Splinter Cell: Blacklist is trying for the impossible: being everything to every Splinter Cell fan.
"We try to build a game that can appeal to everybody," Lead Game Designer Richard Lee Carrillo says, "and it's extremely hard to do, because everybody has completely different tastes. You have those hardcore guys who just want to be really stealthy, and when they see things like daylight maps, they get scared that you're going away from what they love. And then you have the more mass market appeal of killing everybody. So we put a lot of options into this game. You can go into any level and you can play how you want to play."
Carrillo isn't necessarily wrong. I sat down last week to play a pair of levels from the recently delayed Blacklist. I came away hesitantly interested in what Ubisoft Toronto is trying to achieve with Splinter Cell: Blacklist — aside from a major campaign co-op element that the studio isn't ready to talk about yet, which was apparent throughout the game's interface.
That interface is the start of major additions to the series. The plot details for Blacklist are still spotty, but the basic premise is that Sam Fisher has been made the head of the new Fourth Echelon, a successor to the blacker-than-black NSA agency that employed Sam in previous games. Sam, being the practical shadow that he is, decides that Fourth Echelon shouldn't have a static home on the ground, and moves all operations to a stealth-outfitted cargo jet dubbed the Paladin.
The Paladin serves as a hub between missions, and it appears as though main story objectives are being supplemented by side missions offered by various members of Sam's retinue. When I tried to select these missions, there was a dialog indication that hinted that each of these missions would be co-op in nature, with the second player using the team member in question. It's hard to be sure though, and Ubisoft isn't talking yet.
However, a new equipment system is in place that allows Sam to upgrade both his gear and the Paladin for additional in-mission benefits and tools. Different suits and pieces of clothing affect how easily enemies can see him, and more expensive weapons are more accurate. Paladin upgrades include an enhanced sensor system that allows Sam to have in-mission radar. Money is rewarded based on how you play, and how closely you stick to what Ubisoft Toronto is calling Splinter Cell: Blacklists's three play styles.
The first is Ghost; this hearkens back to a more classic approach to Splinter Cell that was minimized as far back as Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (which introduced loadouts for assault that included a shotgun, among other things), where stealth is key and killing is kept to a bare minimum. "Ghost is the hardcore audience that wants to go from a to b," Carrillo says, "and really nobody knew they were there."
The next is "Panther," in reference to the talking points circulated during the lead up to Splinter Cell: Conviction's release. Panther is "for the Conviction-style player," Carrillo says, "and he wants to be stealthy, but he also wants to kill everybody." Panther players will likely rely on the mark and execute mechanic that sees a return to the series after its introduction in Conviction. Then there's the Assault play style, likely named as much in reference to the assault loadout from Chaos Theory.
The levels I played were very different. The first was a daylight mission set in Benghazi — yes, that Benghazi — last shown at E3 2012, which required Sam to infiltrate a police station amidst a revolution to secure a CIA asset before he can be killed, or worse, taken in by the agency before Fourth Echelon can debrief him. Playing through this mission ghost-style wasn't very difficult, though it was complicated by aggressive enemy patrols and guard dogs. It also gave me the opportunity to find optional targets — in this case, a person of interest for the CIA — or information dead drops. As I climbed ledges and crawled through windows, I was struck by how much more limber and graceful Sam was in comparison to his earlier games.
The other level on display was more classically Splinter Cell, set in a warehouse at night, with patrols, snipers, and so many pipes to climb on that I was thrown all the way back to Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory in my head. It was a nice place to return to after the disappointment that was Splinter Cell: Double Agent and the major departure of Splinter Cell: Conviction. But I couldn't quite get past the Benghazi mission for a pair of reasons.
The first is a practical concern. When I talked to Carrillo about the dangers of taking Splinter Cell: Blacklist into the daylight — the series has seen some of its biggest stumbles to date in Splinter Cell: Double Agent, which frequently suffered from major technical and design issues in extended daytime missions — he explained to me that the team has developers from every Splinter Cell release, including Double Agent. "I think the biggest (lessons) learned," he said, "was that when you go outside, plot out multiple paths, and make sure that there's a lot of different opportunities so that they can't get as easily stuck. We dedicated specific people to specific playstyles — one person was told 'you're going to playing this mission as the Ghost, and we need you to be an advocate for that, and make sure you don't miss a beat on it."
But the talking point that passive stealth can be used above all falls apart somewhat at moments like the end of the Benghazi level, which requires that Sam take out the patrol searching the seized police station for his interrogation target. There's no way to progress without killing everyone at that point, and worse, it doesn't play particularly well — it's clear that Splinter Cell: Blacklist, as with every other Splinter Cell game to date, was not designed around snappy, tight gunplay. Moments that force violence without the mark and execute mechanic or an avenue for stealthy takedowns aren't fun right now.
The rest of the level was enjoyable enough, but my other concern is more emotionally rooted, given the events last September at the US Embassy in Benghazi. As Carrillo pointed out when I asked about this specific thing, Splinter Cell: Blacklist has been in development for several years. The scenario unfolding during the level in question didn't seem particularly disrespectful, but I asked Carrillo if there was any concern on the team about setting the game in real "hot spots" in the current geopolitical climate.
"It's interesting when you build a game where you're trying to be as realistic as possible," Carrillo said. "You're trying to set it in these hot spots in the world, where, yeah, you're in a war torn area, and things can happen here, so it makes sense fictionally to go that route. It's difficult when these events happen, because you're second guessing and asking if you should change it. But overall, it's just a feeling that these things can happen, and that it's meant to be a realistic story, and ultimately the freedoms we get from Ubisoft that allow us to tell a deep story are what keep us moving forward."