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Splinter Cell returns to form in Blacklist

by William Schwartz

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Back in 2010 we wrote an article giving a few reasons that Splinter Cell: Conviction might disappoint. As huge fans of the Splinter Cell franchise, it wasn’t the major additions that were the big problems for the game. It was what Ubisoft took away from the game in their Spies vs. Mercs game mode that had us worried about the release. It was pretty obvious that removing the popular game mode could be a mistake that had players putting down their copies of the game once the single player fun was done.  While Conviction did offer numerous cooperative ways to play the game, and a competitive multiplayer mode, Spies vs. Mercs was sorely missed by long-time fans of the franchise.

Ubisoft has never had a problem in delivering an exceptional single player and cooperative experience with the Splinter Cell franchise.   The Tom Clancy story translates exceptionally well into a stealth video game, even with the changes seen over the years that made the game more action oriented with things like Mark and Execute. Though in this day and age, the single player isn’t exactly what keeps people coming back for more. In a move that could revitalize a franchise on the back of a generation,  Splinter Cell: Blacklist appears to be a return to form for the long-running series. We got a chance to go hands on with the revitalized multiplayer modes at E3 2013, and couldn’t have walked away more excited for the August release.

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Splinter Cell: Blacklist Co-op

Our hands-on demo took place in two parts. The first part took us back into a familiar cooperative experience, which was explained as one of the Grim Missions. Here we saw something very familiar to what we’ve seen in previous Splinter Cell games. Two players were tasked with infiltrating and extracting data, with the major objective being to get in and out without being seen. It felt similar to previous cooperative Splinter Cell experiences, it offered tons different ways for a team to attack any given objective, with communication and teamwork being the quickest route to success. Working side by side with a member of the Ubisoft development team, we didn’t exactly waltz through this demo.

We were tasked with completing three objectives, against a dynamic mix of enemies littered throughout the sandbox style map.  Like Splinter Cell games before it, we weren’t funneled down any one particular path, we could complete objectives in many different ways, utilizing Sam Fisher’s arsenal of weapons and gadgets to clear paths to our objectives.  But since this mission was one that required us to remain unseen, our objectives required a lot of precision tactics to remain undetected.  This included timing our attacks against enemies in unison, utilizing a double mark and execute feature, and luring enemies into vulnerable positions where one player would act to bait in an enemy while the other took them out.

While it wasn’t entirely different than cooperative Splinter Cell modes before it, there were some noticeable differences in Blacklist.  The new heavy enemy was a troubling foe, and required teamwork to take down because of its durability.  Shooting the heavy with a single shot would merely knock off its armor, while a timed two-shot tactic between two players could take him out instantaneously.  This enemy type is also vulnerable from the rear, so a player could sneak up on them and silently dispatch them from behind.    The heavy added a layer of difficulty to this cooperative experience, as if remaining unseen wasn’t difficult enough.

The big takeaway from the slice of Splinter Cell: Blacklist co-op that we played was that we’ll once again have a ton of fun teaming up with a friend to progress through these missions.   The added randomized AI movements could also provide a significant amount of replayability for the mode, given that it never seemed to play exactly the same way.

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Splinter Cell Blacklist Spies Vs. Mercs 

If I had to guess, Splinter Cell: Double Agent was one of my most played games this generation.  While well done in its own right, Splinter Cell: Double Agent’s single player wasn’t exactly the mode that kept me coming back for more.   It was Spies vs Mercs, one of the most dynamic multiplayer experiences out there for hardened fans of the predator vs. prey stealth experience.  For Splinter Cell fans, it was a sigh of relief to hear the announcement for the return of Spies vs. Mercs at E3 2012.   The next hurdle… would Ubisoft get it right?

We got a chance to see if they did at E3 2013, and while there are many ways that the game mode has changed since its last iteration, old school Splinter Cell fans will be hard pressed not to greet the return of Spies vs. Mercs with open arms.

What has always made the mode work is the simple mechanic of pitting a team of agile spies controlled from the third person perspective, against a team of powerful mercenaries armed to the teeth being controlled from the first person.  The objectives and ways to play have changed somewhat over the years, but for the most part, the spies are trying to infiltrate and steal data, while the mercs are looking to defend it.

In Splinter Cell: Blacklist, there will be numerous ways to play SvM.  What we played was a 2v2 iteration of the game, that had all the tension filled excitement found back in the days of Chaos Theory and Pandora Tomorrow.  While we can’t speak on the implementation of 4v4 and the many customization options that have been hinted, we did get a good look at how Spies vs. Mercs will be played in Blacklist.

The core mechanics are all still there.  Spies start out with numerous ways to tackle the three objectives.  Players can use straight forward approaches, or navigate vents and walkways to make their unannounced approach on an objective.  Sticking to shadows and remaining low profile for the weaker spy class is of paramount importance.  Though once an attack starts on an objective is where things start to deviate from the traditional.  Instead of hacking a terminal like in previous games and returning the data to your base, the objective is now to stay in an area until the download is complete.  Confined to a very specific area, spies will need to get crafty when selecting hiding spots when trying to stay alive, because there’s no doubt that the cavalry will arrive quickly once the download has started.

Spies have options here, more so than in previous iterations of the mode.  They’re more powerful, they can take a mercenary head on if given the opportunity with a well timed melee attack.  They can stun them with their default cross bow, or just stick to the shadows and try to stay out of sight.  It’s also worth noting, the new shadow mechanic in Spies vs. Mercs allows the spy to become almost undetectable, unless being looked directly at with a flashlight.   Spies vs. Mercs is tense, and has all the same thrills that it always has.   It’s a dynamic multiplayer mode, that’ll probably get better the more you play it, and the more familiar you become with the maps, weapons, and strategies for those who choose to play with friends on the regular.

A single session will now force you to play as both the Spy and the Merc.  At halftime, you’ll switch over to the other side, having your chance to now defend what you were once attacking.    While playing as the spy is all about  freedom and agile movement and staying hidden, the mercenary class is all about brute force.  You are armed with a machine gun, a radar, grenades, mines and a melee attack which can take the spy down with very little damage dealt.  Though playing in the first person gives you less visibility than that of the spy.  Equally tense, there’s just no telling when a spy is hidden and lurking to snap your neck in a silent attack.

The flip side of the coin is when spies begin hacking a terminal, the mercenaries’ job is to come in and clean house.  To stop a hacking attempt, you’ll need to find the spies, kill them, and hold your ground until the timer is reset.  A round is won when either all the terminals have been hacked, or the timer runs out.  So that again seems to be another new rule being implemented in the mode.

The core takeaway from our time with Spies vs. Mercs is that despite the changes that have been made, it’s very much the same type of experience that it has always been.  It is a little bit different than previous iterations of the mode in some of the game rules, but the tension and excitement that made it so addictive in the past, is still very much alive.  Where Splinter Cell: Conviction offered a different type of online experience, the inclusion of Spies vs. Mercs brings the franchise back to the forefront of the multiplayer conversation.  There’s just nothing else out there in the multiplayer world that is doing what Spies vs. Mercs is.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is coming to Xbox 360, PC, Wii U, and PlayStation 3 on August 20.

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