Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Sam's back and the stakes have never been higher. On the trail of a mysterious well-equipped terrorist cell known only as the Engineers, who plan to force the American government to withdraw troops from foriegn countries with heinous attacks across the globe, Fisher becomes the leader of his own mobile strike team. Bringing CIA agent Isaac Briggs, tech specialist Charlie Cole and longtime 'ally' Anna Grímsdóttir into the fold, his aptly-named Fourth Echelon is all that stands in the way of total anarchy, able to strike at any impending threat with impunity.
However, the stakes have also never been higher for Ubisoft Toronto. The newly-formed studio have promised us nothing less than the "biggest Splinter Cell ever," a game that thrives on providing variety and value alongside stealthy thrills and strategic depth. They've had to weather some horrible misleading trailers and controversy surrounding the departure of Michael Ironside, but having been loosed on the latest production build for just shy of three hours, I can report that Blacklist is probably on course to deliver on its promise.
Most games autocratically make the choice between stealth or action, non-lethal or murderous, singleplayer or multiplayer and night or day for you, but Blacklist attempts to tie everything together and put the decision in your hands. Are you a stealthy ghost, a predatory panther or an assault specialist? What mission do you want to take on, and in what order? How will you spend your war chest? Want to bring a friend? This time, gameplay is the fifth freedom. Blacklist is your game, played your way... most of the time.
Variety and value is the main objective here, and it permeates every aspect of the experience. Levels run the gamut from night-time oil rig infiltrations to daytime opium field wetworks and Iraqi incursions, most of which present genuine width and room to make your own way through. In terms of gameplay, Splinter Cell: Blacklist builds on Conviction's predatory stylings and ferociously aggressive mechanics, but give you more freedom in terms of how you want to use pure stealth, height advantage, silent brutality and all-out gunslinging. Basically, you'll need to decide if you're a Ghost, Panther or Assault.
Ghosts, as the name suggests, specialise in pure non-lethal infiltration. We're talking classic Splinter Cell here: keeping hidden, staying low (or incredibly high on pipes and ledges) and crucially moving through levels without anyone even knowing you were there. An array of gadgets let Sam lure guards out of position, or grant superior situational awareness with various goggle modes. Should engagement be necessary, ghosts will look to knock guards out with brutal CQC takedowns and ledge smashes, stashing their unconscious adversaries away from the beaten track so they're not roused by passing patrols. Yes, you can move bodies now.
An unlockable tiltrotor drone can be used to spot enemies, scout and even neutralise tangos with a built-in stun gun. Most levels are wide and deceptively tall; featuring multiple routes, different elevations and potential for clever manoeuvres, though there are a few set pieces where using pure stealth will be very difficult. Dogs, for example, will need to be given a wide berth.
Panthers favour stealth too, but they don't leave survivors. Stalking enemies from the shadows, high positions, ledges and right behind their unknowing backs, you'll aggressively hunt the Engineers and their allies using a Malay knife and silenced firearms. Sam can whisper to foes from the shadows, beckoning them into dark corners and instant death melee range. Takedowns recharge the familiar Mark & Execute system, used to automatically dispatch small groups of foes. Using the environment to advantage is key, facilitated by smooth traversal, allowing you to assassinate enemies from rooftops and ziplines or gradually pulling an entire squad of goons out of various windows as they desperately try to work out what's going on. It's pure predation, equal parts assassin and voyeur.
Hi, I'm Jonathan Lester, and I'm a panther. Rawr.
Every once in a while you might find yourself needing to fall back on a gun, putting you firmly into the Assault bracket. Blacklist has tightened up gunplay considerably, supporting a variety of noisy weapons and explosives to thin out the Engineers. As in Conviction, abusing the Last Known Position mechanics is key: relocating between cover and flanking enemies who erroneously think they know where you are. When mixed with a little Panther playstyle to access rooftops and charge up executions, there's certainly some fun to be had here. There's little more satisfying than affixing a breaching charge to a door, but using it a distraction as you rappel through a window behind the terrified occupants. However, Sam can't take much punishment and will quickly get gunned down unless you're deadly fast on the trigger. Especially when hulking heavy infantry join the party.
Favouring one playstyle can contribute to unlockable challenges within each level, but brilliantly, you're free to mix and match your strategies at any time. I found myself sneaking past guards one moment and kicking down doors the next, knocking out foes while hanging from ledges or luring them over to quietly shiv up in a dark corner. I sniped priority targets to avoid them being roused later, stashed bodies and went in all guns blazing as the situation demanded. Grenades through windows. Smoke. Pulse-pounding pure stealth. Knockouts. An SMG rampage. All of it, all the time, how I decided to engage. Even drone strikes are purely optional and can be ignored if you prefer to keep things quiet and personal. The net effect is an intoxicating feeling of actively calling the shots, not following orders.
