Tactical espionage returns.
CruelLEGACEY shares his impressions of the campaign, co-op, and Spies vs Mercs game modes in Splinter Cell Blacklist.
My co-op partner and I begin our mission in the courtyard of an old refinery. A sniper’s laser sight peers down from a crack high up the building’s front wall. We peel off in different directions: my partner sneaking right, tip-toeing through a cluster of land mines. I scramble left, silently taking out the mercenary patrolling the area and taking cover in a small building. A guard dog catches sight of my partner, forcing him to put it down with his silenced pistol. We regroup at the refinery wall, entering through a crumbled hole at its base. We accomplish this smoothly and effortlessly. By this point in our playtest, we have had lots of practice making our way in to the building. It’s what follows that gets tricky. Time and time again, my partner and I have made our way in to the building and attempted to complete our mission. And we’ve failed each time in new (and often hilarious) ways. Yet each time, we’ve jumped back in eager to try again.
That is the brilliance of the mission design in Splinter Cell Blacklist. There is no “trick” to success. Each level is like a puzzle that is constantly in motion. Players can certainly approach each area with a specific playstyle in mind. In fact, the game encourages this in many ways. But the true magic lies within the ease with which the player can adapt to the mission as the situation changes; strategically modulating their playstyle and tactics. Each success or failure is a unique experience that leaves you wanting more.
A puzzle in motion
Our objective is to hack into 3 computer terminals located throughout the building. Detection is not permitted in this mission, so every single guard must be handled carefully. Two guards patrol the ground level, blocking our path to the first terminal. Several of our earlier attempts ended in failure as my partner and I struggled to remain hidden in tight quarters. So we decide to split up, giving ourselves more space to maneuver. While my partner makes his way upstairs towards the 2nd objective, I sit behind cover and plan my attack. The two guards standing between me and the first terminal are facing each other, engaged in conversation. No way to take down one without alerting the other. To make matters worse, one of them is heavily armored, and wears a combat helmet (protecting him from my “mark and execute” maneuver).
One floor above, my partner has made his way to the 2nd terminal and has begun his hack. Back on the ground floor, I decide to try something daring. Moving around the room’s perimeter, I manage to rotate behind the armored guard. I peek around the corner and mark both targets. Then I dash at the armored guard’s back, catching him by surprise and holding him as a human shield. The other guard is split seconds away from shouting in surprise and triggering the mission-ending detection alarms, but I manage to trigger my “execute” ability just in time, dispatching him with a single shot to the head. I incapacitate the armored guard and proceed to hack the first terminal.
As I make my way up to the second floor, I see the signs of my partner’s progress through the environment. Several lights have been shot out, and a single guard lies unconscious in the corner of the room. All at once, I notice another armored guard patrolling the middle of the room, with my partner springing from the shadows behind him. I can tell he will successfully neutralize the guard, but I can also see that his take-down will put him directly into the line of site of one of the many security cameras placed throughout the building. Even as my partner is closing the gap towards his target, I draw my pistol and shoot out the camera. These moments of synchronized effectiveness are the ultimate payoff in Splinter Cell Blacklist’s co-op mode. The game provides players with countless opportunities to compliment each others actions with speed and efficiency. This makes mastering the many game mechanics and systems truly rewarding.
Ghost, Panther, Assault
Splinter Cell Blacklist is designed from the ground up to accommodate 3 distinct playstyles. As you progress through the campaign, all of your actions will award you points into one of 3 categories: ghost, panther, or assault. The developers at Ubisoft Toronto care greatly about player choice on a moment-to-moment level. There are hardcore Splinter Cell fans who will be determined to progress through the game undetected. They can stick to the shadows and complete their mission without ever alerting the enemy to their presence. (Splinter Cell Blacklist features an achievement for completing the entire campaign without performing a single kill, so it is possible!). Other players will prefer to shoot their way through, using Sam Fisher’s wide array of weaponry to bludgeon their way to the end of each mission. And some players will take a more measured approach; moving silently, but still eliminating all guards in their path.
