in the groin comes when he discovers people he once trusted are running a nasty little plot. Sam then finds himself a fugitive, running from the corrupt elements of the NSA while trying to foil the plans of former colleagues and save the world once more.

Since Sam is now a fugitive without his usual tools, he will have to improvise and use whatever is around him to his advantage. This means the new dynamic interactive environments will become Sam's weapons, gadget inventory and safe refuge.

To highlight the tension of being a fugitive, Ubisoft Montreal has dispensed with the traditional static safe zones (the shadows) and instead created something called ?active stealth?, meaning the safe zones are constantly moving. In what seems like a bizarre contradiction, Sam will use crowds as stealthy safe zones. Walking with the crowd will allow him to blend in with everyone else, as will sitting inconspicuously on a park bench or in a restaurant. Sam will have to be careful not to mingle for too long, as the crowd will not be made of dumb bots; instead, they will become suspicious if Sam hangs around for an extended period of time.

In fact, the crowd AI will allow them to act with eerie realism. Each member of the crowd is unique with its own AI telling it where to go and what to do; they will also engage in upwards of 3000 different conversations with each other, and move with a realistic flow. They'll even use intelligent obstacle avoidance and step around things that have been placed in their way. This realism means there will be times when the crowd is too thin for Sam to blend into and so he will have to use some other means to elude detection ? like flipping up his hoodie to partially mask his appearance, running away, or causing a distraction.

In the demo level shown to the media, Sam is in a Washington park filled with about 250 NPCs and 30 enemies actively searching for Sam. Ubisoft showed how he can sneak past enemies while in plain sight simply by causing a commotion. Sam grabbed a woman's laptop and threw it to the ground, causing the woman to call the cops and distracting them while Sam slipped away. The same effect can be obtained by shoving someone or causing some other mischief. Causing a really big commotion ? like, say, blowing up a propane tank by shooting it ? will make the crowd panic and run in all directions, giving Sam an opportunity to run away with them.

The game won't focus entirely on crowds, however. In one level, Sam has to infiltrate an office and hack into several servers which are located in different rooms (has no one heard of a centralized data center?). Initially, Sam has only desks and walls to hide behind but as he hacks into more servers, the bad guys gain a better idea of where he is. Eventually, Sam has to fight back, armed with nothing but his fists and the environment around him.

The dynamic interactive environments will give Sam the tools he needs to escape or fight back, allowing him to do things like sweeping stationary off a desk into the face of an enemy to gain precious seconds to run or attack. Tables, chairs, computers, printers, garbage cans ? virtually anything in the environment will make for handy instruments of blunt force trauma.

The enemy AI won't be pushovers either; they will be smart enough to work their way around any obstacles Sam throws in their path, and will also use objects to their advantage, like flipping over tables for cover.

It wouldn't be a Splinter Cell game without some cool attacks though, and Conviction will be no different. You will be able to throw enemies over ledges and even handcuff one to a railing and shove him down the stairs. Nice! And despite the radical change in gameplay you will still be able to perform classic moves like stealth grabs, hiding under tables or in cabinets, and peeking around corners.

Sam will also be able to use a new ability called Focus Vision that allows him to see enemy locations, even through walls. On the surface it sounds unrealistic but it's meant to simulate Sam's battlefield awareness; in other words, while we geeky gamers might forget about or lose track of the bad guys, a highly trained elite soldier like Sam would know where they are at all times.

The new ?react and improvise? gameplay necessitated that the game can't be as black and white as the previous titles where if you screwed up one little thing, you could blow the entire mission. Fortunately, if you do make a mistake in Conviction, the open improvisation style will let you work your way out of it and continue onwards without having to restart.

The need for quicker reaction times also required a cleaner and more efficient control system, so say goodbye to the familiar ?push-the-action-button-and-choose-from-a-menu? scheme. Instead, the controls will break down into a simpler three-button system: one for grabbing objects (including enemies), one for stealth actions (blending into a crowd, slowly opening a door, ducking under a desk) and one for aggressive actions (melee attacks, kicking open doors). You will also be able to pull off ?combos? like pick up a table, hide under it and then chuck it at an enemy when he passes by.

It also wouldn't be a Splinter Cell game without some cool jaw-dropping visuals and Conviction won't disappoint with true next gen graphics and improved dynamic lighting and shadows. Animation will also be more realistic and will change depending on the context. For example, the seemingly simple task of picking up a chair took Ubisoft months to create since chairs will not always be in the same upright position; hence, the physical process (and the animation) to pick up a chair on its side or back is different. The same process goes for everything else in the environment, resulting in much more realistic animations rather than the generic ?pick up and grab? common in most games.

The realistic animation combined with a dash of ragdoll physics will also result in cool cinematic fist fights. For example, you will see Sam use motion capture while delivering a punch, with his victim briefly using ragdoll physics when he's hit to add a Hollywood-style flair to the fight.

The single player campaign will span about 15 hour-long missions. The first half will deal with Sam's return to Third Echelon with the rest of the game focusing on the new fugitive-style gameplay.

The best news is that multiplayer will return but unfortunately, there is little word on what multiplayer will look like (Capture the Hoodie? Dueling Staplers?). Hopefully, though, we will see the return of co-op. And unlike the previous games, both the single player and multiplayer will be developed by the same studio, which means the controls, look and feel between the two gamemodes won't differ as before.

Conviction will be exclusive to the Xbox 360 and PC, so sorry to all you Sony and Nintendo owners. Supposedly this is because it allowed Ubisoft Montreal to concentrate on optimizing the game for one platform but most likely the relatively small number of PS3 owners and the technical limitations of the Wii played a key role in this decision.

Final Thoughts
Splinter Cell: Conviction is looking great, although the radical change in gameplay is causing much concern among Sam Fisher fans. Will the change be too drastic and alienate the loyal fanbase? Or will it refresh the franchise and give it a bold new direction that will carry it for several more sequels? We'll have to wait patiently in the shadows to find out, as Conviction is set to sneak up on us at the end of the year.

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