Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist introduces several new features to a familiar franchise, but the game is influenced more in both play and narrative by one in particular.
It's called the universal economy, and according to game director Patrick Redding, it's a way to guide players around the game's new systems while still offering them the chance to manage themselves. Players earn in-game cash for completing stellar kills, stealth gameplay and just about anything else of note.
After building up a worthy pile, players can spend their money on upgrades for Blacklist's aircraft, gadgets, weapons and more. We had the chance to experience the universal economy for ourselves while going hands-on with the game's single-player. By upgrading the workshop onboard the Paladin aircraft, we gained access to more custom-built prototype weapons, while updating the ship's infirmary provided better healing options.
Speaking with Polygon, Redding said that the challenge the team faces is to stitch together multiple modes while still respecting and preserving the feel of Splinter Cell. Even when lightly incorporated, the series has always had an element of technical upgrades — but players need to feel like their actions have an impact elsewhere in the game.
"In [Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction], we played around with our [Persistent Elite Challenges] system," Redding said. "It was hard for players to see what the meaningful choices were going to be."
"Every action you perform in the game ought to have a corresponding reward."
In Conviction's P.E.C. system, player actions were graded with different point payouts. The economy system in Blacklist serves an improved role, combined with the game's Strategic Mission Interface, where players select different missions to play.
"Between the economy and the S.M.I., we felt like those were the two elements that we needed to add to the game in order to help make the player feel like they were part of that, rather than just having it be something that occurred in a cutscene," Redding said.
There's a certain level of "gaminess" the economy requires players to embrace, Redding said — when else would pulling off a ledge grab earn you $100? But Ubisoft has run with the idea that Fisher and his cohorts are "really off the books."
"It's this blacker-than-black team," Redding said. "They're flying around in their unmarked airplane and there's only like six of them. It's almost as if they're self-financing in the sense that they pull off a mission, they exploit as much of the intel that they can get. Maybe that means emptying out the bank accounts of the people they're pulling missions off on. There's that kind of implicit idea that the money you're earning is effectively the team financing."
Redding added that the metaphor is "a bit of hand-holding," but is more to the player's advantage. It rewards the player for utilizing the game's different playstyles, whether that's stealth or run-and-gun action. Furthermore, the economy system is kind to those players sophisticated enough to weave together many skills in a creative way.
"We want to look at players who are doing a very clever job of linking together lots of different actions in rapid succession and chaining together moves in a way where they don't lose momentum," Redding said. "They're doing it on the move. They're active sprinting while taking an enemy down, or they're active sprinting straight into a climb. All of the new features that we've added were designed to make the player feel more elite, more graceful. We want to see whether players are incorporating those features into their old set of skills as well.
"Every action you perform in the game ought to have a corresponding reward that goes directly into the economy system," Redding added.
Customization in terms of that economy is an interesting path to take, Redding said, and it reinforces the narrative themes the game explores. In a series first, Blacklist drops Sam into the uncomfortable role of leader. Through the player's decisions, he's calling the shots.
"We wanted something that felt like it would be a challenge to him," Redding said. "As a solo operative, a guy who's always been the lone wolf in the field, there isn't a lot that can be more challenging that being put in the role of leader. When you're on your own, you have your own resources. You have your own abilities, your own equipment, whatever it is that you can depend on. If you screw up, you only have yourself to blame, but you're also the only one to suffer for it."
"Sam doesn't always have to like everybody with him."
Blacklist features a team that's so intimately small that Sam can't just move pieces around a board. Every decision he makes will have an impact on their lives. After each mission, players will see the tone of in-game relationships change.
"That tension is really interesting narratively, but more importantly, it helped inspire these new features," Redding said. "The economy system, the customization system, the SMI, the Paladin, because it made sense for us to have the players to be playable in that space. That was a reflection of Sam's new role."
The community onboard the Paladin won't just be a working one. At least one prisoner will join Sam and his crew and have an active influence on how events play out.
"That was a really important idea for us," Redding said, "that Sam doesn't always have to like everybody with him. But, he needs to pay attention to them and listen to them and figure out how to stitch some kind of functioning organization out of it."