Splinter Cell Blacklist’s director explains how Sam’s updating his game: “Stealth is not a nice thing. We took lessons from Hitman, Dishonored & the Batman Arkham games”

Splinter Cell Blacklist screens

The funny thing about new Splinter Cell is just how much it looks like old Splinter Cell. Faster, yes, but compared to Conviction and Double Agent this is classic Sam Fisher – the gimp suit, the goggles, the killing every single bad guy in a level because you basically can. While game director Patrick Redding tells me, “We see this as a consolidation of all the best ideas from the series”, it really does look a lot like that means ‘we went back to the stuff everyone liked most’.

Splinter Cell Blacklist PS3 preview

That said this is an evolved and updated version of what you remember from the old games. The predatory hunting of nameless guards works in much the same way, although now there’s a lot more daylight and it’s been injected with a significant speed boost. You can creep, watch and wait or you can use Killing In Motion to take out several targets in one flowing cinematic movement. It links together the Cover to Cover system (automatic dashes from pillar to post) with the Mark & Execute system (target multiple opponents for cutscene death) so that you can scope the area, choose your targets and then let rip.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist ps3 screensTrue, you are kind of watching the game play itself at these points but the visual payoff is a gratifying reward for the work it takes to get there. It makes Splinter Cell’s old template feel far more current, with a hugely increased flow and speed run/challenge-style bursts of pace. Satisfying sequences of climbing, scoping, running and executing can unfurl effortlessly. Or as Redding puts it, “Once in a while the stars align and you get that perfect moment where you can just go ‘bang bang bang’, chain a bunch of moves together and dive out a window and disappear”. It’s all part of updating Splinter Cell to ensure an eleven year old series with six installments under its belt doesn’t feel old. “In terms of stealth action we’ve always wrestled with how do we stay fresh,” says Redding. “How do we evolve it and keep it something that mainstream players are interested in”.

Interestingly part of that evolution involves the unusual admittance that, “Stealth is not a nice thing”. Redding explains: “The majority of people know there’s a manageable period of time in which they’re either going to have to be patient or undetected or careful. It’s how you segment the action. You want to keep that loop, you don’t want that loop to run for half an hour or an hour, you want it to run for 5 or 10 minutes at a time to allow players to move into the next area and engage in some exploration. Games like Hitman, Dishonored and the Batman Arkham games are a good reflection of that approach and so we took those lessons to heart”.

“What players don’t like

is arbitrary or unfair failure”

Part of perfecting that loop is also getting the balance right. “What players don’t like is arbitrary or unfair failure,” Redding points out. “Nobody wants to feel like they’ve blundered. What you want to feel like is that you arrive in a situation and you can see why it’s challenging, where the threats are, and where you can take a calculated risk to get through a certain area”.

Splinter Cell Blacklist screensTo achieve this a game needs an amount of robustness says Redding. “What you’ve got to avoid is situations that are so fragile that the player feels like, one misstep, and some unexpected thing is going to cause them to be detected or killed. There may be a small set of masochistic players who like that, and I count myself among that group, [but] we have to be careful that the majority of players feel they have at least a fighting chance and they understand why they fail when they fail. That’s why we offer four different difficulty levels. Normal and Rookie and Realistic have a healthy spectrum from pretty easy to quite difficult. And on top of that we have this masochistic mode for absolute perfectionists. If you know about ghost playing and you never want to touch anybody [or] leave a fingerprint, this is for you”.

While what I saw focused mainly on stealthy, clean playthroughs the game actually allows a variety of options: areas are large and feel like they present a certain amount of choice in terms of routes. “It’s linear in terms of objective,” clarifies Redding, “You go from A to B to C, but it’s a wide corridor. There are options: there’s climbing and shimmying and stealth shortcuts that you can use and you can take in certain situations”. This isn’t just about creating a few extra left/right, take the ladder, don’t take the ladder options: “We always try to create a feeling that you have a vantage point on the enemy when you arrive, you’re not suddenly nose to nose with the bad guys, but you have at least a perspective where you can scout out and see what’s happening; get a sense of what the AI is up undetected so you can plan your approach”.

Splinter Cell Blacklist screens

Part of creating this fair and open experience is about creating a clear language within Splinter Cell’s environments. “You can see where the safe havens are,” explains Redding. “If you’re going to get from point to point without getting spotted, or, say, this would be great point to get up a defensive position if you want to try and go loud. There’s always that element of planning that we need to try and accommodate”.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist ps3 screensThe planning also applies to Sam. In terms of loadouts and customisation this feels like one of the most expansive Splinter Cells to date. There’s a range of options, gear, weapons and more for both Sam and the Paladin, his mobile airborne base. On the part of Sam these options tie into one of three playstyles: Ghost, Assault and Panther which in order are: ‘stealthy’, ‘shoot all the things’, and ‘best of both’. “I think Ghost and Assault are the two styles which are easiest to start using immediately because you’re either being very strategic and careful or you’re going in guns blazing and treating it like a cover shooter,” says Redding. However, it’s the combination of the two that he sees as the, “peak experience of playing Splinter Cell Blacklist”. Bringing together stealthy and action aspects to create the third option means, “players slowly become more Panther-like: still lethal but more undetected, using a lot of fluidity, a lot of chaining of actions’.

Just watching the menus flick past reveals a wealth of options: night vision, thermal googles that can see footprints, upgrades that let you see through walls, non-lethal crossbows. There are also different suits, including, “a stealth orientated op suit that makes you less visible and quieter” and “one that’s designed to give you more protection through armour and increased carrying capacity”. Then there’s the plane. The example of how that varies Redding provides is upgrading the cockpit which, when fully maxed out, “adds a radar to [the] heads up display that’ll show the position of nearby enemies”.

“We want to provide the player with an overwhelming set of options that will enable them to mold the experience to their own tastes”

It’s a lot of variety and the choices you make will to some extent define your playing experience, or at least, “That’s the hope,” claims Reding. “We want, in essence, to provide the player with an overwhelming set of options that will ultimately enable them to mold the experience according to their own tastes. There is a very specific intent to be able to let the player modify that experience quite a bit”. However the team draw the line at, “fundamentally altering gameplay so much that it stops being Splinter Cell”. It’s a fine balance according to Redding. “This is the world’s smallest violin playing right now: as a developer you feel like ‘oh, if we change too much then people are going to feel we’ve strayed too far away from the core of the series, but if we don’t change anything it’s going feel repetitive”. The result? “We’re oscillating back and forth between these two extremes”.