Preview: 'Splinter Cell: Blacklist' - Sam Fisher Will Be Killing In Motion

"Splinter Cell: Conviction" was decisive for fans of the globetrotting techno-thrillers based on the works of Tom Clancy. For the series faithful, the gunplay heavy 2010 entry, in simplifying the stealth and emphasizing quick kills using the then-new Mark and Execute mechanic was a betrayal to the methodical stealth gameplay of previous "Splinter Cell" titles. On the other hand, to some, it was a more accessible game, still allowing players to skulk around the shadows as Sam Fisher, but with less time spent waiting for NPCs to complete lengthy routes along their AI-controlled paths.

When Ubisoft gave an early look at "Splinter Cell: Blacklist" during last year's E3, the big question was which "Splinter Cell" would it be? The deliberate, low and slow stealth game of the "Double Agent" era, or the more action-oriented "Conviction?" Last week, the publisher brought out the gaming press for some hands-on time with two single player maps from "Blacklist," and the truth is, it can be both of those games--it's really all down to how you choose to play it.

A multinational terrorist group calling itself The Engineers has begun targeting Western assets, working its way down a list of what they deem specifically American vices, destroying those things which they believe our country holds near and dear. To stop them, the President has asked Sam Fisher to lead his own team, Fourth Echelon, against these shadowy enemies. It's the typical unsubtle, jingoistic stuff you'd expect from something bearing the Tom Clancy name, but based on what we saw and played at the event, it's just enough to provide a context for Fisher's brand of silent but violent badassery. Plus, his new leadership role allows Ubisoft Toronto to give Sam a world and characters to explore between missions ("Mass Effect" and the Normandy seem to have been direct points of inspiration) while pitting the player against technologically advanced foes in some of the same kinds of combat/stealth puzzles of previous entries in the series.

"We knew we wanted to bring back the iconic Sam," featuring the classic stealth suit, "Blacklist" Creative Director Maxime Beland tells us at the top of the presentation. However, he'll be fully customizable, with suits catered towards different play styles. Besides allowing players to kit out their Sam in customized gear across multiple loadouts, "Blacklist" has very much taken the unique play styles among "Splinter Cell" fans into account, with the studio typing fans of the series into three categories: the old-school favoring "Ghost" player prefers non-lethal takedowns, and attempt to complete the level fully undetected; the more action-oriented "Assault" player prefers to use weapons and gadgets to complete missions--this is the player who loved Mark and Execute, and would rather breach a door than sneak in through a window; the "Panther" is stealth killer stealth killer, choosing to end his opponents silently. "Blacklist" uses a scoring system which tracks how players approach the levels, based on one of these three classifications, with those points used as currency during the end of level breakdown where the player can dump points into weapons and gear upgrades, along with some modifications to Sam's abilities.

Part of this relies on the Paladin, Fourth Echelon's flying fortress which serves as their base of operations and where "Splinter Cell" starts to look a little like an RPG. Aboard the taladin, Fisher can get mission updates from his three-member team who also dole out side missions for Sam in the field. According to Beland, the personal stakes of "Blacklist" involve Sam learning how to be a leader (Maxim joked that maybe there are some parallels given that this is the effort of a new studio). From a functional standpoint, these characters will be how Sam gets modded out for the field. For instance, after a brief report from former Third Echelon programmer Anna Grímsdóttir (Grim), Sam can chose to seek out a high-value target the next time he's out in the field for additional points; plus, she's who Sam will go to when he wants to update the Paladin (i.e. dumping points into the infirmary means Sam will heal faster out in the field).

The player can explore the Palandin at their leisure, the outfitted cargo plane potentially loaded with points of interest in between missions. It's the SMI that will attract player's attention, though, the holographic map in the center of main deck where Fisher can choose his next single player mission while also getting live updates on where friends are in multiplayer missions. Unfortunately, we couldn't see any of the multiplayer interaction during this preview, but it could be a visually interesting way of presenting mission info.

We saw the first mission, a little bit past the very opening of the game with Sam tasked with freeing a CIA informant in a daylight mission in a hands-off demo of a PC build. The player can set the difficulty before missions; "Perfectionist" mode offers mods like disabled Mark and Execute, and goggles can't see through walls. The menu loads into the customization screen where you can use early funds to trick out Sam's gear and select from one of three loadouts (it looks like you'll have to unlock additional slots). The demo jumps ahead to a little after the start, and Sam is after Kobin in Benghazi, the operative who faked his daughter's death to get leverage on Fischer. “Blacklist” continues to use the floating text for mission objectives with a circular alert meter for enemy awareness. Sam scales a series of connected roofs to avoid militia gunfire. By default, player starts with non-lethal takedowns, however, they can bring up the weapon wheel to choose a weapon and go lethal.

Between the two missions, we had a chance to see basic grunts on the lookout for Fisher in broad daylight, necessitating some judicious use of ledges to avoid detection, as well as echolocation using Sam's goggles. It's in the London map, where Fisher seeks additional information about the terrorists who backed Kobin, that things get a little trickier, with armored enemies and NPCs using jammers that disrupt Sam's radar. It's here that "Blacklist" might open up the experience to more of a challenge than simply watching out for enemy movement patterns, although in the limited scope of these two missions, it's hard to say. Sam has some interesting new gear (including a remote-controlled drone) that might even up the odds, even as the enemy deploys its own ground-based drones. Plus, the arsenal has been fleshed out in interesting ways including a crossbow that shoots electric bolts to stun enemies (by the way, the non-lethal takedowns are great and all, but keep in mind, another enemy on patrol can revive a downed comrade).

If this preview is less than effusive, it's only because my time with "Blacklist" was limited to sections of its two maps, both of which were fairly constrained in terms of how many means of approach Sam was able to take in each scenario. I was assured by Art Director Scott Lee that what we were seeing represented only half of the Benghazi map and a third of the massive London map (and both of those had to be pared down at some point). The level of exploration and side quests has opened up the experience a bit more, but it remains to be seen how well "Blacklist" will handle the trickier, larger stealth puzzles in the style of the previous games.

"Splinter Cell: Blacklist" will be available on the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on August 20.

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