Splinter Cell has been a franchise I’ve adored ever since it first released way back in 2002. While Double Agent was the only game that never really sat well with me, the series began to evolve and introduce some radical changes starting with Conviction including mark and execute and a more action oriented style. Unfortunately, while I really enjoyed the game, these changes seemed to be a turn off for some of the more die hard stealth fans leaving them to wonder where the franchise was heading. Enter the Blacklist.
With Ubisoft Toronto now heading up development on Splinter Cell: Blacklist, one thing is for sure. They’re making a huge effort to cater to the hardcore group of Splinter Cell fans. Heading into PAX East, I got a strong Chaos Theory mixed with Conviction vibe and what I saw at the show only confirmed that further. They’re bringing back traditional moves such as being able to hide bodies, using a knife, and even simple things such as whistling to manipulate the enemy AI, all of which were missing in some form from Conviction.
Lead by game director Patrick Redding and driven by Scott Lee and Anthony Panecasio, the demo opened showing Sam and his crew aboard Fourth Echelon’s mobile base, the Paladin. First things first, the game looks phenomenal and leaps beyond what Conviction brought to the table. At this point, Toronto is utilizing a heavily modified Unreal 3 engine and the art design and graphical detail really pop. Animations make for believable facial and body expressions, and the voice acting really shines (yes, even without series mainstay Michael Ironside). The graphics and visual design help to fully immerse the player further into this world.
The Paladin is an open area that lets the player walk around to interact with people aboard (having conversations or accepting side missions from the various NPCs) and even access the strategic mission interface map. The interesting thing here is that everything is contained on this map including main story missions, side missions, multiplayer modes, and even friend related activities. It’s all seamless and very slick. Upgrades are back and are fleshed out even more with upgrading applied to Sam’s equipment, guns, and suits. Certain suits also cater to particular playstyles so expect to see a suit that offers better stealth functions to others that will provide more protection during firefights and so on. Even old school gadgets are making a return including noisemakers, sticky shockers and much, much more.
When the gameplay finally kicked off, we were treated to an earlier part of a daytime mission in Benghazi. Later on in the day they switched gears and showed off the nighttime Abandoned Mill level. Another thing that really stood out was the animations of Sam Fisher. He’s faster, more fluid, and more lethal. His takedown attacks are more brutal and realistic looking thanks to the performance capture of live actors. Based on your playstyle, you’re rewarded with points from three categories (Ghost, Panther and Assault) which you can use on upgrades. You’re never penalized for playing the way you want which I absolutely love especially when other stealth games (Hitman: Absolution, I’m looking at you) tend to penalize you for making a mistake/breaking complete stealth. So whether you enjoy going loud, keeping it deathly silent, or mixing the two, you should find enjoyment here. We were also treated to the advanced version of mark and execute which lets you now kill in motion rather than just standing still. Still very impressive, and better yet, you don’t have to use it if you don’t want. It’s all about choices and options here people.
The big thing I took away from the demo is that Ubisoft Toronto is trying to make sure players can play how they want. Promoting options to the player, the level seemed to have multiple ways to go through it so you’re not locked into a linear path to reach your objective. There’s also a toggle now in the radial menu that allows you to have Sam either use lethal or non-lethal takedowns. Sure, it’s a very small addition, but one that makes a ton of sense and really show’s the team’s attention to detail. Redding also explained that the AI as been tweaked to be more dynamic resulting in different AI behavior each time you play through the level. It’s nice to see the replayability being thought of and making the game less predictable with how to take out guards.
I didn’t think it was possible but after watching the live demo take place, my excitement level is even greater than it was going in. Whatever reservations or questions I had about the title were pretty much answered right then and there. Blacklist looks like it’s going to be another very strong entry in the series when it’s released in August incorporating and refining what made each entry before it great. Now Ubisoft Toronto, how about showing off some of that multiplayer gameplay now?