Splinter Cell: Blacklist Preview (PC)

It seems almost heresy to admit that you liked Splinter Cell: Conviction. While a fun game with a cool co-op mode and an interesting story, being such a massive departure from the previous games and their absolute focus on stealth makes a lot of fans look down their noses at it. I personally loved it, despite Ubisoft’s much-derided always-online DRM actually refusing to allow me to play it for three whole months. With Sam Fisher’s latest adventure Blacklist Ubisoft have a bit of an uphill battle on their hands when it comes to fan approval, thanks to early trailers painting it as even more action-orientated than Conviction and the much-maligned removal of series mainstay Michael Ironside (what is it with stealth series removing their long-standing voice actors this year?!). I got to play Blacklist at Rezzed this year, so let’s see if it holds up.

The two levels I played were set in London and the Middle East. In the Middle Eastern level, which seemed to start mid-mission (presumably after that aforementioned early demo that everyone moaned was too action-orientated), Sam is sent to extract a shady individual who has knowledge about who both Fourth Echelon and the terrorists are after. The London mission I’m going to put my hands up right now and admit I skipped through the mission briefing, and the level crashed before I could accomplish my objective so I never found out what it was. It involved infiltrating an old mill packed with rather technologically-savvy bad guys anyway.

If you’re a stealth gamer, this is not how you play the game

The general plot of Blacklist involves a countdown of terrorist attacks on the United States, which the newly established Fourth Echelon must deal with before the countdown reaches zero. Mission briefings took place in a rather run-down basement with a lot of high-tech computer equipment scattered around, with conversations taking place involving Sam, Anna “I’m in all the games too” Grimsdottir, and a couple of other guys, one of whom was the stereotypical mouthy geek. I missed their names – like I said, skip button engaged. I will say two things though: one, I really hate Sam Fisher’s new voice. Two, if the reason they dropped Michael Ironside was because they needed someone to both voice him and mo-cap all of Sam’s scenes, then new guy Eric Johnson really needs to stop posing like He-Man in every cutscene. Now then, let’s get to hiding and shooting lightbulbs.

I went for London first. Being dropped off at night-time outside a supposedly abandoned mill (for a mission called “The Abandoned Mill”) Sam’s first job was to break in. Since there aren’t any Uncharted-style glowing pipes I randomly jumped at regular pipes and hoped Sam grabbed hold of one, and thankfully he did. Shimmying up the side of the building I slipped through an open window, and lo and behold the building wasn’t as abandoned as the mission title made it out to be. Heavily armed soldiers patrolled the rooftop and upper floors, including guys with laser-mounted sniper rifles (don’t they realise they’d have more luck if I couldn’t see where they were pointing?).

One thing I really like about both Blacklist and Conviction is the choice in gameplay it offers. Yes the Splinter Cell games used to be the hardest of hardcore stealth games, but that’s rather a niche genre sadly. We can expect a Kickstarter for an “Old-School Stealth Game” from some ex-Ubisoft guy any day now, but until then these new Splinter Cell titles are still stealth games – they’re just a little faster, and if you’re not into or good at stealth you can play them as a shooter instead. But I played all of Conviction and my time in Blacklist as if I was playing Chaos Theory, and you know what? I loved it. It felt like a stealth game.

If you’re an action gamer, this is not how you play the game

Make no mistake though to anyone who disliked Conviction, it really felt like Sam’s previous outing. I am cool with that since as mentioned I enjoyed that game, but haters shouldn’t expect a massive turnaround in the direction of Chaos Theory. Sam moves quite quickly, when peeking out from cover an arrow will point to an object you can quickly move to, and yes the much-maligned ‘Mark & Execute’ feature is back too. It seems to work in exactly the same way – get an up-close stealth takedown and you can ‘mark’ up to three guys so when in range you can press a button and Sam will kill them all. Even if there’s a large chimney or wall in the way. This is the point where the Ubisoft rep informed me that this was quite old code and they were still ironing out the bugs. I like the ‘Mark’ feature since it’s handy for keeping track of enemies (but only up to three, so you have to tactically choose the best to watch), but the ‘Execute’ function is a skill-less auto-kill. Oh well, no one’s twisting your arm to use it.

