If you’ve read my fictional take on Spies vs. Mercs gameplay, you know that I have a huge bias in favor of Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist multiplayer mode. Of course, I also had huge expectations for its long overdue asymmetrical gameplay. The carry-over from Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow’s iconic multiplayer would be a make-or-break proposition for me, especially given the generic (though still somewhat enjoyable) multiplayer options in Conviction.
After playing many rounds of Blacklist’s “Classic Spies vs. Mercs” mode, I’m happy to announce the spirit of Ubisoft Annecy’s original masterpiece is in tact.
Intrigue of shadows
If you’re not familiar with the Spies vs. Mercs setup from either Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow or Chaos Theory, you’re in for a treat. This competitive multiplayer mode pits teams of two against one another in incredibly tense and somewhat indirect opposition.
One team plays as Spies whose gameplay is almost identical to that of Sam Fischer and other Third Echelon operatives. They’re controlled in third person, slinking around an almost completely darkened map in black, skintight suits. They’re able to navigate the map using a variety of parkour and ninja-inspired acrobatics, allowing them to get pretty much anywhere, fast.
The Spies have Sam’s iconic nightvision goggles, as well as access to other toys, like the sticky cam, flashbangs, and EMP and smoke grenades. The only downside? They have no lethal measures other than melee kills. So while they’ll be able to earn backstabs, acrobatic assassinations, and ledge grabs, all of their other abilities are focused solely on misdirection, stealth, and escape.
The mercenaries, on the other hand, are armed to the teeth with firepower (mercs have great dental plans). They spawn with fully automatic rifles, plus a handgun with infinite ammunition. Instead of flashbangs, they have access to high explosive grenades, choking gas, and proximity mines. And if they run short on ammo, they’ve got spare kits to restock themselves or their teammates.
Unlike the Spies, Mercs play in first person mode, which is needless to say a huge disadvantage when the shadows are teeming with cutthroat ninjas. They do have a few special tools, though, including a blindingly bright flashlight and an Aliens-style motion detector that goes off whenever Spies move too fast. And that whole having lots of guns thing is a pretty strong plus, too.
Gameplay boils down to this: on every map, there’s a Spy objective, like hacking three terminals within ten minutes. Typically, one Spy must stay alive for a certain amount of time for the objective to be competed, so the other agent acts as distraction or support. The Merc objective is simple: stop and/or kill the Spies before the enemy ninjas make off with the goods. After the time limit is up, teams switch sides and the hunters become the hunted (though who the hunters are depends on your point of view).
Simple, right? Yet the actual dynamics of each match are incredibly deep. Here are just a few of the many considerations that must be made throughout a typical round of Splinter Cell Blacklist Spies vs Mercs multiplayer:
- Should you use an ability that will protect you, but also give away your presence?
- Is it worth your life to protect a teammate who’s doomed, or should you wait for a second shot at the objective?
- Do you run quickly to beat the timer, or skulk quietly to avoid motion detection?
- Can you help your teammate more by assisting him directly, or by running away to draw attention away from his area?
- Do you lay mines on the objective where they’re a visible speed bump, or hide them where they might never go off?
- Your flashlight finds and blinds Spies, but it also show them where you are… is it worth it?
- Should you check ledges and corners for Spies, knowing you’re exposed to instant assassinations?
- Hang close for fire support, or split up to protect multiple objectives?
As you might imagine, these questions only scratch the surface of the depth of this kind of asymmetrical gameplay. Combined with lots of light/shadow chaos and frantic voice communication, things get really tense really quickly, especially when the best option in many scenarios is to sit, wait, and hold your breath.
While Splinter Cell: Blacklist isn’t final just yet, there are only two month till its release, so I’d guess the game is fairly close to final. In most cases, the multiplayer component is extremely well done. Framerates are stable, the levels and characters look good, and the core gameplay is faithful to the soul of Pandora Tomorrow.
Particularly well executed is the lighting, which is obviously crucial to this title. Shadows aren’t like the shadows in most multiplayer games; they are absolutely pitch black. This, in tandem with a single-player-like “blending” mode for Spies means that the interplay of light and darkness is masterfully done. It also means gamma/brightness cheaters can’t just expose enemies by tuning their TV settings.
While the 5v5 “Blacklist” team mode wasn’t shown off on the E3 floor, I’m confident it will be, at the very least, a fun modification of the classic Spies vs. Mercs formula. Ubisoft developers showed me the customization options possible in this setup: both teams of players can create and equip loadouts of weapons, armor, and abilities. For instance, Mercs can switch out their flashlight/radar for a “ballistics mode” that will detect gadgets (instead of the Spies themselves). Likewise, Spies can opt for other forms of Third Echelon goggles.
There are some minor nuances I’m sad to report won’t be making a return in Splinter Cell: Blacklist multiplayer. Some of the more detailed detection methods (like footprint tracking or ceiling tile dust particles) from Chaos Theory won’t be available to players of Blacklist. And the infamous cross-team audio options from Pandora Tomorrow are unfortunately absent, so you’ll no longer be able to whisper into the ear of your opponent before ending his life. Ubisoft team members basically attributed this to changes in both the technology and yes, player maturity, when it comes to in-game voice communication.
That said, the new Spies vs. Mercs captures 99% of what the original games excelled at. The power of modern consoles (current gen only, unfortunately) adds a lot as well, with more dynamic and realistic lighting and shading than was possible a decade ago.
As such, I can say with great confidence that Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer is set to absolutely demolish the expectations of gamers. It’s a refreshing break from the slew of FPS, fighting, and racing titles that make up most of online gameplay, and a wonderful exercise in competitive team dynamics.
I can’t promise that Blacklist’s single player campaign will be worth your while (blah blah Sam blah blah terrorists blah blah your daughter), but I can promise you that when the next Splinter Cell comes out, I’ll be on it like black on a skintight ninja suit.