The lights are on
Ever since an impressive debut last E3, details on Splinter Cell Blacklist have been strictly classified. A new year means new intel, as we witnessed live gameplay of two new levels and learned more about the universal upgrade system.
For the uninitiated, Sam is pulled back into service personally by U.S. President Patricia Caldwell. She’s shuttered Third Echelon due to the corruption that came to light in the events of Splinter Cell: Conviction and devoted funding to a new off-the-books team with Sam at the helm (named Fourth Echelon, naturally). His close circle includes series mainstay Anna “Grim” Grimsdottir, hacker Charlie Cole, and CIA operative Isaac Briggs. Rather than holing up in a building, the team crisscrosses the globe in a mobile base/plane named the Paladin. The reason for all this secrecy and spending? An international terrorist alliance named the Engineers has announced a series of attacks on the United States dubbed the Blacklist. Unless the U.S. withdraws military forces out of a long list of countries, the Engineers will continue to execute terrorist strikes throughout the world.
Every time players fire up the game, they go directly to the Paladin, where Sam can walk around, chat with his team, and interact with the Strategic Mission Interface (SMI) supercomputer. People on the aircraft can offer insight, upgrades, and new missions. The SMI is an interactive screen on top of a large table that the whole team can crowd around. Sam can look at a map of the world to see all of the single player, co-op, and competitive multiplayer missions in one place. Filters can assist if you’re looking for a specific type of mission, but it seems pretty clear overall.
The first mission we saw takes place after the Blacklist attacks are set in motion. Sam needs to get to a CIA safehouse in Benghazi, Libya to find and extract a contact. The twist? It’s Andriy Kobin, a sleazy black-market dealer whom Sam has plenty of reason to hate from the events of Conviction. He tells Briggs to bring his sniper gear while Grim strongly reminds everyone that this is an extraction, not an assassination.
We skip the first part of the mission where Sam is disguised as a civilian and sneaks to the safehouse. Once there, it’s clear that the terrorist forces beat Fisher to Kobin. When Sam establishes contact with the Paladin to figure out a new plan of attack, the whole room fills with projected data and imagery, a subtle, yet more evolved take on the projected mission objectives of Conviction. They exchange intel and Sam heads toward Kobin’s suspected location.
As he ziplines over and prowls through the dangerous streets crawling with enemy forces, we get to see the scoring system in action. Whenever Sam slides past troops unseen or takes them down non-lethally and hides the bodies, he gets experience points in the Ghost category. These points pay more into the progression system than aggressive run-and-gun Assault maneuvers. Somewhere between complete stealth and crazy commando is Panther. Here you kill people without raising a ruckus with neck snaps or the stylish mark-and-execute mechanic first seen in Conviction. With every action, points pop up at the bottom of the screen with one of these three icons next to it. At the end of a mission, you can see which categories you focused on the most, though they all pour into one big currency pot. If you’re not satisfied with your performance you can always replay missions for a better score and tweak the difficulty.
Sam reaches what looks to be a former police station. Kobin is tied to a chair, -receiving electric shocks from a group of three terrorists for his lack of cooperation. Sam can see it all through the cracked one-way glass -commonly used in interrogation rooms. He marks all three, causing red arrows to appear above their heads, and then executes his plan. Sam smashes the window, grabs a guy and pulls him through, then pops up and shoots the other two before they realize what’s going on. Kobin, facing away from his rescuer, wonders aloud, “So what are you? CIA? Special forces?” His facial expression drops from smarmy to terrified once he sees Sam’s face. Trying to hop away in his chair, Kobin tips over and smashes to the floor. Sam tells him to relax, cuts him free, and gets him to his feet. Players then must escort him unharmed to an escape point and dig into cover to dismantle the enemy forces. Once the coast is clear they zipline out of the building and head back to the Paladin.
Kobin’s immediately shuffled into one of the onboard holding cells. Sam can venture back there and get intel on a new possible mission from him. Kobin says he has information on an attack on a Vienna embassy. Sam can accept the mission immediately or put it off until later. It’ll then show up in the SMI as a co-op mission. Ubisoft says most of the co-op missions can also be tackled solo, so you don’t have to wait for a buddy to come online to experience the story and score some cash for upgrades.
Once you’ve loaded up on money, you can buy new weapons, suits, gadgets, and upgrades for your plane. Stealth-focused players can invest in quieter equipment and sneaky gadgets, while assaulters can buy body armor and bigger guns. Players can save multiple loadouts for use in different mission types. All cash, gear, and loadouts are universal through single player, co-op, and competitive multiplayer. Ubisoft estimates players can unlock 30 to 40 percent of the upgrades upon a first playthrough of the single player and co-op, but it’s also possible for multiplayer fans to get everything through hours of competitive matches and start the campaign fully upgraded.
The next mission takes place several hours later in the campaign in a London chemical lab. Sam creeps past several guards on rainy nighttime rooftops. He comes upon an open elevator shaft and uses a rope to slide down to the bottom. The new area is crawling with enemies, including a tech soldier who can jam your radar and enemy-detecting goggles. He sends out small drones that can zip along the floor and ceiling and explode if they sense a threat. Fortunately, Sam’s always a step ahead in the technology department. He sends out his own remote hovering drone to track down the tech. Using the drone’s first-person camera view, Sam locates the offending enemy and takes him out with one clean shot.
With his full abilities restored, Sam makes his way to an office full of documents. They indicate an important shipment scheduled to leave the lab soon. Further on, he finds several guys in hazmat suits loading cargo. He must get to the shipment completely undetected to plant a tracker (one of the few sections in the game that requires stealth). Sam slips inside the shipping container and opens a high tech case. Over the radio, Grim explains that it’s some kind of nerve gas derivative. Sam places the tracker inside, unconcerned with the dangerous substance. He closes everything back up as an enemy approaches.
And so the promising demo ends. Blacklist has made a lot of progress since E3, but Ubisoft Toronto has pushed the release back from the initial spring release window to late August to clear it from a surprisingly competitive March and allow for more polish. Hopefully, it’ll be worth the wait.
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