Preview: Spies vs. Mercs In ‘Splinter Cell: Blacklist,’ Or Those Pesky Ninjas

And suddenly, there was a class-based shooter in my “Splinter Cell” game.

The fundamental ideas behind the Spies vs. Mercs in “Splinter Cell: Blacklist” are strong: asymmetrical tactical missions where the stealth side is outgunned but compensates with gadgets and the ability to sneak while the combat-focused side is less agile but makes up for it with devastating attacks. In each of the scenarios presented to us by Ubisoft, the run and gun (well, walk slowly and gun) Mercs must prevent the sneaky Spies from arming and detonating a series of bombs on each map, but that asymmetry is kind of disruptive and at times, frustrating, hampered by stiff controls and with the first-person perspective of the mercs, an added challenge to gaining situational awareness.

That’s right, the heavy weapon carrying Mercs play out in the first person, lumbering through the map with the spies in their crosshairs in what feels like the world’s clunkiest shooter. When you see the armored-up Merc models, you get why they move so slowly, but it feels a degree of magnitude slower than something like, say “Killzone” where the characters are deliberately heavy.

It’s really a matter of figuring out which class might hopefully do the most damage to the spies, each with their own specialized equipment (I’m taking this from the Ubisoft rep since I didn’t have time to get down all of the class notes while at the event): the Disruptor is able to lob a grenade that blinds nearby enemies; the Hunter is able to send out a drone to mark enemies and detonate to damage or kill them; the Peacemaker is the slowest and most heavily-armored of the lot with an adrenaline boost that improves his stats.

As for the spies, they likewise come in three flavors: the Intel Scout can send out a pulse to locate and track enemies; the Predator is able to go invisible for a short time; the Saboteur can destroy gadgets while also countering enemy abilities.

Each class puts their skills to use setting the bombs located throughout the level (we played both the Silo and Cartel maps), and a team of four can attempt to capture and hold any one bomb site at a time–the bomb is captured and counts down to detonation until the player who set the bomb is killed. So it doesn’t feel like too much of a setback, for a limited time, the spies can seize the bomb site with the remaining time on the clock (as long as they’re not killed by a merc first).

Now, I’ll confess that during my playtest, I lost on both the Merc and Spy sides, but this mode feels disproportionately weighted towards the latter, with their one-hit insta-kill melee attack and ability to traverse the environment and scale surfaces with ease (Mercs don’t climb). While there were a few bugs with the executions which Ubisoft reps say will be ironed out at release, it was still much too easy to get next to an unsuspecting Merc and take them out.

As a Merc, it simply felt too easy to lose track of a wayward Spy, the latter blessed with a full field of view around his or herself while the former is constrained to a first-person field of view. Of course, this increases the tension, but given the substantially slower move speed of the Merc and the ability of the Spy to clamber and hide in the environment, it often felt like I was dying simply because the enemy was much too overpowered.

It really feels like a matter of degrees at this point between Spies vs. Mercs feeling like an unfair challenge and a series of tweaks and ramping up of the Mercs’ movement speed to get a better sense of balance between the factions. As it stands, the central idea of the mode is incredibly strong, but the execution is lacking.

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