A Requiem to Sam Fisher: The Mechanics of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2005) and Splinter Cell: Blacklist (2013)

EDIT: ‘ononzefi’ on reddit has pointed out a few mistakes. I’ve addressed some of these issues and am waiting on clarification for some others.

When I heard that Michael Ironside’s gravelly drawl had been replaced by Eric Johnson’s bland American accent for Sam Fisher’s vocals, I, like most fans, was disappointed. But after playing through Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Splinter Cell: Blacklist consecutively, this change seems apt. Michael Ironside offered a unique combination of menace and wit, whereas Eric Johnson, although not a bad actor, displays little personality. Much the same has happened to the Splinter Cell series. The nuance and complexity of some great stealth games has been stripped in favour of a bland, easily marketable product. This review will compare the mechanics of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Splinter Cell: Blacklist to see how much has been removed.

(Note: Many of the changes I will address appeared in Double Agent or Conviction, but I believe it is with Blacklist that we can mark the end of Splinter Cell as a stealth series).

Complex mechanics have been removed

Mechanically, stealth games are puzzle games. The joy derived from a stealth game comes from planning how to navigate a room full of enemies and then executing that plan. The more options a game gives you, the more challenging and rewarding it becomes when you find the method that works. If a stealth game offers few options or makes a correct option obvious, little satisfaction is gleaned from solving the puzzle.

In Chaos Theory, the basic stealth mechanics are extremely detailed. You have a visibility meter and a sound meter on your GUI, both allowing you to minutely track how obvious you are to guards. You also have precise control of your movement speed with the mousewheel, amounting to five movement speeds each while crouching or standing. These detailed systems force you to make constant decisions. Do you risk being spotted by walking through the edges of a pool of light or do you try and find a more discrete path? When sneaking up behind a pacing guard, do you walk faster and risk being heard or walk slower and risk losing your window of opportunity? In Chaos Theory, you make these decisions every instant, and so when you find a combination of actions which gets you through the area, it is all the more rewarding.

In Blacklist, a significant amount of detail is gone. You are either in darkness or in light. Your control of movement is limited to two movement speeds and a sprint function while either crouching or standing. In a stealth approach, I found only the two slowest of these six speeds useful. Whereas in Chaos Theory you have to weigh up the risks of a spectrum of visibility, in Blacklist, the shadows make a linear path, and you follow that path. The game even explicitly acknowledges this linearity, encouraging the player to follow ‘shadow paths’.

But even more nuance is lost with Blacklist’s cover system. When you are in cover you may as well be invisible.You can be crouched behind a waist high wall and the entire room can spot you, but as soon as you lean against the wall, you become a ghost. My typical approach to clearing a room became finding the nearest piece of cover, clicking the button to move to the next piece of cover when no one was watching and repeating this until I reached the exit. I didn’t perceive levels as real environment to organically navigate, but as chains of hiding places. This loss of complexity can hardly be justified by  an appeal to casual gamers. Chaos Theory’s controls were brilliant in both their immediate simplicity and the complexity they allowed.

Guards are stupid and easily avoided

AI has also been dumbed down. In Chaos Theory, the guards would typically have paths patrolling a route, but if they spotted or heard anything they would go and closely investigate that area. If you wanted to take out guards, you had to approach them from behind. This encouraged the player to develop intricate plans to distract and eliminate the guards, and on occasion made them genuinely difficult to pass.

In Blacklist, the AI on the surface does the same. However, there are two key differences. The first is in regard to visibility. When a guard can see you, a graphic appears on the screen which fills as long as you are visible depending on whether you are in light or not. Essentially, a guard can see you standing in the shadows for a good 2-3 seconds before he will even come and investigate. The second difference is in take-downs. In Blacklist, if you get within a few metres of a guard mostly undetected, whatever the angle, you can take them down. This means the ideal strategy is not luring the guard to the darkness before grabbing them from behind, but running at the guard and taking them out.

Stealth approaches are discouraged

But perhaps the worst part of Blacklist is that it doesn’t want you to be stealthy. The newest mechanic since Chaos Theory is ‘Mark and Execute’, which allows you to, as you may guess, mark targets and then execute them at the press of a button. You can use this ability if you skilfully deal with enemies in previous areas. Hence the reward for being stealthy is a mechanic that lets you avoid stealth. (ononzefi points out that that this mechanic is not available in Perfectionist mode, but I maintain that the fact that one of the main additions to the Splinter Cell formula is a reward which lets you avoid stealth speaks volumes about the design philosophy of Blacklist).

