Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Splinter Cell Blacklist Hands-On Preview - Fields of Blood Red Poppies

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The latest press preview for Splinter Cell Blacklist was staged in a sweaty bunker, deep within the bowels of London. Fully dressed up as a government agency base, it was even necessary to get patted down by a security guard in order to enter. Or at least I hope it was a necessity, because I’ve got a nagging feeling that my misjudged wisecrack about having an AK-47 down my pants was mistaken for flirting.

Anyway, a brief spell of borderline sexual abuse later and I was in and ready to spend time with both the single-player aspect of Ubisoft’s upcoming sequel and the returning Spies vs. Mercs mode.

Here’s how it works. Sam Fisher is now the head of Fourth Echelon, a newly-formed unit able to act with impunity to bring down a mysterious group of terrorists that’s threatening to blow up the world, city by city. The rest of the unit is comprised of badass agent Isaac Briggs, motormouth nerd Charlie Cole and chief technical advisor Anna Grímsdóttir - with whom Fisher endures a rather frosty relationship.

This somewhat ill-matched gang work aboard the Paladin, a hulking civilian airplane kitted out with everything Fourth Echelon needs, from surveillance tech, to an armoury, holding cells and medical bays. Most important, however, is the Strategic Mission Interface (SMI), a computer with a map of the globe from which you select your excursions. The Paladin is essentially a floating army base, or perhaps more helpfully, think of it as the Normandy from Mass Effect.

Everything, from story and side missions in both single-player and co-op, as well as the Spies v Mercs matches, can be accessed from the SMI aboard the Paladin. There are no divisions between the different modes and no separate menu options on the splash screen. Similarly, the money you earn from any of your missions in any of the modes can be spent on equipping both Sam and the Paladin with extra gear. Everything you do stems from and then feeds back into the Paladin and the SMI.

Where does this money come from? Well. After each mission you are rewarded with an amount of cash according to the play style you adopted during the operation. This cash is split into three categories. Assault rewards you for going in all guns blasting, without worrying about who you alert of how much blood you spill; Panther rewards you for staying stealthy and not alerting guards, but nevertheless killing the crap out everyone; while Ghost rewards you for staying unseen and non-violent.

Rather pleasingly, your missions are not assessed in a black and white fashion. So if, for example, you manage the majority of a mission without killing or alerting anyone, but then balls it up towards the end and have to shoot your way out, then your rewards will reflect this. You’ll get a big chunk of cash in the Ghost category and a smaller slice of change in the Assault category. It’s a rather deft solution.

The issue for many, however, is whether or not Splinter Cell: Blacklist continues the series’ trajectory of becoming more and more action-oriented. For those that were worried, and count us among them, we’ve got some good news.

After trudging our way through the early, worryingly bullet-heavy sections, which see you acting out various military shooter cliches, the SMI aboard the Paladin opens up and you are given a choice of maybe five or six different missions. The one we chose, in a poppy field in Pakistan run by heroin traffickers, was a revelation.

Relatively small and enclosed, the mission was reminiscent of a Terrorist Hunt map in Rainbow Six: Vegas, a space within which to work your way through slowly and methodically, taking out one enemy at a time. Just like Terrorist Hunt it was our job to disable every guard on the map to ensure victory. The difference, however, was that shooting your way out of the situation wasn’t really an option.

Going all guns blazing is possible, theoretically, but this particular mission was already pretty tough. If you alerted any of the guards to your presence, not only would they all converge on your position intent on spreading your brains over the mud, but reinforcements would arrive too, almost doubling the size of their mini army. A far better option is to silent stalk them.

And that’s what I attempted to do, crouching and sneaking around the environment, staying out of sight and suffocating each of the guards one by one. There’s multiple routes within this too, thanks to some canny level design, allowing you to switch up tactics and take out guards in whatever order you like. I messed up and died. A lot. And loved every moment of it.

Perhaps if I had had chosen a different mission I would have emerged from the demo with a different impression. Some of the other journalists in attendance certainly did. But as far as I’m concerned, this mission in the poppy fields is exactly what I want from a Splinter Cell game. It demanded patience and planning, stealth and silence. It was genuinely brilliant.

Far less conclusive was my short session with Spies vs. Mercs. In Blacklist there are two flavours of the mode, the classic two-versus-two and the new four-versus-four version. I played the latter, engaging in a two round match in which we alternated between the heavily-armed yet clomping mercenaries and the more agile, wall-climbing spies.

The set-up is the same as it always has been. Viewed from a third-person perspective, Spies have to hack terminals, while the first-person Mercs have to defend them. Beyond increased player numbers the only majorly significant change was the ability to customise your character, kitting them out with new gadgets and outfits in an attempt to get the edge on your opponents. This is encouraging, as Spies vs. Mercs has been a fan favourite for years. But after playing just one match I don’t feel qualified to pass judgement. Look out for an interview with Spies vs. Mercs producer Sebastien Ebacher on the site tomorrow, in which we delve a little deeper.

Ultimately, as I emerged from Ubisoft’s press preview bunker into the daylight I was left impressed by this latest showing of Splinter Cell: Blacklist. There’s no way of saying just how well levels like the poppy fields will balance against those early, more action-heavy missions, but it’s worth staying positive. There’s enough evidence here to suggest that the developers are on the right track and I'm excited. So no, I don’t have an AK-47 in my pants, I’m just glad Splinter Cell’s back.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is out on August 20th in North America and August 23rd in Europe.


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Game Info
Ubisoft Toronto


US August 20, 2013
Europe August 23, 2013

Kinect: Compatible
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