Previews

Hands-on with Splinter Cell: Blacklist's evolved multiplayer and co-op

Can shooter-meets-stealth work second time around?

One of the brutally simple rules of evolution is the fact that if a species' landscape changes and it does not rise to adapt to that change, it dies.

That's as true for multi-million dollar business models as it is for organic life fighting for survival in the primordial soup. It's simple really; if you don't step up and modify your game, you're not long for this world. For this reason alone, Splinter Cell: Blacklist may be in with a chance of survival.

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Anyone who played 2010's Splinter Cell: Conviction probably noted it was rather different to its forbears with regards to the way one played it. Where once players were required to cling to the shadows, pass by enemies un-noticed and only ever engage in violence as a last resort, Conviction continued the work started by Double Agent by placing more of a premium on confronting enemies head on.

The game's protagonist, Sam Fisher, was still no bullet sponge and he was still adept at silent acrobatics. But Conviction ramped up the action quotient by gifting Fisher with preternatural - and unrealistic - agility and level design that occasionally left no other option than to leap into the fray, guns blazing.

This bold and more direct style of play angered some of the Splinter Cell faithful. However, if they stopped complaining for a second and analysed what they'd just played, they may have been able to see that Conviction was a necessary evolutionary step in Splinter Cell's continued existence as a franchise.

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In today's current market where development costs have never been higher and sales expectations are higher still, pure stealth is no longer an option for a Triple A title. This is why Hitman Absolution came packed with bullet-time and the Instinct mechanic. This is why Metal Gear: Rising traded stealth for sword-play and why Metal Gear: The Phantom Pain looks utterly bonkers. And this is why Splinter Cell: Blacklist has been built from the ground up to accommodate three different styles of play.

Blacklist is all about giving players options. To be honest, it feels like the game Conviction should have been. On the evidence presented in a recent hands-on session at Ubisoft's studio in Toronto, Blacklist shies away from boxing players into tackling it as a third-person-shooter, but it doesn't remove that option altogether. It also allows players to adopt the old-school stealth gameplay the series is renowned for, but it doesn't force them into that play style.

The game's manifesto is summed up in three gameplay pillars: Ghost, Panther and Assault. Ghost is old-school Splinter Cell, where players give themselves over to beating the game's punishing level design by sneaking about undetected, hiding in shadows and only ever attacking an enemy when no other options are available.

Panther is stealth with some punch; this is the style of play Chaos Theory created, which combines patiently hiding from view with quick, effective bursts of violence. Assault is a full frontal free-for-all. Players who enjoy this style essentially treat the game like a pretty challenging TPS; enemies flank, alarm bells ring and life is easily snuffed out.

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So Splinter Cell has evolved, then, to offer players a three-pronged approach in how they play it. You can opt for Ghost, Panther, Assault or a combination of all three. In a way it's a more action-orientated affair, if only for the fact that players are offered a lot more versatility in how they approach things. There's more fluidness to the proceedings where tactics and attacking styles can be switched up on the fly.

The level design accommodates this. Fail in one section and you'll find that, with one or two key exceptions, the patrol routes and positions of NPC enemies tend to change to keep things fresh. In the section of campaign that CVG played only the opening gun battle, the home stretch and a couple of key guard positions remained static.

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In the section we played, Sam found himself tasked with extracting a high-level criminal - who, without going into spoiler territory, fans of the series will recognise from Conviction - from a police station overrun by armed insurgents. It was a great showcase, not only for the styles of play, but also in terms of showing off Blacklist's new assets and how they sit next to what Ubisoft decided to keep from Conviction.

First off, Mark & Execute is back; Conviction players will remember this as the useful mechanic that allowed them to tag multiple enemies by tapping the right bumper and then dispatch them all in slow-motion by hitting 'Y'. Sam is also ridiculously agile; he's able to shimmy along a ledge at high speed and deadlift himself up a drainpipe in seconds. The combat silhouette is also in play; when enemies detect Sam, a white see-through outline of him appears denoting his last visible position and players can then flank opponents while they surround the last spot they saw Sam in.

Blacklist also brings back a couple of old-school mechanics to the mix; Sam has his head-gear back, along with its different vision settings (infra-red, nightvision, heat-sensor). Players are also able to hide bodies so their combative activities need not draw unwanted attention. Each mission also contains a series of optional mini-objectives, such as bagging and tagging a 'person of interest' or hacking a laptop, which earn players more XP to spend on customisation options.

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