Having been invited to the launch of Splinter Cell: Blacklist, I was excited and hopeful but a little skeptical too. Was this new game going to be true to the stealthy nature of the previous Splinter Cell games like Chaos Theory? Was it going to move more in the direction of Conviction? I guess time would tell.
Microsoft HQ was littered with the new Splinter Cell marketing images. Large boards and posters were everywhere, all featuring the young new motion captured Sam Fisher played by Eric Johnson who replaced Michael Ironside from the previous games. The reason was that Ubisoft wanted a single actor instead of three to play the 4th Echelon's top stealthy sneaker. Trivia aside, I was keen to see something new about the latest addition to the Splinter Cell franchise.
The Xbox 360 development kits were all set up with pre-release code of Blacklist, and each showed the splash screen of the forthcoming game. Apparently nobody was allowed to touch the game until the presentation at 19:00 though. So I waited, eventually someone was brave enough to start the copy of Blacklist on one of the consoles. I was impressed initially, noting the constant 60 frames per second that the game ran on, as well as the sharper and smoother character movements and textures in comparison to Conviction. Another pleasant change I noticed was the larger range of facial expressions that Sam Fisher had in comparison to the previous games. Motion capture is definitely the future of 3D character animation in gaming.
With everyone having arrived the presentation started on the dot at 19:00. Devon Stanton, Marketing director of Megarom Games stood in the center of two large projector screens showing the Blacklist logo. Greetings aside were were shown the box art of the original Splinter Cell games and were given a rough history of the series. After a few minutes Devon moved onto Blacklist, the real reason we were here (apart from free food and drinks for some of us, of course!). He started with a live demo of the Xbox 360 version of the game. Sam Fisher was getting ready to deploy in a mountainous area being heavily patrolled by a number of armed soldiers. Playing Sam Fisher's backup, Briggs, Devon proceeded to use a suppressed sniper rifle to clear the field so that the real mission could start. After the enemies were downed, Fisher took to the ground entering a small stream leading into a green picturesque clearing preceding a small village where a small army was taking up residence.
Different play styles
The objective in the demo was to sneak around undetected. Sticking to cover and moving smoothly out of sight Devon decided to show us, the audience, some different play styles. First we were shown The Ghost, the pure stealth play style. Pressing X on the Xbox 360 controller, Sam Fisher snuck up to an unsuspecting soldier after a scripted conversation ended. Fisher skilfully knocked his opponent out and pulled his body into cover after his colleague walked away. Devon then showed us the next style of play, The Panther, which was a combination of stealth and shooting. After following the second guard's patrol route, the guard was preoccupied with checking some boxes.
Taking advantage of the distracted soldier Devon aimed a silenced pistol at his head and executed him by pressing the Y button contextually. Then we were shown the Mark and Execute function newly implemented by Ubisoft. By pressing the right bumper button and marking off three opponents Devon targeted three soldiers that could be killed in quick succession. It seemed impressive enough, with no cutscenes or loss of control required to quickly take down the three soldiers but the autopilot nature of the feature felt like making the game too easy. The last play style, Assault, was not shown to us in the live playthrough. Instead we got to see some gadgets in action as well as the equipment wheel.
We got to see the tri-rotor drone that could be used to scout out and mark targets as well as incapacitate targets as well as the upgraded snake spy camera in action. The equipment wheel allows players to choose weapons and gadgets, and whether to use lethal or non-lethal means by default. So gamers looking to play all three featured play styles will be happy to know that their preference will be catered for. At the end of the demo Sam Fisher was given a choice to take or spare the life of an ex-MI6 agent, we only got to see the execution of the man but it will be interesting to see the impact of these choices when the game is released. Movement itself was smooth and there were no crashes or performance issues to be seen. That was a relief in the face of Blacklist's iminent release. There is also an economy system where upgrades to Sam Fisher's suit, weapons and mobile fortress can be purchased with credits earned through achievements. There was a basic conversion system shown off where Sam Fisher can converse with his team members. There was not much depth in these interactions, and the feature almost seemed tacked on.
After the playthrough we got to see some new features of the upcoming game. The Spies vs. Mercenaries mode will be returning to the franchise with some interesting changes like spies and mercs being mixed in different teams as well as being pitted against each other. Devon also showed some of the new character classes in multiplayer. The tech expert for example is proficient in weapons as well as computers, supporting the spies in their hacking efforts for example. We also got to see the trailers currently released to the public.
Multiplayer with ShadowNet
We got a glimpse at ShadowNet as well, Blacklist's new multiplayer system integrating single player and multiplayer in much the same fashion as Mass Effect 3's system does. Experience points are earned and spent on both multiplayer and single player characters and both weekly and monthly challenges are shown on a global map where missions can be selected and played. Players' stats are recorded and shown against profiles on the internet as well as in-game.
After the presentation everyone got a chance to play the pre-release version of Blacklist. In the short time I got I realised it felt more like a gameplay update than a complete overhaul. Graphically everything was improved with Sam Fisher's smooth animations (thanks to motion capture of course), sharp lighting effects and overall better presentation. I was unable to hear how the sounds were improved due to the noise of people around me, but according to the live demo fidelity seemed to be made a priority in the visual as well as aural department. The cover system was improved with a "point-and-shoot" system that allowed Sam Fisher to move quickly between cover without alerting enemies. The control scheme from Conviction is still here, just things feel more responsive and refined over the previous game. I particularly liked how easily Fisher could move out of cover and perform non-lethal takedowns without cutscenes or pauses in gameplay. There was a definitely improvement in the overall flow of the game.
After all was said and done what I saw of Splinter Cell: Blacklist didn't really offer anything special over previous iterations in the series. It just seemed to improve on the series as a whole while catering for the assault and stealth crowd in equal ways. In the end I felt underwhelmed, expecting more than just a new Splinter Cell game with online integration and a levelling system. Don't get me wrong, it looks like a good game, just not sublime enough to be wowed by.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist pre-order specials from Kalahari.com
- D1 Edition - Jack Of All Trades, Pre-Order Incentive, only 350 units
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