It used to take a special kind of player to really get into the Splinter Cell games. The dedicated few didn’t just play the game to beat it, they played the game to be perfect. Setting off a single alarm would cause a frustratingly familiar scenario of pausing and restarting the last checkpoint, over and over again. Many of us that fell into this category can still remember in horror the CIA level, and yet we retain a sense of pride at its completion.
The Splinter Cell franchise has evolved over the years, and while Sam Fisher still has the capability to make it through a level like a curmudgeonly old ghost, the series has moved towards a more accessible footing and included some memorable action options. It is a tactic that the most recent game in the series seems to be expanding on. That is certainly for the best when it comes to the health of the franchise, but it is still a sad loss for we few, we proud, we ridiculously obsessive fans of the old style
It was actually a bit of a surprise when Microsoft unveiled the next game in the series, Blacklist, at its conference on Monday. Sure, there were rumors, there always are, but no one really had this game on its radar. There was talk back in late 2010 that a new Splinter Cell was on the way, but that was a given after the success of Conviction. And still the reveal caught many of us by surprise. Well played, Ubisoft, well played.
The Microsoft reveal featured gameplay that was later on display at Ubisoft’s booth behind closed doors. Although the demo was the same, Splinter Cell is all about choices, and the differences in the playthroughs spoke volumes.
The game is set after Conviction, and the Third Echelon is dead and buried. In its place is the Fourth Echelon, which is helmed by Fisher himself. This means that unlike some of the other games in the franchise, Fisher now has support throughout, and he will need it as the world once again faces massive terrorist attacks.
The demo began with Fisher on the Iran/Iraq border carrying a wounded man into a tent filled with three enemies. They soon grew suspicious, and as one approached, the game kicked in the mark & execute mode, which allowed Fisher to mark two of the enemies. He then grabbed the closest enemy, broke his arm, and dispatched the other two with well placed shots from a silenced pistol. That led into a fairly brutal interrogation scene involving a knife and an open wound that was not for the squeamish.
Fisher then exited the tent and found himself in what appeared to be a terrorist camp. Rather than going old school and slowly crawling past the enemies, Fisher marked three targets and took them out on the run. He then scaled a rock cliff and found himself in a hostile town.
The area was fairly large, and multiple pathways were open to the man in black. All the familiar tools were at Fishers disposal, including the multi-vision goggles. Also returning is the ability to cut fabric in order to enter things like tents. That may seem like a minor thing, but long-time fans will appreciate its return.
In the interest of time, the developers from Ubisoft in charge of the playthrough decided to take a more aggressive approach rather than the sneaky one. But to begin with, Fisher climbed on the side of a building and lured a guard over with a vocal yell, something you will be able to do with the kinect if you wish. After that guard was dispatched and two others came to investigate the body, Fisher used his gadgets to fire an electrical shot into the water they stood in and took them out.
Using the mark & execute commands, Fisher took out several enemies before moving to cover. He then grabbed an approaching enemy, killed him quickly, and burst through a nearby door. After emerging on the other side of the house without the enemy spotting him, he then dispatched a few more before calling for backup. Relying on his Fourth Echelon support, Fisher was able to call in a drone attack and clear a path to his target, a rogue scientist.
In the Microsoft demo, Fisher used an optic camera under a doorway to mark targets, then breached the door with an explosive and shot the marked enemies. In the Ubisoft demo, Fisher planted the door charge, then climbed onto the roof. He then attached a rope and swung down to the window before setting off the charge and slamming through the glass for a few easy kill shots.
These two options were just a few of many possibilities. The combat has been beefed up significantly from that of the older games, but you still have options, which is what this series is all about. The purely, obsessively stealth days of the past games may be gone, but it isn’t forgotten.
After a quick cut scene that revealed the scientist as a former MI6 agent gone rogue, Sam was then tasked with controlling an overhead UAV drone and destroying AA guns while also firing on enemy troops. With a smoking ruin in his wake, also known as a “Fisher was here” calling card, the old soldier made his way out of the town to end the demo.
One of the saddest things about this game is the lack of Michael Ironside, who will not be returning to the role that he defined with his growling voice. In his stead is Flash Gordon and Smallville star, Eric Johnson. There is a good and justifiable reason for the switch though: Ubisoft needed someone a bit more spry for the motion capture performance than the 62 year old Ironside. Because of that, Sam’s movements are incredible. The whole game looks shockingly good in fact.
Perhaps it is just the strangeness of hearing another voice in the role, but it really does make a difference. Sam just doesn’t feel like Sam without Ironside, but in all other regards, Blacklist is very much a Splinter Cell game.
There was a more combat than people that missed the last game, Conviction, might be prepared for, but what there was still seemed familiar. Hopefully the stealth options won’t be completely overwhelmed by the combat. We’ll find out next Spring when Splinter Cell: Blacklist creeps into stores and hides in plain sight on shelves.