Splinter Cell: Blacklist, the latest in the Tom Clancy's franchise, continues the third-person stealth-meets-shooter series in a similar vein to the previous Conviction title. Pocket-lint got a play of Blacklist ahead of its 20 August release date. Does Ubisoft Toronto's first title inject fresh ideas into the stealth genre and is it the game Splinter Cell fans have been waiting for?
We're thrown into Splinter Cell: Blacklist from its very beginning. Fans of the series will immediately spot - or at least hear - that lead character Sam Fisher is now voiced by Eric Johnston, replacing long-time veteran Michael Ironside in the premier role. But as much as this may sound like reinvention, the title doesn't take as bold a leap elsewhere in its play format.
We're treated to cut scenes interspersed with real-time play that not only reintroduces characters of old in a format that established fans of the series or newcomers will easily grasp, but also educates in the tactics of play. All this happens even before the title scene rolls, in that movie-esque way.
Blacklist's concept is centred around a seemingly faceless terrorist network - known as "Blacklist" - who are committed to attacking American soil each week unless its demands are met: that all US troops are extracted from their foreign positions. But this is the US of A - land of the free - and it doesn't negotiate with terrorists. Instead it sends in special ops teams to clean up, which is where Sam Fisher, head of top-secret Fourth Echelon, comes in.
From base, once the intro has completed, you're free to wander around to upgrade gear - but you'll need in-game rewards to do so - or plot your missions on the map. This hub accesses single player, co-op and multi-player missions from the one location, rather than accessing each separately via a traditional menu.
True stealth games are on the backfoot of late. While titles such as last year's Hitman: Absolution gave us plenty of thrills via the undercover assassin concept, Splinter Cell: Blacklist opens up a more player-centric style. If you want to lurk in the shadows and pick off targets in silence, you can; or pick up that AK-47 and raise hell - the choice is yours, but it will impact your rewards and chances.
From our point of view the three player types - named as Ghost, Panther and Assault by Ubisoft at the preview - are there to widen the title's appeal, or at least try to. The more stealth-centric, lock-picking Splinter Cell titles of old are now dust. Conviction laid down the groundwork and Blacklist has stepped into that style, with more than one way to tackle (or escape) a situation. It feels like a bustle of various titles - there's a sense of Hitman, Assassin's Creed, Metal Gear Solid, even Gears of War in its play.
The play mechanics centre around locating cover, and jumping from one unseen point to another by the click of a button for each move. Get into the right position and another button press can deliver a stealth kill - although there's never a clear indication of when close is close enough, so it's easy to get spotted.
Shooting is the other approach. From behind cover any gun is generally fruitless - you'll need to break out of the cover position to get footing and start shooting with accuracy, plus shooting is most likely to reveal your location anyway. That's not always a problem as levels can be navigated in a gung-ho style with bullets blazing, but ammo isn't as plentiful as a first person shooter so it does require some thought.
What you'll really want to get good at is combining the two, with the right weapons, while plotting routes through enemy lines that. Described as "Killing In Motion", it's possible to mark multiple enemies with execute tags and - again with one press of a button - set of a slow-mo string of kills that can then be followed up with jumping to cover, close-up kills and generally being a bad-ass stealth assassin type. It takes a fair bit of practice to get into the flow, but the combination of button presses becomes familiar soon enough.
But what we found coolest was the stealth approach: flick a lightswitch, don your night-vision goggles and leg it through a blackened room while taking out a trio of enemies before anyone else hears, then dive off the rear balcony and go for a climb unseen. That's the stuff.
The early demo we played suffered a number of crashes, which limited our overall play time. Once a night level was complete we had the most fun in the outside world where stealth became a different concept.
Fun though all this is, it doesn't feel particularly new. Not that we're surprised. It's got that "America, yeah!" feel down, and the untold abilities of Fisher's jumping and climbing pushes the game outside realistic bounds, but it's more the fact that in among the massive gaming year that is 2013, Blacklist has not really brought much freshness to the franchise. But fans prepared to dig in deep and get the most from the stealth approach ought to find plenty of enjoyment.
Due out on 20 August, Splinter Cell: Blacklist will be available for PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U and PC.