The more venerable and successful a video-game series, the trickier it must be to make sequels. Fans who have been around since the beginning likely start feeling a bit put-out about changes made over the years, changes that welcomed the very newcomers who might balk at an old-school return to form. That conundrum certainly seems true of Splinter Cell, which will get its sixth major release this summer with Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
Last week I headed down Ubisoft's press HQ in San Francisco to play through a couple hours' worth of the game and speak with the people making it. What I saw was a game aiming to be all things to all Splinter Cell fans, but that may have lost some undefinable something along the way.
For those who haven't played a Splinter Cell game, it's a series that revolves around high tech covert operations all around the world. The protagonist, Sam Fisher, is essentially a more-grizzled version of 24's Jack Bauer. He's a badass who's seen it all, and his constant off-the-records fights to keep America safe have cost him no small amount. He is, in the parlance of our times, a man who's not afraid to Do Whatever It Takes. Usually Whatever It Takes involves sneaking through the shadows and silently taking out a whole bunch of dudes.
In addition to an hour or two playing the game, I had a fun, lengthy chat with creative director Maxime Béland about design, the Splinter Cell series, stealth games, and all sorts of other things. I'll be publishing that interview later today or tomorrow on Kotaku. For now, I thought I'd share my take on what I saw. If you just want to see the game in action, check out the video up top, which I edited together from some footage Ubisoft sent over.
I kept notes of the preview session similarly to how I approached SimCity, but with less of a journaled approach. Before we go into that, here are the things that stuck out to me as the most important.
- The game feels like Conviction. It's faster and more fluid, with a reliance on the same sorts of contextual moves as that game. That said, there are many more pure-stealth additions to the game—you can hide dead or unconscious enemies, you have a much more flexible and customizable arsenal, and it's possible to play through many of the levels without killing anyone or being detected at all.
- The game revolves around a hub now—in between missions, you can walk around Sam's mobile command hub and accept sidequests from the various characters like Grim and the supremely annoying Charlie. (More on Charlie in a bit.) I didn't actually get to see these in action, but it sounds like they'll be varied and interesting, and could be a good way for the game to embrace more hardcore stealth levels and challenges. Pure speculation, though.
- There's a new higher difficulty, called "perfectionist." It plays more or less like "realistic," but removes the ability to mark and execute enemies. You can still mark, but can no longer pull off the quick insta-kill executions. It's pretty great—if I had one complaint about Conviction, it was that it was too easy, even on so-called "realistic" difficulty.
- Like many games this generation, Blacklist has evolved to include RPG elements and experience points. You'll earn different grades and experience depending on how you play. The game recognizes three playstyles—Ghost, Panther, and Assault. Ghost is stealthy and nonlethal, panther is stealthy and lethal, and assault is non-stealth, lethal. When you play in one of those styles, you earn XP for that style, which lets you unlock better gear. I couldn't get a sense of just how much the different XP mattered, but in this game, like in many others, I sense that playing as a perfect "ghost" will be a reward unto itself.
- It could well be that the missing element I'm detecting is tied to the new voice actor for Sam Fisher. I didn't think I'd miss Michael Ironside's deadly purr, but I really do. The guy they got to replace him is serviceable, but he has an unremarkable voice and, from what I played, delivered mostly unremarkable dialogue. Without Ironside as Fisher, the game loses a substantial amount of personality. That's an extra-drag, seeing as how Sam's personality is really the only personality the series had going for it. It's not a deal-breaker, but Ironside's absence affected the overall experience a lot more than I expected it to.
Okay, let's go into my time at Ubisoft.
- Before I played, creative director Maxime Béland took the stage to walk us through the basics for the game. Mostly meat and potatoes stuff, but worth sharing some of it.
- The bad guys in the story are called "The Engineers." They've made a blacklist of various attacks they're going to make on America. For the usual transgressions.
- Béland is making a big deal about how Sam will be back in his suit. Cool? Also, he'll have a knife. Yay!