You'll also likely be thrilled to learn that, while all playstyles are supported and valid, they're not rewarded equally. We'll discuss the economy in more detail later on, but suffice to say that you'll earn much more for leaving enemies alive and completely unaware rather than killing them - even quietly. Non-lethal pure stealth specialists are paid for every living and unmolested enemy at every checkpoint, thus incentivised to play Splinter Cell in a much more traditional way. Tougher difficulty modes also increase the challenge and decrease Sam's more powerful gadgets, making Assault all that much harder to pull off and stealth all the more attractive.
It's a shame that Ubisoft still seem to be hung up on idiotic set pieces, though. One level opened with some sniping rail shooting from a hovering drone, which instantly reset if each goon wasn't killed in a precise order. Another stage saw Sam running through explosions on a relatively linear path to safety. There's still some insta-fail stealth from time to time too, alongside the odd egregious forced action scene. Though significantly fewer and further between than the schizophrenic Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, these forced gameplay sections feel totally out of character when they appear and compromise the sense of freedom. Here's hoping that later levels will ditch them entirely.
Once you've completed the tutorial mission, Sam and his team are granted a mobile base of operations, an AWACS plane codenamed Paladin. This airborne hub can be strolled around much like Mass Effect's Normandy, allowing you to talk to your crew and explore its nooks and crannies. Far from a pointless aside, however, the Paladin draws everything - singleplayer, co-op, competitive multiplayer and customisation - into a single holistic experience.
The Paladin's war room is dominated by an enormous tabletop mission computer known as the Strategic Mission Interface (SMI to its friends), from which you can choose which missions to take on at your own pace. Though story missions occur in a linear progression, Grim and Isaac Briggs present a swathe of cooperative missions, while a surprising old "friend" doles out some assassination missions for you from the brig. You'll have the choice of teaming up online, via system link or attempting to complete these missions solo, all without having to quit out of the campaign. Some doors and areas can only be accessed when partnered up, but most levels can be beaten in singleplayer if you're willing to take on double the workload. Better yet, they all tie into the storyline and earn you cash to spend on the war effort. Again, you get to call the shots and choose your next op, not blithely follow orders.
Economics is a huge new part of Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Everything you do earns you money, whether it's sneaking past enemies without them even knowing you were there, locating a secondary objective or hacking consoles in Spies vs Mercs. You'll use this capital to upgrade The Paladin with new modules that confer various in-game benefits such as improved health regeneration or more comprehensive radar, but chances are you'll fork most of it over to technician Charlie Cole. Though his stereotypical power geek dialogue never fails to annoy, the preppy engineer grants you access to a truly enormous suite of weapons and customisation options.
Beyond unlocking new guns and gadgets such as sticky shockers, grenades and noisemakers, practically every component of Sam's Ops Suit can be upgraded. Whether you favour improved stealth and sound muffling, thicker armour, tighter weapon handling or increased ammo capacity, chances are that there'll be a set of body armour, trousers, boots and gloves to fit. Goggles become much more effective when beefed up with footprint tracking and ambient sonar. Upgrades and money are persistent, allowing you to bring it into Spies vs Mercs, the latter of whom sport their very own set of upgrades and spy hunting tools. There's an inordinate amount of choice on offer here, which factors into legitimate new gameplay options. Or glamorous pink goggles, should you feel the urge. As a fan of Ubisoft's Persistent Elite Creation system that debuted with Rainbow Six: Vegas, I'm glad that Blacklist has taken the concept to its logical conclusion.
It's time to tackle the elephant in the room: for me at least, two and a half hours weren't quite enough to get used to the loss of Michael Ironside. Eric Johnson definitely brings an intimidating physical presence to Sam's motion-captured animations and delivers his lines with gusto, but the joy of games is that they can move beyond the constraints of one actor for one role. Or, erm, launch spin-offs. That said, so long as Johnson's lines remain consistently powerful and the finished product is worthwhile, it will be water under the bridge.
Blacklist is going to be a big game, both in terms of its raw size and the breadth of what you can enjoy within a single playthrough. Its relative gameplay freedom frequently impresses, but we hope that later levels focus on being as wide and tall as possible; giving us the space to work our way without set piece restrictions. We'll find out whether it's a breath of fresh air or an awkward compromise come next month.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist launches for PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U on August 23rd. Stay tuned for our hands-on with the Spies vs Mercs multiplayer mode!