Depending on who you talk to, 2010’s Splinter Cell: Conviction was either a fast and fresh action-based stealth game or a crime against humanity rivaling that of the Hiroshima nuking. If you ever received the latter opinion, it’s likely that it was from a longtime Splinter Cell fan, since Conviction’s simplified and less subtle approach to stealth was a major deviation from the series’ traditional formula. However, when compared to the more combat-oriented stealth from games like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Uncharted 2, it was hard to deny that the game certainly had its merits, even if it was still a bit rough around the edges.
That’s precisely why Ubisoft is bringing out the clamp and sandpaper in order to smooth out the formula in the upcoming sequel, Splinter Cell: Blacklist. The goal is to take Conviction’s fast-and-furious approach to stealth and give it some polish while introducing several new gameplay features that should make the experience more flexible and allow Sam Fisher to be a more versatile operative.
The most prominent of these gameplay additions is the ‘economy system,’ which seeks to reward players for performing well in the game’s three different play-styles. The first of these, Ghost, is played by trekking through levels undetected and killing as few people as possible, which often involves finding alternate routes. The second, Panther, involves remaining undetected but also taking out enemies while you’re at it, which is pretty much the playstyle found in Conviction. The last one, Assault, pertains to shooting and melee-killing enemies while being spotted.
Pulling off notable maneuvers in either of the three styles mentioned above will reward the player in various ways. The ‘Mark and Execute’ feature, wherein you build up auto-kill opportunities by silently killing enemies, is a good example of the economy system for the Panther playstyle. It’s not known exactly how the economy system will work to reward other playstyles, but you can rest assured that Ubisoft will release details soon.
Another new feature, ‘Killing in Motion,’ expands on the ‘Mark and Execute’ feature by allowing Sam to pull of his instant-kills while running, allowing players to combine them with melee takedowns and general movement and acrobatics to create some stunning action sequences that rival some of the best scripted scenarios in other games. Sam also has access to new gadgets, such as a small spider drone, remote mines, and the ability to call in airstrikes when necessary.
Otherwise, the core gameplay will still be quite similar to Conviction. Sam Fisher will still be able to take cover, climb and hang on to buildings/ledges, and perform quick and brutal melee kills whenever he’s next to a foe. The general pace of the stealth is faster than other games in the genre, with Sam being able to move around and kill targets with impressive haste and fluidity. This time around, Sam can pick up and move corpses, a hallmark feature of the series which was bafflingly excluded in Conviction. Sam can also grab enemies and use them as human shields, and he’ll be able to rappel down certain surfaces in a manner very similar to the Rainbow Six: Vegas titles.
The interrogation sequences from Conviction are also back, which take the form of small set pieces and are considerably more scripted than the free-form, ‘interrogate whoever you want’ mechanics from classic Splinter Cell titles. However, where Blacklist’s interrogation sequences do become more flexible is in the moral choice aspect. You’ll often be able to choose whether you kill or spare your interrogation subject, and it’s been said that your choice will influence future events in the game somewhat. It’s certainly nice to have the option to spare subjects, perhaps allowing for full pacifist playthroughs to be possible.
Finally, it makes sense to touch upon Blacklist’s plot, which sees operative Sam Fisher reinstated into service after going rogue in Conviction. Having exposed and brought down the corrupt Third Echelon branch of the NSA, Sam Fisher is made the head of a new branch creatively titled Fourth Echelon. Pretty soon, he’s officially sent by the president to hunt down and interrogate the remaining members and relations of Third Echelon, who are all grouped and identified under a ‘Blacklist,’ and try to stop them from launching deadly attacks on the US of A. Anna ‘Grim’ is back as a support character, alongside newcomers Isaac and Charlie. Blacklist should spin a complex and interesting conspiracy yarn, though we’re also hoping it delves into a bit of characterization for Sam and tries to stay away from the stereotypical portrayal of Arabs that’s been plaguing action games for quite some time now.
Diehard series fans will certainly find issues to complain about with Blacklist, and some of their complaints will probably be justified. However, considering that Ubisoft is sticking with this new formula for Splinter Cell, and based off what we’ve seen of Blacklist so far, we have to say we’re quite impressed. The sleek and fast stealth on offer here may be a touch simple, but if its paced well, complimented by solid level design, and truly makes good on the promise of having three flexible and distinct ways to play it, then it could turn out to be a terrific fusion of past Splinter Cell titles and Conviction. Sam Fisher is reliable if nothing else, and as such, we’re placing a lot of big expectations on his shoulders. With any luck, he’ll sneak up on us with one of the best examples of action-based stealth we’ll see this generation.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist drops on August 20 for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, and is on our Big 12 list.