There will come a day in the not-too-distant future when we will all wonder why we ever enjoyed linear video games. These are, of course, the types of games where players must go from point A to point B, with few choices or different outcomes in between.
Games in the “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell” family have historically leaned toward such linear experiences. In each of the series’ five previous main entries, super-spy Sam Fisher has indeed been tasked with getting from one point at the beginning of a level to another at the end of it. Sure, there were usually different routes and possibilities for him along the way, but in the end the games played pretty much the same for anyone who attempted them.
But video games are supposed to be a medium that – uniquely among entertainment offerings – affords consumers with agency, so the idea of being dragged through one by the invisible hand of its developer will inevitably become archaic if not quaint. It’s why open-world games, where players can effectively do whatever they want at their own speed, have become so popular in the past few years, and why we’re seeing a steady raft of them being released.
While the new Splinter Cell: Blacklist is definitely not an open-world game – it’s actually hard to imagine the franchise straying that far from its roots – it is a fantastic hybrid of sorts that throws so many options and choices at the player that its linear nature is thoroughly hidden if not forgotten entirely. The straight-line aspect of the game, the first effort from the Ubisoft Toronto studio, only becomes apparent if you really stop to think about it.
At the core of this well-disguised illusion is Fisher’s new base of operations, a giant, technologically tricked-out cargo plane known as the Paladin. Story-wise, the aircraft serves as the mobile headquarters of Fourth Echelon, the super-spy’s ultra-secret, anti-terrorist special forces group. In game mechanic terms, it’s the menu screen from just about every game ever made, but brought to a sort of virtual life.
Fisher and his teammates congregate around the Strategic Mission Interface (SMI), a touch-screen tabletop command centre housed in the middle of the Paladin. There, they take in intel and discuss how to deal with rapidly escalating terrorist developments. A mysterious new group known as the Engineers has announced its intentions to destroy a number of American targets – the titular Blacklist – unless troops are pulled out of certain countries.
From the SMI, Fisher can dive into a host of different play options, from the main single-player storyline and co-operative missions to the multiplayer Spies versus Mercs mode, with each scattered around a map of the world. He can also visit different sections of the plane and talk to his quartet of teammates, each of whom offer information, the ability to launch different co-op missions and other personalized options.
Long-time regular Anna Grimsdottir, also known as Grim, for example, lets Fisher upgrade the Paladin with the credits he earns across game modes. The modifications confer in-game benefits, such as better on-the-ground radar readings from improved sensors. Sidekick Isaac Briggs, meanwhile, also has co-op missions in store, but he can also apprise the Fourth Echelon leader of his in-game status and statistics.
The conversations also deepen the teammates’ relationships. As a lone wolf operative who is uncomfortable leading a group, Fisher’s manner at the beginning of the game is brusk. But the team members eventually coalesce as they overcome perils together and their interactions become more congenial as the game progresses. It all feels a bit like Mass Effect, where the protagonist traverses his or her ship in an effort to establish ties with comrades. That’s meant as the highest of compliments, by the way.
The menu and mode integration with character interactions also makes Blacklist feel a little like an open-world game. Even though the in-between-action parts are limited to the close confines of the Paladin, the way in which co-op missions are presented almost makes them seem like side missions typically offered in a true open-world setting.
In other games with co-op, including previous Splinter Cell entries, I would typically try the mode out after finishing the single-player story. In Blacklist, however, I found myself delaying the main campaign in favour of jumping into co-op instead. I can’t say I’ve ever done that before.
The action itself is smooth, varied, challenging and perfectly implemented across both single-player and co-op modes. Missions take place across a host of locales, from dark oil platforms and tunnels to brightly lit villages and burning refineries. Fisher must variously switch between stealth and aggressive firepower, with players getting credits based on three play styles: ghost, panther and assault.
Since Splinter Cell is a stealth game at heart, sneaking through levels without alerting or touching anyone in ghost style awards the most points. Loudly blazing through still nets credits, but not as much. Sometimes you can’t help but let loose, though, because the bad guys are often quite good at detecting Fisher no matter how much he sneaks about.
Credits are all-important, since they buy new gadgets, weapons, clothing parts (all of which provide in-game bonuses) and character classes for multiplayer. There’s tons on offer, meaning that no two players are likely to have the same Sam Fisher and therefore the same game experience, which is another smart strike against linearity.
The same economy system carries over into multiplayer mode, where players form teams of either spies or mercenaries, then upgrade their characters with new gadgets and weapons. Absent from the previous entry Conviction, Spies vs. Mercs has been a popular feature of Splinter Cell games for good reason. Players take turns controlling the lithe, sneaky spies and the heavily armed, pondering mercs, which is different from the multiplayer mode found in many other games. Other games typically throw similarly equipped and capable characters at one another. Blacklist, however, forces players into entirely different play styles.
Spies versus Mercs offers up most of the standard multiplayer game modes, including capture the flag, team deathmatch and domination, but there’s also the added bonus of the classic, two-on-two mode, where no upgrades are allowed. It’s old-school fun that’s a nice alternative to the main mode.
It’s also mentioning that the new Sam Fisher actor, Edmonton-born Eric Johnson, does a good job in taking over for veteran Michael Ironside, who had played the role since the beginning in 2002. Johnson’s Fisher is just as cranky and ornery sounding, although having met and spoken with both men in real life, it’s obvious which one is only acting the part (hint: it’s not Ironside).
The change, made so that the younger Johnson could perform Fisher’s motion capture as well as voice work, is a symbolic one as well. Blacklist represents a passing of the Splinter Cell torch from Ubisoft Montreal to Toronto. It’s clear the franchise and its continuing evolution is in capable hands.