- Béland says that a pet peeve of his from Conviction (a game he also worked on) is that Sam was very static. They've made it a goal to make him more fluid in Blacklist. I felt like he was waaaay more fluid in Conviction compared to past games, but I get what he's saying.
- They're big on the three new playstyles: Ghost, the nonlethal, nondetected player; Panther, who wants to be lethal but wants to "strike from the shadows," and Assault, the combat player. Basically Stealth + Nonlethal, Stealth + Lethal, and Non-Stealth + Lethal. Blacklist's economy system will allow you to buy gear and customize Sam to be better for whichever style you like. At the end of every mission you'll get an "After Action Report" where you'll get a certain number of points based on how much of each playstyle you used.
- You can change the color of Sam's goggles. What? This is big news! I want to have mauve goggles. I don't see any other colors yet.
- Béland is showing us the "SMI Interface," which is the in-game planning mechanism that allows you to plan out everything in the game, including your friends online, multiplayer, etc. Béland says he wants to have no main menu for the game, only the SMI, though he's not sure yet if they can make it work.
- The hands-off demo begins as Sam finds himself sneaking through a shootout in the streets of a Middle Eastern city. I'd say it could be any Middle Eastern city, except that the text introduced it as Benghazi, which is interesting. Other than the specific city, the setup seems pretty much interchangeable with any other Splinter Cell game. They're looking for someone or other, and stuff happens. It looks like Splinter Cell. It looks good, mind you, but very much like a Tom Clancy game.
- Sam has a conversation with his handlers, and I'm immediately struck by how totally different the game feels without Michael Ironside. His radio contacts are splashed all over the wall in a cool visual effect as they talk, like an even more involved version of what they started with Conviction. Among them is a hilariously dumb-looking twenty something "gamer type" in a hoodie, who is presumably Third Echelon's tech whiz. What is this, 1998? Am I watching Enemy of the State?
- One of the first things Sam does as he sneaks from rooftop to rooftop is take down a guy and move his body into a dumpster. Body-hiding confirmed!
- So far this level we've been watching has been very linear. I sense I'm going to get to play it in a bit. Sam is given a bonus target to take down nonlethally; presumably these will pop up from time to time; in-level "challenges."
- Of note: so far in this demo, none of the bad guys has said "Fisher."
- Fisher has captured an arms dealer, who is giving them information on the guy they're actually chasing. Wow, painful cutscene interviewing the arms dealer. Bad humor from hoodie tech guy, bad acting all around. Yikes. It does not appear as though story is going to be a strong point of this game.
- You're able to walk around your HQ and talk to people, sort of like in Assassin's Creed. You can purchase upgrades from people, get side missions from Grim, and more. Paying to upgrade your plane will, for example, give you better radar in missions.
- Ugh, this hoodie hacker guy is the WORST. Just the most flagrant early 2000's young hacker type, all attitude and jargon, lame, lame, lame. He looks sort of like Jonah Hill. It feels like he's a cameo from a gamer who won a competition and got to be put in the game. His name is "Charlie." He keeps asserting himself. I do not like Charlie. Go away, Charlie.
- The next mission is on a rooftop at night, in a rainstorm. Sam is doing a lot of stealth taking-down and body-hiding. Looks good, very much like Splinter Cell. I've noticed the addition of a minimap to the lower left of the screen, which seems a little bit unfair. That must've been because they upgraded the plane.
- Like in Arkham City, there are some enemy types that'll negate some of Sam's abilities. We see a guy who can use tech to shut down Sam's goggles, requiring him to work around and score a more creative takedown. Sam uses a remote aerial drone to fly in and take him down. A lot of this feels quite similar to Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, actually.
- Sam chokes a lot of dudes out using his knee-pit. Gross! Unless you're into knee-pits.
- After that, we get a chance to play. So, coming up, hands-on impressions and notes.
- The PC settings include Ambient Occlusion and DX11 settings, tessellation, adjustable AA, and anisotropic filtering as per the norm for Ubisoft PC games. I'm playing in DX9, however.