After sneakily avoiding and taking out the snipers and guards on the roof I made my way in to the Mill, which had a new enemy inside in the form of some sort of toy man. Basically a tech-savvy guy who hides in a corner and sends loads of explosive robotic drones out to find and kill you. I decided to turn the tables on the cowardly bastard by staying in the rafters of the room and unleashing my own drone – new gadget the Rotor. Like a toy helicopter, you can use the Rotor to scout the area ahead, take down enemies with a Sticky Shocker, blow up, or distract guards. All in all a handy item to go alongside series mainstays like the Sticky Camera, with the only drawbacks being that Sam’s vulnerable while you’re using it and that it’s fairly fragile. Nevertheless while this tech guy sent his annoying but currently impotent wheeled drones across the entire floor under my control the Rotor scouted the area, found the dude hiding behind an oven in the kitchen, and zapped the bastard. Then the demo crashed, reminding me again I was playing early code.

Starting anew with the Middle Eastern mission in broad daylight, I was mostly impressed with how good Blacklist actually looked. Considering the next generation is months away I really shouldn’t be impressed by a current gen cross-platform title, but the amount of detail in the levels and the fluid movement of characters definitely did so. Probably because I was playing the PC version in highest quality of course, but still – good looking stuff. I should point out I was playing on a 360 pad however, but controlling Sam was always smooth. The only problem I had was that he didn’t stick to cover as you’d expect and even the slightest nudge would pull him from cover and into crouched movement (sometimes in range of a sniper). This isn’t a problem, it just wasn’t something I was used to. Not that it matters since it’ll probably go more “game-like” in the final version.

Being in bright daylight was very cool, since I had to change tactics completely from previous Splinter Cell games (okay, less so Pandora Tomorrow) and the London mission as sticking to the shadows was rarely an option. Instead the level played more like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, forcing me to rely on cover rather than shadows if I wanted to stay stealthy. I got discovered now and again, but the return of Conviction’s cool “ghost” mechanic (if enemies lose sight of you a ghost of Sam appears where they last saw you, which they will focus on allowing you to sneak away) helped me creep up on everyone rather than blast my way through. The option was there, but I was particularly glad that even in what were blatantly supposed to be exciting action setpieces I had the choice to sneak around. For example, after recovering my contact I had to defend him in a typical “wave attack” videogame fashion, which I could have taken like a shoot-em-up but instead snuck around each wave and took out the enemy soldiers hunting for us one by one.

Sam loves it when the terrorists tell everyone where their camp is through huge Hollywood-style green signs in the hillside

One thing I am worried about is the difficulty. Considering I hadn’t played Conviction in over a year and was a little rusty with the controls I breezed through both levels quite easily. While it did come rushing back to me quite fast I never once died, so hopefully these are early levels with the training wheels still on. I also hope all the bugs will be sorted out, like better cover-sticking, crashes and being able to chuck dead bodies across the levels like Superman. I’m confident they will be however. While it may be too close to Conviction for comfort for classic-only Splinter Cell fans, those that enjoyed Sam’s last encounter and are just hoping for a more polished experience should be looking out for it.

Allowing the player to choose whether to stealth or shoot their way through the levels will be the make-or-break moment for Ubisoft, however. It could dumb down the stealth or bore Gears of War fans, so it’ll take a lot of polishing to make the choice work for both. Still, with fun new gadgets, a possibly engaging story, and the return of Sam’s ability to pick up bodies (hooray), I’m hopeful it will. Unlike Dead Space 3 which abandoned survival horror entirely for action, this game is still a stealth title at heart: just one that insists that stealthy doesn’t necessarily mean slow. Splinter Cell: Blacklist will be out August 20th (US)/23rd (Europe) on PC, 360 and PS3, and I’m missing Michael Ironside already. Sniff.

Most Anticipated Feature/Element: Seeing how well Ubisoft balance the choice between action and stealth.

Game advertisements by <a href="" target="_blank">Game Advertising Online</a> require iframes.


By Gale47 (SI Core) on Jul 02, 2013
I like what I'm hearing :)
By Paceydre (SI Member) on Jul 03, 2013
As a splinter Cell fan, this is a must have :)

[quote]and I’m missing Michael Ironside already. Sniff.[/quote]
Same here, I dislike this decision from Ubisoft. I hope Ubisoft will call the real splinter cell voice next time to offer him a job he can't refuse.