During E3 2013, Catherine Cai was able to step into the shoes of none other than Sam Fisher. She is happy to report that for Sam, stealth is back.
I’ve always been a huge stealth game fan. No, I don’t mean any of the watered-down, sissy stealth-action games that we’re seeing today. I mean the old school, absolutely unforgiving stuff like the original Splinter Cell, Hitman, and Thief.
A huge part of that reason, I think, is serendipitous: I happened to have the time to play the most games in the early 2000s, right around the golden age of classic stealth when each of these series just started.
I’ve always been a huge stealth game fan. No, I don’t mean any of the watered-down, sissy stealth-action games that we’re seeing today. I mean the old school, absolutely unforgiving stuff.
In recent years, pure stealth games have all but vanished from the industry. Developers have instead opted to dilute the genre down into action-stealth. Generally, these games are much more forgiving than the stealth games of old, allowing players who aren’t much for skulking in the shadows and silent takedowns to blast their way through a game as well. Of course, for me (and I’m sure many gamers who feel the same way I do about old stealth games) this has been a huge disappointment.
Games like Dishonored, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Hitman: Absolution, as much as I loved them all in their own way, were all developed under the umbrella of the stealth-action genre to provide its players flexibility in style. Unfortunately, I found that the ‘action’ portion of these games made them far too simple. As a freelance games journalist who has rather little time to dedicate to just one videogame, I tend to generally play through games with the optimal strategy to get through the fastest.
Often, for action-stealth games, this means starting the game with stealth and ending it in a massacre when I inevitably screw up or get detected. Yes, I recognize that my disappointment with stealth-action games partially spawns from my own inability to have the self-control to keep myself playing the way that I really want, but is it really so much to ask to have the game not even give me that option?
I’ll admit, when Ubisoft announced Splinter Cell: Blacklist last year at E3 2012, I wasn’t very interested. I had skipped out on Conviction when it had released partially because the series was evolving to become more of a shooter than a game about stealth. And no offense to Ubisoft’s marketing team, but I had thought that Blacklist was going to be a game of the same vein due to the E3 2012 trailer featuring a rather stealth-less, trigger-happy Sam Fisher.
I had a chance to get a little hands-on time with Blacklist and talk to creative director Maxime Béland about it. I’m happy to report that in Blacklist, stealth is still the way to go. While you can get in some pew-pew shooter action (if that’s what you’re into, you dirty heathen), you’re going to have a hell of a time racking up the kill count by going in guns blazing.
“We wanted to obviously reach more players, and a lot of players find stealth games to be too difficult. They find it frustrating. It’s my job as creative director to make a game that’s going to touch and reach as many people as possible.”
The gameplay demo featured a level that’s to appear towards the end of the game. The terrorist slash hacker supergroup “The Engineers” has, in a situation inspired by the Stuxnet virus, infected a natural gas refinery with a virus. The virus is now preventing all fire-suppression systems from activating in case of a fire; meaning that should there be a fire, the entire facility is at risk of lighting up a blaze that would impress even Michael Bay. Sam’s been dropped in to investigate and of course, prevent the facility from blowing up.
Within minutes of Sam dropping into the facility, you’re pitted up against four heavy archetypes. They’re heavily armored, so it’s a rather bad idea to approach them from the front. I waited in the shadows, took my time, and despite a few close calls, managed to take all four out with silent takedowns, both lethal and non-lethal. You rack up points depending on how you bring down enemies. Silent lethal takedowns are, of course worth less in the game’s economy than non-lethal takedowns.
“Basically, we’ve got an economy system that’s rewarding you depending on how you play,” explained Béland.”If you play super well, like ultra-pure ghost, you can make a lot of money and then you can use that money to customize Sam to buy gadgets and customize his op suit.”
Later on in the demo, Sam stumbles upon one of the culprits to the virus/facility situation. Of course, the Engineer also spots Sam, and takes off running. You give chase, but eventually you’re forced in a room where there are quite a few heavily-armed thugs.
I decided to give the good old Sam-as-an-action hero try, to knock in some heads and get a little fun in. Unfortunately, since I was really only armed with fists and some sleeping darts, things got a little hairy, especially since Sam can only really take two or three bullets before he goes down.
From the rather tiny game snippet that I did manage to play of the game (and unfortunately, it didn’t include a spies vs. mercs demo), it definitely felt like while there was room for Sam to run and gun, the game heavily encouraged you to go the way of the ghost.
I guess that in a world where pure stealth games apparently don’t have the audience reach enough to really be a part of the AAA space anymore, something stealth-action with a strong emphasis on stealth, is just going to be what I have to be happy with.
I asked Béland why in recent games, Splinter Cell’s gone down the path to favor stealth-action, and the answer was fairly obvious: Ubisoft is seeking to expand its audience.
“I think the challenge that we have is… we wanted to obviously reach more players,” he said. “And a lot of players find stealth games to be too difficult. They find it frustrating… It’s my job as creative director to make a game that’s going to touch and reach as many people as possible.
“So, at the same time, I don’t want to go against what’s the brand and what are the values and what made Splinter Cell successful. It was an interesting challenge and I think that, for Blacklist, I’m hoping that we’ve really nailed that perfect balance between stealth and action.”
I guess that in a world where pure stealth games apparently don’t have the audience reach enough to really be a part of the AAA space anymore, something stealth-action with a strong emphasis on stealth, is just going to be what I have to be happy with. And really, Béland’s vision for an ideal Splinter Cell game is one that blends both elements together.
“I think that the best games that I love are the games that allow me to play the way that I feel. Sometimes, I feel like I really want to take my time, I want to be tactical, I want to be patient. And some other times, you know what? I’ve got half an hour, I want to go through this. I want to have fun,” explained Béland.
“I think Blacklist would be very close to my ideal Splinter Cell game.”