Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Ubisoft recently loosed us on the latest production build of Splinter Cell: Blacklist for three hours, which we subsequently chronicled in our extensive Splinter Cell: Blacklist hands-on preview. However, we were also able to squeeze into the skintight bodysuits and hulking armour of the Spies vs Mercs multiplayer mode, set to make a welcome return in Sam's latest outing.
It's all in the name. Throughout a number of rounds, a team of stealthy operatives are tasked with hacking consoles in labyrinthine facilities; striking from the darkness and using vents or lofty ledges to advantage. In their way stands a force of mercenary gunslingers armed with body armour and military-grade weaponry, whose job is to make the spies' lives as miserable and short as humanly possible. The asymmetric gameplay remains broadly similar to its debut in Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, but Blacklist makes a few interesting tweaks to the formula. Not limited to a wealth of new customisation options that let you engage on your terms.
From what I played, Spies vs Mercs is still as tense, tactical and panic attack-inducingly hectic as ever... if perhaps in need of a little spit and polish.
Instead of being gated away as a standalone multiplayer suite, Spies vs Mercs has been cleverly tied into the Blacklist campaign experience, easily accessible from the Paladin's Strategic Mission Interface (more on that here) alongside the story missions and cooperative levels. Money and upgrades earned in the campaign, not to mention Sam's Ops Suit upgrades, can be brought straight into multiplayer, allowing you to create custom classes from a dizzying array of potential weapons, gadgets and armour components. It's a holistic way of creating a single cohesive product, one that tries to keep you immersed in the universe as much as possible.
Spies are naturally outgunned but offset their weakness with enhanced stealth abilities. From a third-person perspective, operatives can hide in shadows, navigate vents, climb on ledges and generally find clever ways to flank or outmanoeuvre their foe. Should they manage to get behind a mercenary, instant-kill melee takedowns make short work of rent-a-goons, while smoke grenades and gadgets present numerous opportunities to bypass or distract defenders. Like the singleplayer experience, playing as a spy is both predatory and voyeuristic; hinging on the thrill of toying with unaware opponents. Once in range of a hack terminal or bomb, spies cooperate to lock it down, with the objective progress persisting for several seconds if the instigator is killed - meaning that team-mates can continue to push the advantage rather than start from scratch.
As mentioned, you're free to select and upgrade an enormous selection of weapons and equipment, alongside the Ops Suit that affects stealth effectiveness and damage reduction. Luckily a few preset classes are on hand to get you started. The Intel Scout uses sonar pulses to tag enemies for the rest of the team, making them easy targets for Predators who can briefly become invisible to devastating effect. Again, the clue's in the name. Saboteurs are slightly more nuanced, in that they revolve around neutralising mercenary technology and abilities, leaving them vulnerable to attack.
Mercs handle very differently from their tricksy opponents, operating from a first person view with a relatively limited FOV. Packing tough armour, torches and powerful assault weapons, they're capable of humiliating spies who engage head-on (not recommended!), and need to communicate effectively in order to comprehensively cover the three objectives. Somewhat clunky controls and awkwardly slow movement makes them much more straightforward and predictable than the versatile spies, but that's not to say that Mercs don't pack a few surprises of their own.
The three preset classes provide an interesting look at potential roles. Disruptors can lob a powerful electromagnetic grenade that blinds and disorients nearby spies, while Hunters deploy a hovering tiltrotor drone that can navigate through vents and access lofty vantage points that spies so love to hide in. Tagging targets will be a key priority for the remote controlled gizmo, though a devastating explosive makes it a neat way of culling unwary spies in crawlways and ledges. Finally, the Peacemaker brings the toughest armour, slowest movement and stat-boosting Adrenaline shot to the proceedings, presenting a terrifying obstacle for spies who can't get behind or above him. Once you've learned the ropes, custom classes will let you choose between versatility and defence.
It's also worth noting that Mercs can deploy proximity mines, which are by far the most effective (if not slightly cheap) way of covering terminals and bombs. Overly-enthusiastic spies will probably find themselves unwillingly (and explosively) redecorating the floors and walls.
Asymmetrical multiplayer games are an absolute swine to balance, since teams are supposed to be unbalanced in fundamental ways, but it's clear that more work is required. Spies appear to be much more viable than their hulking adversaries, those instant-kill melee attacks and climbing skills utterly dominating the cumbersome guns-for-hire at close range. The aforementioned clunky first-person controls don't help matters either. It's possible that battles will be decided by just how long mercs can delay the inevitable as opposed to putting up an iron defence. However, a team of well-coordinated mercs who communicate effectively can easily mop up overconfident spies. The team that talks will ultimately win out, if not totally shut out. Liberally-spammed proximity mines probably wouldn't hurt either, that is, unless you're a spy on the receiving end.
It's that reliance on tight teamwork that made Spies vs Mercs such a success back in the day, so if Ubisoft can tweak the Merc handling and balance, we could well see a return to form when Splinter Cell: Blacklist launches next month.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist launches for PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U on August 23rd.