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Splinter Cell: Blacklist: Fisher favors shadows over gunplay

Friday, 14th June 2013 22:07 GMT By Catherine Cai

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.”

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10 Comments

  1. Erthazus

    Just like the new thief…

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Max Payne

    @1 Well if there is any ”relief” Blacklist will have some kind of hardcore mode that disable mark & execute ,lower Sam’s health and remove Sonar vision.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Citrus raptor

    @2

    If they know that’s what people want, and know that it’s what’s true to the series, first four games at least, why have it as an optional mode, why no make it default? It’s not as if the games sold bad before they added those mechanics, or did they?

    Not everything needs o sell like Modern Warfare. Some games could be made to strengthen the developer brand; establish trust from the devoted, and receive critical acclaim. As it is I’m only interested in Watch Dogs (we’ll see about The Division), they’ve killed their old IPs, so I won’t buy SC no matter how many ‘cool’ features they add.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. AmiralPatate

    @2
    Didn’t know that. I’m starting to think maybe I’ll give it a try.

    One thing is still bugging me though. They speak about kills and takedowns and being stealthy about it. But what about not doing that? I remember Chaos Theory and Double Agent gave you 100% score for not touching anyone nor destroying electronics.
    I don’t want to be an ghostly assassin, because that means leaving a mark. I want it to be like I never was there. That to me is the purest form of stealth, and Conviction simply didn’t allow that. I’m still not convinced Blacklist will, but I might give it a chance and see if it’s close enough.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Ekona

    I hated the earlier SC games due to their insistence on stealth, but SC:C nailed it for me and it remains one of my favourite games to date. I’m hoping this will strike a balance between the two, but I’d still quite like the option to go guns-blazing when I (invariably) muck things up.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. catherinecai

    @4:

    The way that the level I played was designed, it’s pretty much impossible to sneak through without being detected. I mentioned that there was one room that the Engineer runs through. The way the guards are set up, they’re expecting Sam to come through. The only way to really get through that room without taking anyone down was to sprint through, which would, of course, alert everyone to your existence.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t get to get a more in depth look at the economy system. The demo only alerted me of when I racked up points due to takedowns. I didn’t get a chance to see how I would redeem said points to buy better gadgetry.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. Jerykk

    No big publisher is going to fund a pure stealth game these days. Stealth-action hybrids are what we are going to get. That said, as long as stealth is a viable option throughout the game, I’m okay with that. I like to ghost my way through stealth games (no detections and no killing/incapacitating guards) so I’m happy if a game lets me do that. I’m not so happy when a game forces me into scripted confrontations.

    The level I played at E3 was very ghost-friendly. Too friendly, perhaps. There always seemed to be really obvious routes you could take to sneak past guards without needing to even distract them. While I appreciate that they’re taking my playstyle into consideration, they shouldn’t make it so easy to pull off. The challenge is what makes ghosting appealing in the first place.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Bomba Luigi

    Its just… not matter who writes and says what, I just can’t bring myself to want this Game. Maybe it really will be actual great to play stealth and get some gold old SC Feeling, but I can’t believe it now. A finished Game to buy in the Stores has to prove that. When old SC Fans I know tell me its good, I maybe go and buy it.

    The Reason I loved SC was the Slow Gameplay. Sitting in a corner for few Minutes to make a plan, sneeking around very, very slow with a lot of Patience, that always felt so Intensive. But I fear they will kill everything that is slow, because slow Gameplay is not cool.

    Sure, I still can sit in Corner somwehere doing nothing in Conviction, but it wont work when there is no reason to it. Like I could do some stealth, but it just wasn’t fun and it wasn’t needed. Stealth just don’t work that good when you don’t have to do it because there is some easier way, Tension is gone.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. AmiralPatate

    @6
    Well, pretty much impossible is more or less the idea. Then again it depends if it’s impossible because it involves metric tons of skill (which is good) or because the level doesn’t allow it (which is not).
    I’m okay with having to kick some ass once in a while to get through though, like mandatory miniboss fight or somesuch. However if it’s the entire level is a mandatory miniboss fight (or somesuch), that’s not gonna be good enough.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. TheWulf

    @3

    I’d say that’s selfish and spiteful to want, to be honest. There’s absolutely no reason to not include these things as options, unless your will has all the durability of soaked toilet paper.

    I don’t throw elitist around a lot, but to want to take options away from other people so that you can feel superior is, quite frankly, elitist. That is exactly the kind of attitude that we need to get away from. They want their games to sell and that’s fine, if they’re willing to meet us halfway by optionally providing the game that we want to play then we can be happy.

    The fact of the matter is is that avoiding options one way or another is going to leave people annoyed and irritated, it’s going to mean that you’re going to have people who absolutely despise the games for the lack of options present. MORE options is always better, not less.

    Let people play the game THEY want to, so that you can play the game the way YOU want to. Golden rule et al.

    @4

    Yeah, I’d like that as an option, too. I remember with older stealth games with more wide, open levels and more sensible AI and patrols that you could, if you were careful, avoid. But if you failed, the results were incredibly damning as the AI seemed to be a little on the smarter side back then.

    These days, AI tends to run over to the first unconscious body it sees. Then you knock them out. Then rinse and repeat endlessly, not ONE guard thinks ‘hey, this gigantic pile of bodies on the floor is kinda frickin’ SUSPICIOUS, I wonder if anyone is responsible for it, and maybe I should investigate before leaning over next to them like an idiot‘ and that bothers me.

    I’m not saying that AI should be punishing by default, but that’s what difficulty sliders are for. I don’t understand this contemporary hatred of options and sliders. I think it’s silly. If one could configure the game they wanted, it’d be more enjoyable for them.

    More/less health/mana? More/less sporadic health/mana items? More/less powerful items to find? Guard AI difficulty? Why are these NOT options?

    I just don’t understand.

    #10 2 years ago

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