Developer(s): Ubisoft Toronto
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Release Date: Spring 2013
If there’s one recurring trend in most of the previews on this site, it’s that of long-standing franchises leaving their roots behind and going for a wider audience. The lofty goal of angering fan bases is accomplished easily by abandoning core gameplay and replacing it with something similar to other games on the market. In Splinter Cell: Blacklist, this is done somewhat subtly. The idea of stealth gameplay is still there, but it’s being edged out for cinematic action.
The Splinter Cell series has created a name for itself by offering some of the best stealth games available. In fact, the original was named the fifth best stealth game of all time by The Game Scouts own Jon Hall. Chaos Theory is the other installment held in high regards (partially due to the wonderful co-op mode, which encouraged team work and planning while keeping the core stealth ideals alive). With the jump to the next generation came more action-based entries. Double Agent and Conviction both received positive reviews and sold well, although Conviction sold over twice as many copies; however, in light of this, both games fell from the public eye rather quickly. This happens to games with either a lack of content or gameplay that doesn’t have much depth.
Blacklist was announced officially at Microsoft’s E3 press conference this past June. Sam Fisher is in charge of stopping the terrorist organization Blacklist. He’s been granted the “fifth freedom” by the president, which has the United States government turning a blind eye to whatever he does to stop the terrorists. Curiously, Blacklist takes place after Conviction, but Sam looks younger here than he did two years ago. Assuming Blacklist takes place in 2013, Sam Fisher is fifty six years old. The real question in this game is not will the terrorists be stopped, but why would the president appoint a fifty six year old in lieu of someone younger, more spry, and with less traumatic experiences weighing them down?
The announcement of Splinter Cell: Blacklist was followed by a lengthy gameplay demo in which Ubisoft showed off some new features. Prominently shown was “killing in motion.” If there’s one thing Ubisoft loves, it’s fluidity. In Assassin’s Creed, it’s about scaling buildings; in Far Cry 3, it’s about chaining kills with the knife; in Blacklist, it’s about killing everyone in one swift motion. Players do this by marking the targets in the area, hitting execute, and watching the rest. The idea of killing in motion brings two important points to the forefront. Firstly, what happened to stealth? Technically, everyone is dead and no alarms were raised, but this is so far from the idea of subtlety it’s on par with calling Call of Duty online multiplayer tactical.
Secondly, this game is best played in front of people that don’t play games. Not because it will show them the beauty of the medium or make them want to play, but because it will make you look really skilled. By pointing the camera at a group of people and hitting two buttons, you trigger Sam to run out in slow motion, shoot everyone, and take no damage. There will even be some sweet car hopping and hostage grabbing. And, it’s entirely a cinematic; you can’t lose. The idea of cinematic kills and one button doing everything is becoming more and more frequent. Going for a more cinematic approach is fine, but pressing execute and swiftly killing five people takes away all sense of accomplishment: the game did it for you.
After showing off the new fluidity, the demo then shows Sam scale a cliff and move up to a small village full of terrorists. This village showdown is where Ubisoft shows off the stealth gameplay. Sam alerts all of the guards, gets shot at by machine guns, calls in an airstrike, and moves on. I may not be an expert on military strategies, but I am an expert on what’s loud and what isn’t. When our stealth expert has left the area and moved on, no one knew anything was happening. Did these guards not hear the massive shootout and missile? There’s another killing in motion scene, the demo ends, and viewers are left confused about what series this is.
Right now, you’re probably thinking I’m overreacting to this. “E3 is where companies show off games to wide audiences. Of course Ubisoft will demonstrate gameplay that appeals to the Call of Duty audience,” you’re probably saying to the screen. August 31 rolls around, and the stealth play through of the same demo is put online. Yes, the option of killing no one and raising no alarms is there. However, Ubisoft doesn’t want you to do that. This video was definitely released as damage control and to try and convince fans that this is still Splinter Cell.
Allow me to explain. As the stealth demo gets to the same spot of the first killing in motion from the E3 demo, the narrator tells viewers of the new demo to watch the more action packed version. A pop up window in the upper right corner then plays the killing in motion cinematic while the stealth gameplay continues. The stealth player finishes the area before the pop up is done, so he stands still while the killing wraps up. The developers knew players wanted to see a stealth play through, but they just want us to kill in motion. Both of these demos end with Sam infiltrating a room full of a few guards and the target. In the original, this was the final killing in motion. In the stealth demo, we get a fade to black before Sam breaches. My money is that if there is no non-lethal way to do this, the developers found it too boring.
What do two demos have to do with anything? Marketing: it’s everything. A smart company markets its product to an interested consumer base. You don’t find Disney toys in your local sex shop, and you don’t find Battlefield ads at a League of Legends tournament. These videos being released are marketing. They are being aimed at the audience Ubisoft wants: the action loving, simplistic seeking gamer. The money is in games that let players kill in motion. Aiming the game for this crowd is smart in a business sense. In terms of integrity and respect to the source, it’s more along the lines of a slap in the face.
Blacklist releases this coming Spring. We’ll see then if more people play it with zero kills or enough killing in motion cinematics to make the playing to watching ratio lower than Metal Gear Solid 4. Either way, Splinter Cell: Blacklist will have stealth options available, but Ubisoft is more interested in taking the series in more action packed directions.
Preview by Chris Lohr
Chris Lohr is a freelance writer currently in film school. If you’re looking for him to write for your website, manifesto, or Russian bride catalogue, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put today’s date as the subject line and include a picture of yourself. Must be DDD free and willing to host. All Articles by Chris.