"We want to make the single biggest Splinter Cell ever," Level Design Director Matt West told me as I sat down for a one-on-one demonstration of Ubisoft's controversial sequel. The new team at Ubisoft Toronto comprise a mix of blooded Splinter Cell veterans and skilled newcomers alike, hungry to stamp their own authority on the popular franchise, and simultaneously listen to fan feedback in order to create a truly inclusive new addition to the series. After witnessing a very different playthrough of the demo we saw during the Ubisoft Media Briefing, I'm inclined to believe that they're on course to succeed.
During the earliest stages of development, West informed me, Ubisoft Toronto identified three key kinds of Splinter Cell players who demand different things from the experience. The Ghost, somewhat obviously, is a surgical and stealthy player who seeks out cover and elevation to sneak past enemies; prioritising clean infiltration over unnecessary bloodshed. The Tank, conversely, loves "fun gunplay," and therefore craves a strong cover system and satisfying shooting mechanics. In the middle lies the third, unnamed player archetype, who enjoys using stealth and elevation... to find creative ways of killing the enemy rather than evading them outright (and probably loves a bit of Rainbow Six). In a bold move, Splinter Cell: Blacklist has been mandated to support all three kinds of playstyle at all times, with wide levels and multiple routes providing infinite opportunities for cerebral sneaking, bold offensive strategies, flanking and breaching tactics. Every aspect of the experience has been brought up to standard, from improved Mark & Execute mechanics to brutal new interrogations and the return of the combat knife.
It's an ambitious mission statement, but an undeniably exciting one. Better yet, from what I saw, Ubisoft Toronto might just pull it off.
In terms of storyline and setting, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is designed to tell a truly pivotal tale, one that would dominate the headlines and water cooler conversations if it were to happen today. The titular Blacklist is a collection of US interests targeted by a group of rogue states who demand that the United States military withdraw from foreign soil - interestingly, they have a military presence in over 66% of the world. Since the president doesn't collude or negotiate with terrorists, there's only one man to call upon: the grizzled and cynical Sam Fisher. After the events of Conviction, Sam cut all ties with the corrupt Third Echelon, but agrees to return to active duty on one condition. He's the boss; answerable to no-one, and given complete freedom to create Fourth Echelon in his own image from a mobile command centre. Given the Fifth Freedom - the power to do whatever it takes to defend the other four - Sam is unleashed on the trail of the shadowy network of fragile alliances in order to gather information and take them down with extreme prejudice. His journey will take him throughout the Middle East to US Soil itself as the plot escalates, a truly global narrative.
As you may remember, the demo starts with Sam infiltrating the Iraq/Iran border disguised as an enemy trooper, carrying a wounded man as cover. The dialogue is spoken in Arabic, and in a nice touch, the button prompt to initiate conversation is actually also captioned in spidery foreign script. Hefting the unfortunate man into a tent gave West the perfect opportunity to mark some targets and show off the new, improved execution system in action.
The Mark & Execute system has been given a massive upgrade from Conviction, where it was primarily a static ability that made Sam shoot from a stationary position. West explained that the emphasis is now on Sam's raw power and speed, with the skill allowing him to "carve a path" through enemy encounters. Execution now factors in Sam's momentum, allowing him to run and gun on the fly, the camera panning around as he barrels into enemies, grabs them, uses and mixes up pistol and melee takedowns. It's a beautifully visceral and dynamically unscripted mechanic, and should give players a clever way of relocating throughout the levels as well as taking down priority opponents.
With all but the de facto leader slain, West was set to demonstrate something you definitely didn't see in the media briefing: the new interrogation mechanics. As Sam stabbed the unfortunate man in the shoulder, the camera panned up to show the faces of both men, Sam smouldering and determined, his victim's face twisted in anguish. While you're free to drag him around the room, the right stick directly manipulates the blade within his hostage's flesh, every jerk and twist soliciting cries of pain, vain shouts of defiance and pleas for mercy. This new 'up close and personal' approach is incredibly powerful - rather than seeing the consequences of your brutality at a distance, you're forced to watch every scream, every eye-rolling near-blackout and scraping of knife against flesh and bone from an unflinching perspective. If you ever needed a comment on the horrors of war, look no further than Blacklist. Indeed, there'll be no fist-bumping to be found here, just a hollow feeling of shame at having to commit truly horrible acts to save millions of lives.
Intel gained and his hostage mercifully despatched, Sam leapt into a camp erected in a gutted suburban district. This wide environment provided plenty of rooftops for stealthy players to climb over, tents to cut a path through with the combat knife, alleys to sneak through, cover for more direct players to use and copious vantage points to snipe from. The welcome return of the traditional Third Echelon goggles allows Sam to see enemies behind walls and cover, mark them for execution (or evasion) and plan the most fortuitous routes, with the new 'kill and drag' stealth takedowns letting him silently neutralise enemy guards and secrete their bodies away from potential detection. Foes can be distracted by the ever-popular sticky shocker, silently killed at a distance with the Tactical Crossbow or pounced on from high vantage points, giving both Ghosts and Rainbow Six fans a wealth of options beyond simple shooting. Ubisoft Toronto have continually used "choice and variety" as their developmental mantra, and West explained that all of the levels have been designed to offer multiple ways of dealing with enemies or avoiding them outright.
Kinect owners can also use some fun voice commands to lure enemies towards Sam for efficient cover takedowns, which can be triggered from behind regular cover or while hanging from ledges.
A gunfight against a group of foes backed up by a technical proved to be the perfect canvas for some freeform strategic action. Sam can blindfire over cover, brutally knife enemies who get too close and distract them with gadgets, relocating around the arena (via a perfectly instigated Mark & Excecute section) in order to flank the opposition, who were focused on his last known position. As the leader of Fourth Echelon, Sam has access to drones and UAVs - both to call down devastating airstrikes and even control directly in some fun turret-based sections.
Finally, when confronted with a room containing a large group of terrorists, West was able to show the freeform level design in action. Much like the Microsoft presser demonstration, Sam used his Snake Cam to mark some enemies under the door, and affixed an explosive charge to the portal. Rather than breaching in directly, though, he shinned up a drainpipe, walked over the roof and used a wall-mounted bracket to rappel down to the second storey window. Rope-play is back in force, and it's set to get Rainbow Six fans very hot under the collar. Once in position, Sam detonated the door charge (stunning those inside) and breached in through the window, killing one man and then triggering the Execute. Sam fired on the three hapless terrorists as he hit the ground running, giving a real sense of momentum and power as he charged into the centre of the room and despatched his erstwhile ambushers on the fly. There were plenty of other ways to deal with this encounter, both stealthily and with all guns blazing, providing yet another opportunity for choice and variety to shine through.
My time with Splinter Cell: Blacklist at an end, I couldn't help but be impressed by the practical demonstration of what could well prove to be the most dynamic, fluid and versatile addition to the series to date. We'll find out more over the coming months.