- I start out walking around the command center, talking to people. Charlie tells Sam that if he gets enough money, he can "test out some sick mods for your gear." Cool, I know how those military types love sick mods.
- You can really deck Sam out. Through Charlie I looked into a bunch of different gear types—secondary weapons from a crossbow to a stun-gun, two-handed rifles from a submachine gun to a silenced sniper rifle.
- You can buy all manner of different clothes for Sam, too. Each part of his outfit can be customized. I'm not sure how much effect each type of, say, glove has, but some are rated stealthier than others.
- Gadgets are the usual array of Splinter Cell toys: various grenades, breaching charges, sticky cameras, and the addition of the Tri-Rotor, which is basically the drone from Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.
- Charlie tells Sam he's got his "Peeps skimming what they can" to get him sidequests. He'll give Sam sidequests to go pick up more gear. I decide to undertake one of those.
- Orrr… not. I guess the Charlie mission doesn't work in this demo. Maybe Charlie's peeps are still skimming. But it looks like in the full game, I can launch a whole sidequest to go pick up gear for Charlie, if I want. That might be really cool.
- I go to the map in the middle of the command station and find four missions waiting for me. Apparently I can tackle them in any order. Three are co-op, which we're not going to get to use today. One is single-player. So, I guess I have one mission available to me.
- The co-op missions look pretty standard from the outside—a collection of various objectives, along with a leaderboard.
- My game keeps crashing, so I have moved to a new computer. I think I attract technical troubles at these sorts of things. (Well, not just me: the guy next to me's game kept crashing, too. Perils of an early build—no reason to think that the final game will be unstable.)
- I'm now sneaking through the same city streets we saw in the hands-off demo above. Well, I'll tell you this much—getting spotted in this game sure gets you killed. It plays very differently than Future Soldier, and I've had a bracing reminder of how much better it is to remain unseen in Splinter Cell.
- It's unclear whether you'll be able to play the game with the UI turned off. I have four options under the UI menu, but none of them turn it off entirely. I asked Béland about this later, and he said they were still tweaking those settings.
- Okay, I've gotten my groove back. I'm now in the hallway bit that you can see in the video above. This is entirely linear, but has that old Splinter Cell groove. And by "old" I mean it feels mostly like Conviction, at least how I'm playing it.
- Lots of Inception horns playing on the soundtrack. My sloppiness has really pushed the artificial intelligence, and it hasn't always responded. I'm pulling off all kinds of cheap exploits of the guards that really should get me killed.
- There is a dog in this game. Were there dogs in past Splinter Cell games? While hanging, I performed "Death From Above" on the dog and killed it. Sorry, dog.
- Sam Fisher's butt is looking pretty good in this stealth-suit, to those who might be interested. It's an A-grade, early forties dude-butt.
- I just straight-up kicked a dog in the face! I was not detected by the guy standing right nearby. So, still a stealth video game, in that the AI isn't always consistent or believable.
- I picked up my first body. The AI guy nearby heard something, but somehow didn't see me. Going to have to ask about the AI in this game, and whether it gets smarter as the game gets more difficult.
- Sam's whistle seems somewhat overpowered. While you're hiding at a corner, you can hit back to "whistle" and call dudes over. Every time I whistle at enemies, they come right over for me to wail on them. So far, the stealth stuff in this game isn't very difficult—whistle + corner-takedown has worked 100% of the time.
- The big control-change is that now Sam sticks to cover with a face-button, and the left trigger causes him to bring up his weapon and aim. It was probably inevitable, but I actually really liked the way Béland's last few games, Conviction and Rainbow Six: Vegas used the left trigger to grab and release cover.
- Sam's whistle is mainly overpowered because it plays into the standard (somewhat arbitrary) rhythm of Conviction's Mark & Execute system. First you lure a dude into a melee attack to "charge up" your instakill "execute" ability, then you tag and waste a bunch of guys. I always find myself abusing it even after enemies are alerted, tagging a bunch of them really fast and just wiping them out.
