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E3 2012: Splinter Cell: Blacklist [Preview]

7 Jun 2012  by   Tim McDonald

The older Sam Fisher gets, the more active he gets – or at least that’s how it’s seemed lately. Where he was once a slow, methodical killer, creeping through shadows before dispatching guards with a bullet to the head, he’s now capable of bursting out into the open, sliding across a table, and gunning down three men before ramming a knife into a fourth.

Of course, where once Sam was a Third Echelon operative, he’s now the head of Fourth Echleon. Exactly why the head of the organisation is dropping into hotspots to interrogate terrorists and knife the unwary, I’m uncertain, but it’s always good to see a boss pitching in with his employees.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is, as the name implies, all about the “Blacklist” – a terrorist dossier of high-profile targets being used to blackmail the US. Unless the States withdraws troops from embattled areas, there’s going to be a spate of terror attacks against their assets, and Fourth Echleon is called in to prevent these attacks from happening. After the murky morality, personal stories, and lack of resources that defined Double Agent and Conviction, Blacklist looks like it’s taking Splinter Cell back to its roots of a powerful organisation taking on threats with the help of proper backing and support.

As implied above, though, the story going back to its roots doesn’t necessarily imply that the gameplay is going back to its roots. The E3 demo on show certainly focuses more on action than stealth, with the sneaky approach and reconnaissance moments punctuated with staccato bursts of explosive action. Mark and Execute is back and upgraded so that Sam can perform it while on the move; we see him lean out from cover, mark three foes, and then take them down as he charges past them. At one point, it even looks like he manages to mark targets while charging towards them, which is rather more fast-paced than before. Sam’s movements, and transition between states of stealth and shooting, seem more… fluid.

That’s not to say that stealth has completely vanished, though. Aside from using cover to mark his targets we see Sam perform stealth takedowns; one unfortunate chap is dragged over the top of a wall that Sam’s hiding behind before being knifed, while another – standing on a rooftop – is lured over by Sam calling out, then hauled over the ledge and dropped to his death. And there are still plenty of gadgets to help you remain silent and unseen, from the enemy-finding sonar pulse through to the “sticky shocker” taser shots.

But there’s one thing in the footage, I think, that really sums up the approach the game seems to be taking: the airstrike.

Later in the demo, a technical turns up. Troops dismount and take up defensive positions. Now, while it’s presumably possible to sneak your way through this situation, that’s not the approach taken here: Sam takes down one guard by leaping off a building and landing on him, in a manner rather reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed, and is promptly spotted by the others. After bursting in and out of a building, with bullets tearing apart the scenery around him, Sam takes cover. He peeks out, takes some potshots at the enemy troops… and then, with a shout of “Grim, now!” calls in a missile strike to remove the technical and the remaining guards.

So: initial attempts at stealth, followed by high-octane action, followed by a use of resources that wouldn’t have been possible for Sam in the past two games.

As players, we also have access to new resources. As the game was revealed at the Microsoft press event, Splinter Cell: Blacklist supports – you guessed it – Kinect. That shout of “Grim, now”? That was the player. Luring over a guard by calling out? Kinect. It’s presumably entirely optional, so I’m not going to bother judging it particularly harshly, but I figured I’d better let you know that it’s present and appears to be as pointless an inclusion as usual.

I suppose we’d also better address the other major change: Sam Fisher is no longer being voiced by Michael Ironside. For me, Ironside has always defined Sam Fisher – his Fisher was cynical, laconic, world-weary, and had a deliciously dark sense of humour – and it’s far too early to say whether this will be a change for the positive, but it’ll certainly be interesting to see a new actor’s take on the character. (The reasoning behind this change, incidentally, is an increase in motion capture for the game’s cutscenes, with Ironside apparently unable or unwilling to put himself through the role’s new physical demands.)

I think it’s fair to say that, in a lot of ways, Blacklist looks like the next logical step for the Splinter Cell franchise. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good step – there are plenty who would no doubt prefer the series to head back to the pure stealth of earlier titles – but the updates to the systems pioneered in Conviction certainly make sense, if nothing else. We’ll find out whether the logical step was the right choice to make in 2013.

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