Feature Article

Why Does Ubisoft Continue To Avoid Splinter Cell?

Sam Fisher is stealthy, but this is ridiculous.

Prior to the success of Assassin's Creed and Just Dance, the collective "Tom Clancy's" games were arguably Ubisoft's biggest hits. Rainbow Six revolutionized close-quarters tactical squad shooters with its relentless difficulty and necessitated planning. Ghost Recon took the action into larger areas for a blend of intense action and precision. But it was Splinter Cell that cemented Ubisoft's place as the master of the techno-military thriller game.

The series took the stealth-action concepts pioneered by Metal Gear Solid and improved them to near-perfect levels, even working the tagline "Stealth Action Redefined" into the first game's full title. Splinter Cell evolved and morphed in the years that followed, adding more action elements, a greater emphasis on dark, personal storytelling, and creative new multiplayer modes. For a long time, it seemed like it could do no wrong, and even after needing to switch actors for Sam Fisher when developing Splinter Cell Blacklist--Michael Ironside was suffering from cancer at the time--new studio Ubisoft Toronto delivered a slick mix of traditional stealth and deadly action.

And then Splinter Cell disappeared, only not in a fun way like when Sam Fisher blends into the darkness and becomes the night itself.

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It has been nearly eight years since Splinter Cell Blacklist was released, and Ubisoft has shown almost no interest in continuing the series with another mainline entry. Instead, we have an upcoming animated series for Netflix, Sam's inclusion in other series like Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six, and a VR-exclusive game in partnership with Oculus. Don't get me wrong: Those DLC appearances were fun, I'm excited about the Netflix show, and the idea of being behind Sam's goggles in VR sounds incredible. But they can't replace the new, full AAA game that players want.

Is Ubisoft afraid of Splinter Cell? According to Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot, that actually might be the case. Back in 2019, he said the company's development teams were anxious to work on Splinter Cell because of how passionate--and sometimes angry and demanding--the fans can be. How can you create a game that seems new when players are adamant about what they don't want to change?

It's a tough nut to crack, but Ubisoft has made big changes to Splinter Cell in the past while still retaining the series’ essence. Double Agent, while not the best-received game in the series, introduced a sliding trust system that forced Sam to balance supporting the NSA and a homegrown terrorist group called John Brown's Army. Conviction emphasized Sam's deadliness while remaining undetected, and Blacklist used a play-your-way philosophy that allowed for stealth purists and action fans to both enjoy the game. Yes, not every experiment worked, but Splinter Cell has been one of Ubisoft's most consistently well-executed franchises.

Despite the franchise's consistent quality and the latest game’s good reviews, Splinter Cell Blacklist didn't meet Ubisoft's sales expectations, and that likely gave the company pause when considering its next move. The game never got a re-release on the Xbox One or PS4, and it wasn't until 2018 that it was even backward compatible on Xbox One.

Since then, we've seen two new Ghost Recon games. Rainbow Six Siege released and became an esports staple. Both The Division and The Division 2 joined the live-game scene. And nearly every summer, fans hoping for a new Splinter Cell game announcement are met with disappointment along with a vague statement from Guillemot on how Ubisoft has not forgotten the franchise.

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Having a big-name game fail to meet your sales expectations is certainly cause for concern, but there were several factors at play when Blacklist launched. It was released just a few months before new systems were due to hit shelves, and it was running on an engine that was woefully dated. It also launched on the same day as a few other AAA games, including Saints Row 4 and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, which could have at least muddied the waters.

The Michael Ironside situation had given the game some bad press before it was even out. The actor hadn’t mentioned his illness during this time--and didn’t owe anyone an explanation--and Ubisoft followed suit, likely to protect his privacy. To fans, it looked like Ubisoft had unceremoniously dropped one of the people who was key to defining Sam as a character.

That wouldn't be a problem with a new game, as Ironside’s cancer is in remission and he has provided Sam's voice in multiple special-event missions in the Ghost Recon series since then. He even asserted that he is Sam Fisher in an interview, and you can't show your passion for a role much more than that.

The whole "don't change it" worry that Guillemot expressed a few years ago seems especially valid now, as we've seen Ubisoft make some decisions for other Clancy franchises that just don't make much sense. Ghost Recon Wildlands' huge open world and chaotic approach to cooperative action made it a huge, if unpolished, hit, but when Ghost Recon Breakpoint released, it seemed like the company had learned all the wrong lessons. It felt even buggier, and the gear level system felt out of place, making it far too similar to The Division. Ultimately, it took months of post-launch updates to add (and remove) features before Breakpoint would feel like Ghost Recon again.

Breakpoint woefully undersold, and oddly, this could actually be a good thing for a potential new Splinter Cell game. Ubisoft has seen how trying to shoehorn existing franchises into its current "bigger and with more RPG elements" overarching design philosophy simply doesn't work most of the time. It certainly wouldn't work with Splinter Cell.

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This isn't a zero-sum game: Splinter Cell can evolve while still feeling like Splinter Cell. Larger individual maps with more ways to approach them, unexplored settings, and a unique story angle can all do this while still appealing to longtime players. As long as it retains the core pillars of Splinter Cell--staying hidden in extremely dangerous situations and using a whole bunch of cool gadgets--it will be just fine. The Clancy franchise name is arguably stronger now than it ever has been, particularly because of Rainbow Six's success, and this can work in Splinter Cell's favor. Ubisoft doesn’t need to deliver the perfect game that appeals to everyone, as such a thing isn’t possible. It just needs to bring Splinter Cell back. Splinter Cell fans clearly want a new game, and after nearly eight years, the time is right. A lack of stealth espionage games from competitors emphasizes how much Ubisoft can take advantage of the situation and launch the series back to superstardom.

Perhaps Ubisoft is using projects like Splinter Cell VR and the Netflix series to gauge interest in a future game, and if that's the case, I believe Ubisoft will find that there is. Guillemot wouldn't get asked about it year after year if there weren't any interest. But the company must understand that this is the stealth espionage franchise now. Metal Gear Solid shows little sign of returning, and it's up to Splinter Cell to carry the torch.

"Then it's only me," Sam said in Ghost Recon Wildlands' DLC after it was implied that Solid Snake had retired.

Yes, Sam. It is only you. And you're going to do just fine if your creators remember why you became so popular in the first place.


gabegurwin

Gabe Gurwin

Gabe Gurwin is the Associate SEO Editor for GameSpot and has been writing about games professionally for over a decade. He has interviewed video game legends like Will Wright and Tony Hawk and would love to talk to you about Paddington, Nier, Splinter Cell, or all three.

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist

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