- I find our target, and he's being tortured. Splinter Cell torture! Though this time the bad guys are doing it. Later, Béland and I had an interesting conversation about the game's inclusion of torture, which I'll include when I write up our full interview. Short version: Unlike Conviction, there won't be interactive torture in Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
- Now I'm doing an exfiltration bit with my injured friend/frenemy under one arm, shooting guys in the face. No stealth. Which makes me think this game won't be possible to play 100% nonlethal.
- I got into a make-or-break "defend until exfiltration" bit against a bunch of dudes coming in from multiple angles. Very actiony, somewhat frustrating with Splinter Cell controls. It's easier to play this stuff now that I can aim with the left trigger, but I haven't completely adjusted to the new control scheme.
- There is a new difficulty level on top of the three that existed for Conviction: There's Rookie, Normal, Realistic, and "Perfectionist," which takes away your ability to execute altogether, among other things. I'm gonna try the second level they're giving us to play on perfectionist and see how that goes.
- Playing on perfectionist, I still have some super high-powered goggles I bought, but I now can't do tagged execution. I have a feeling that any old-school Splinter Cell fans are going to want to play the game this way. It already feels better.
- AI behavior even seems different on perfectionist—I tried to whistle a guard over, and he immediately ran back, took cover, then closed on me from a distance. I'm not sure whether that behavior is because this is later in the game, or because it's a higher difficulty. (Note: When I asked him later, Béland made it seem as though this is more tied to the stage than the difficulty setting, but said they're still working that stuff out.)
- I made my way through the rooftop on perfectionist, but then my game crashed—I decided that in the interest of seeing more of the preview, I'd kick it down to "realistic" difficulty. Perfectionist is good stuff, though.
- After the rooftops, Sam makes his way into a building that's under construction. He's on the radio with Grim and Charlie; Charlie is as annoying as ever, and again I notice that without Ironside, Fisher has undergone a significant personality removal. It seems like a real loss for the series.
- Clearing out a two-level warehouse full of dudes, similar stealth tactics as usual. I pull a guy out a window just after he talks to his friend, no one notices. Empty a clip into a guy upstairs (silenced), no one notices. Shoot a guy right near everyone else, and an enemy says "Something's not right. I'll check it out."
- I shouldn't really be calling it Sam's "whistle." That's just what it's called on the controls screen. In fact, just as often Sam says "Hey there" or "C'mere" under his breath. And yet the enemies come right on over. Despite the fact that they're on high alert and their friends are dropping like flies. Huh.
- The last bit I play before I wrap up pits me against an enemy tech specialist, who not only jams my goggles, but sends robots out into the world to hunt for me if any guards see me. This seems like the sort of enemy that could work as a great counter for Sam's tricks, similar to the ways that Arkham City changed up the stealth segments as the game went on. Cool, I want to see more of this stuff!
After that, I went off to chat with Béland, and wound up talking to him for the better part of an hour, which ate into the rest of my hands-on time. Fortunately, we had a really fun, interesting talk, which I'll have up on Kotaku soon. In the meantime, my general impressions are below.
Bearing in mind that the game I saw was still in development and that I only saw a couple of levels, the sense I get is that Blacklist is going to be a Splinter Cell game designed to appeal to the widest swath of possible fans. It'll have predatory action for fans of Conviction, but if you want to play hardcore stealth, you can still do that. I'm not entirely convinced that "Perfectionist" difficulty takes away enough of the assists to make the game truly feel like old-school Splinter Cell, particularly given that the missions I saw were still largely based around the sorts of fast-moving kill-kill-kill level design that we saw in Conviction.
I'm optimistic about the sidequests, in particular, since I could imagine the team at Ubisoft really getting creative with those missions and offering more hardcore, focused challenges for those who like that kind of thing. The loss of Ironside's voice is a surprisingly big deal, and leaves Blacklist feeling a bit like a Tom Clancy game without a clear identity. It's one part Rainbow Six and two parts Ghost Recon, but it feels unclear whether it'll be able to carve out one additional part to just be Splinter Cell.
Is that you, Fisher?
You lost us at the airport.
You won't lose us now!