Blacklist’s checkpoint save system also forces you away from a stealth approach. Stealth gaming is unpredictable. The player can’t be expected to make their way through an entire, sprawling environment in a single, flawless motion. In Chaos Theory, if something goes wrong with your plan, you reload your previous save and have a go with something else until you find that perfect combination to work your way through the enemies. In my recent play-through, I finished each level without being detected. In Blacklist, you don’t have a save function, just checkpoints at the start of an area. If you plan on doing a stealth run, you must flawlessly find your way through up to 10 enemies in huge environments. If you fail, your options are either restart from the checkpoint and waste another 20 or so minutes, or abandon stealth. I tried to play through Blacklist without ever being detected. But after being forced back to a checkpoint after the last of 10 enemies spotted me for the eighteenth time, I abandoned hopes of a stealthy approach and Blacklist became another cover based shooter.

Conclusion

Ubisoft have almost certainly heeded the call of money. They’ve seen the blockbuster gaming franchises, and taken everything they could from them while stripping away everything that could turn away a new player. There are lengthy climbing sections no doubt copied across from Assassin’s Creed, There are dramatic quick-time events from the likes of the Uncharted series. There’s one completely incongruous section where you switch from third-person stealth to a first-person shooter, as if there weren’t enough of those. In essence, Blacklist becomes an action-adventure game with stealth elements.

And this removal of all the complexity is not just a nostalgic gripe. Complex stealth leads to a real sense of accomplishment. Clearing a room in Chaos Theory was like completing an intricate jigsaw. Clearing a room in Blacklist was like fitting a round peg through the round hole. I know I’ll replay Chaos Theory again in the near future and find some new, ingenious methods for breaking into that Panamanian Bank Vault, but I can’t imagine I’ll be bothered to revisit Blacklist.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is not a bad game, but it is not a stealth game. If it had been released as just Blacklist or Die Hard 4: The Video Game, the word ‘stealth’ wouldn’t get the slightest mention. I had hoped that after the many poor reactions to Conviction, Ubisoft would reverse this trend of ‘casualisation’ which makes every mainstream gaming experience indistinguishable. But alas they have embraced it. So I’m afraid with the release of Blacklist we must say goodbye to Sam Fisher  the spy, and say hello to Sam Fisher the action hero.

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2 comments
  1. epinema said:

    Amen to that. I’ve just started and I can see Ubisoft deterring the stealth approach in multiple ways.

    I think Splinter Cell: Double Agent reached the pinnacle of their stealth gaming while Conviction nicely wrapped up the story. Even then Conviction didn’t abuse the mark and execute system; stealth was fully a viable option and the fade to black and white stealth system let you knew when you were concealed.

    Blacklist seems to be compromised, more guards, less space, less routes = frustration, little room to creatively resolve situations on the fly when you’re in a room with eight other guys. It seems to be constantly driving away from stealth while trying to convince players it’s a stealth game, “Look, you can turn off lights, you can cover, you can peek under doors, STEALTH.”

    I didn’t expect a Splinter Cell game considering the sad departure of Ironside (without a shadow of a doubt that man is Splinter Cell. You hardly saw his face, all you had was his voice to go by and in doing so he was a very memorable character, now they replaced him generic forgettable jackass) but I still expected a decent stealth game and in doing so I’m trying to play these like a Splinter Cells of old and being punished for patience and technique.

    Another good and unique series lost to mediocrity. Ironically isn’t this the first game where they referred to Splinter Cell as a franchise? I want a game, not McDonald’s.

    • dueledge said:

      Oddly I really hated Splinter Cell: Double Agent. I could never tell where the shadows were in a room, whether the indicator was red or green sometimes seemed a bit arbitrary, but maybe this was just a problem with my graphical setup or monitor not being dark enough. Much like blacklist it seemed you could be “in shadow” despite being clearly visible on screen. Earlier splinter cell games I made heavy use of nightvision buy I never had to in double agent (or now blacklist). at least conviction actually had some darker environments.

      I certainly found the load game screen in double agent very clunky on PC which really broke the flow of things.

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