I thought I had Splinter Cell: Blacklist pegged. Watching last year's E3 demo, I saw a new-look Sam Fisher who appeared far more agile and bloodthirsty than ever before. Dashing up buildings, planting knives in people's throats without hesitation--it was as though Ubisoft had dropped Sam Fisher into an Assassin's Creed game and forgot to change the title.
OK, so maybe I was wrong.
Having spent a couple of hours playing the game at a Ubisoft event last week, it's clear that last year's E3 demo might not have painted the most accurate picture of what this Splinter Cell reboot is all about. Blacklist is a much broader game, one that draws influences from Assassin's Creed and doesn't stop there. At various points during the demo, I was reminded of Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid, and--bear with me here--XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
The story is that Sam Fisher has become the leader of Fourth Echelon, a newly formed government organization with a focus on clandestine operations. It's a nice little promotion, but one that comes with some serious responsibility.
In taking the reins of Fourth Echelon, Sam has assembled his own small intelligence team. It's a unit that operates not in an office park in Langley, Virginia, but in a flying spy plane. Said spy plane is called the Paladin, and it essentially functions as the mission hub. On a basic level, it's where you peruse intel reports before launching the next ground operation. You can see which missions are available, what they entail, and what sort of threat to your existence they pose. That sort of thing.
But there's more to the Paladin than simply launching the next mission. For one, you can walk around the plane and start up conversations with your team. There's Grim, the redhead who shares a complicated history with Sam; Briggs, the guy who tags along with Sam on missions to act as ground support; and Charlie, the tech whiz who doubles as comic relief. What's impressive about the game's presentation is that you really get the sense that this is a team, complete with all the tension and occasional attempts at lightening the mood that you'd expect from such a high-stakes operation.
Taking the time to talk with your crew presents a few different options for Sam. Each member of your team will occasionally suggest a side mission that you're free to accept or turn down at your leisure. Beyond that, you can also talk to your teammates to upgrade your operation with all the cash you've earned from your latest mission.
Talking to Grim allows you to upgrade various parts of your plane, from radar technology that will improve the information displayed on your HUD during missions, to cushy holding cells that will induce your captives to inform you of black-market weapons dealers. Then there's Charlie, who will upgrade the gear you bring on your mission, such as new weapons and gadgets, as well as various outfits tailor-made for stealthy or aggressive approaches.
That whole economy of upgrades and enhancements is heavily influenced by your play style. The game tracks your style according to three classifications: ghost, panther, and assault. Ghost is the quiet, nonlethal approach that favors knocking people unconscious if a fight must occur; panther is similarly silent, but in a lethal, silenced-handgun kind of way; and the assault approach has you going in with guns blazing, setting off every alarm in the mission. Simply completing a mission in a sloppy, haphazard way will get you some cash (see: assault), but sticking to the ghost or panther play style will net you far more extra rewards and cash.
Curious to see how far I could distance myself from last year's blood-soaked E3 demo, I spent my time taking the ghost approach. It's a far more challenging route to take than the other two, but Sam has plenty of equipment to tilt the odds in his favor, from sleeping-gas grenades to a silent crossbow equipped with several different types of bolts. The latter was especially fun to use, whether I was firing an electrically charged bolt that zapped enemies to sleep or luring enemies out of my path by firing a noise-making bolt into some distant corner.
In my attempts to no-kill my way through the demo, I was a little disappointed to see that there was at least one story-driven sequence that forced me to kill people when a rescue operation went sideways. Though, to be fair, in the two missions I played (one in daytime Benghazi and the other in dark, rainy London), those moments of forced lethality made up a very tiny portion of the demo. Overall, it was reassuring to see that the stealth system in Blacklist remains open to different play styles--and being rewarded in cash to upgrade my flying spy bird for focusing on one of the more challenging approaches is a nice touch.
Perhaps I was a bit quick to write off Splinter Cell: Blacklist as another example of Ubisoft blurring the lines between its major franchises. Sure, there's something initially jarring about just how easily Sam Fisher can dash up walls and scurry along ledges. But this isn't simply Splinter Cell meets Assassin's Creed. It's a bigger, far more interesting game than that.'