All of the systems within Splinter Cell Blacklist are designed to engage these 3 distinct playstyles. But what impressed me was how smoothly I was able to move between ghost, panther, or assault techniques whenever I wanted. Never did I feel painted in to a corner, nor did I feel that the game was punishing me for choosing any particular approach. In my time with the campaign (roughly 2 hours) I found myself frequently bouncing back and forth between playstyles, doing whatever I felt would be the most effective in a given area. I will always prefer a more stealthy approach in a Splinter Cell game, but I do want to stress the fact that gunplay in Blacklist is greatly improved over previous installments. Hit detection, weapon handling, targeting are all smoother and more refined. For the first time in the series, guns are actually fun to use if you want to use them.
Spies vs Mercs
The concept is simple: a team of spies is charged with hacking in to three data terminals. A team of mercs must defend those terminals. Go. Yet from this springs one of the most dynamic, exciting, and thoughtful multiplayer modes around. Playing as one of the spies is very much like playing as Sam Fisher in the campaign: you are quick and agile, and the shadows are your friends. The merc team all play from a 1st person perspective, and are heavily armed. In a nutshell, it is a contest between the spies’ cunning and the mercs’ brute force. But the nuances that complete that formula are virtually endless.
Matches of Spies vs Mercs take place in densely constructed environments, jam packed with pipes, air vents, catwalks and platforms. For the spies, these elements of the environment are the keys to success. They must out maneuver the mercs; striking from the shadows and vanishing before the mercs can use their superior firepower to bring them down. To my surprise, both sides feel very well balanced. Despite their distinct abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, neither side seems overpowered. Even more important, both sides are extremely fun to play. Each side has their own range of gadgets and weaponry, from night vision goggles and stun guns to land mines and EMP charges.
The match centers around 3 data terminals. Successfully hacking the terminals requires thought and planning from the spies. Once a terminal has been hacked, all mercs are alerted and will quickly descend on the compromised terminal. The remaining terminals are also locked down until the hack is either completed or halted. Ubisoft Toronto has thrown an interesting wrinkle in to the mix: In order to stop a hack, the mercs must kill the spy that initiated it. To keep things fair, the spy that initiated the hack must stay within an area fairly close to the terminal in order to maintain the hack. This creates an exciting dynamic. A smart team of spies will use a hack to draw the enemy mercs into a series of traps. However, they must also protect the spy responsible for the hack, which puts them on the defensive. The tension in these situations is palpable and thrilling, with shouts and screams coming from players on both sides as the match comes to an end.
Splinter Cell Blacklist brings 2 flavors of Spies vs Mercs to the table: Classic mode and Blacklist mode. Classic mode stays true to SvM roots. Teams of 2, the spies have no lethal ranged weapons, and each team has access to a preset list of gadgets. Blacklist mode adds several elements to the mix. It features teams of 4, and allows a wide range of customizable suits and loadouts for both the spies and the mercs. Spies can also carry lethal ranges weapons (pistols and automatic weapons) in Blacklist mode, making them more overtly dangerous. Make no mistake, a merc will still destroy a spy in a head-on shoot out, so spies still need to rely on stealth and agility.
In addition to the gameplay changes, the Blacklist version of Spies vs Mercs features cosmetic changes in the form of brighter lighting. This makes vanishing into the shadows substantially more difficult for the spies, and helps to balance out their increased firepower in this mode.
As an old school Splinter Cell fan, I definitely preferred the Classic Spies vs Mercs mode. It is a more patient, thoughtful, and strategic version of the game. Having said that, I think the Blacklist mode will appeal to a wider audience, and perhaps find greater acceptance amongst long time fans than they might expect. Blacklist mode is certainly more chaotic. With twice as many players, the maps can feel quite crowded. Add all the extra gadgets and abilities into the mix and things get hectic. But there is method to the madness. A meta game of rock/paper/scissors begins to take place as each side tries to use their abilities to negate the other side’s abilities. Cloaked spies will find their suit’s power disrupted by EMP pulses, while Merc hover drones are shot out of the air. The higher player count also means spies and mercs alike must be more careful about making themselves visible to the enemy. Attacking an unsuspecting foe can easily draw the attention of your victim’s nearby teammates if you don’t plan your attack carefully.
Both Classic and Blacklist modes are fun and exciting. Spies vs Mercs is a unique multiplayer mode that really deserves to be experienced.
Splinter Cell Blacklist is looking to be a very strong addition to the franchise. Ubisoft Toronto has made an impressive array of improvements across all aspects of the game. If my time with it is any indication, Blacklist is poised to walk that magic line between pleasing the old fans while expanding into new ground. No simple feat.
– Nevin Douglas / CruelLEGACEY