As a long-time fan of Splinter Cell, I’ve been somewhat skeptical of what I’ve seen of Blacklist in the past. Everything shown so far was indicative of a solid action-stealth game, but I often found myself yearning for the days when Sam Fisher was more concerned about climbing drainpipes and hiding in corners than running and gunning his way past hapless guards, Jason Bourne?style. Nevertheless, there were two things about Blacklist that caused me to hold out hope for a truly great addition to the franchise: the promise of story-driven co-op missions, and the return of the series’ much lauded Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer.
When it was first introduced in 2004’s Pandora Tomorrow, Spies vs. Mercs was a revelation in a sea of same-y multiplayer modes. An objective-based, asymmetrical mode that pitted a pair of weak but agile spies against heavily armored mercenaries limited to a first-person perspective, it was the best possible way to convert the tenets of stealth gameplay into a competitive framework. As a teenager, I played Pandora Tomorrow‘s multiplayer like it was my religion, and I kept the faith through Chaos Theory and the admittedly less successful Double Agent. Still, even at its worst, Spies vs. Mercs was a phenomenal, tense experience unlike anything else games had to offer.
With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why I was eager to go hands-on with Blacklist’s multiplayer offerings?both cooperative and competitive?and see whether or not they could live up to the lofty legacy they sought to continue.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Blacklist‘s co-op missions is how well they’re integrated into the main story. Rather than simply tacking on a secondary campaign with faceless protagonists as they did in Conviction, Ubisoft has instead kept the main storyline front and center throughout, even integrating the way you access them into the flow of the main game. As you work your way through single-player, you can explore your Paladin command center and converse with the members of your team. Some of the dialogue options will unlock new co-op missions for you to hop into?but no matter who provides the assignment, once you get into the field, you’ll always be playing as series star Sam Fisher and Isaac Briggs, a CIA agent being groomed by Sam to become a key Fourth Echelon asset.
As I played through my first co-op mission, I was pleasantly surprised by how similar it felt to the single-player campaign. The levels were clearly designed with two players in mind?more open arenas, a higher enemy density, and even more routes to your destination?but there was no disconnect between the tactics I would use if I were on my own and those I could employ with my teammate. Excepting the obvious contrived co-op interactions?working together to open a door or boosting your partner up a wall?teamwork felt incredibly organic. Sometimes we split up to tackle different sides of the map on our own, then met in the middle once we’d cleared out the opposition. Sometimes we stuck together and coordinated fancier maneuvers, like taking down two guards simultaneously or using our combined Mark and Execute ability to sweep an entire patrol. It was the perfect extension of Blacklist‘s solo experience: a blend of stealth, quick thinking, and precision lethality.
Unfortunately, the co-op experience became far less compelling once things went belly up and we found ourselves in a full-on firefight. Once stealth was out of the equation, Blacklist felt a lot like any other cover-based co-op shooter, complete with the requisite down-but-not-out system. Hightailing it through a hail of bullets to pick up your partner might be well and good in Gears of War, but the immediacy and vulnerability felt oddly out of place in a game that’s built on careful observation and stealth. Most perplexing was the fact that, in at least one segment, open-combat seemed to be the favored approach?if not mandatory.
That being said, I also saw a few things that made me think Blacklist might set itself apart from the competition, even when it comes to gunfights. In one segment, where we were defending a room against an onslaught of enemies, we managed to set up a flanking maneuver that actually took advantage of the game’s stealth features. While he stayed in cover took out whatever enemies he could, I took advantage of the Last Known Position system and slipped into the shadows, leaving the AI thinking I was still by his side. Once I was off their radar, I snuck through the shadows, crossed the room, and climbed onto the catwalks so I could take down our opponents from the shadows to sneak around on the ground floor, climb up to the catwalks, and silently take out the attacking force from behind.
If the bulk of Blacklist‘s co-op missions do a good job emphasizing these kind of tactics?and push the less interesting vanilla gunplay to the background?then I suspect even the most hard-to-please Splinter Cell fans will be happy with what it brings to the table.
Spies vs. Mercenaries
Let’s get the tough stuff out of the way first: Blacklist is not Pandora Tomorrow. It’s been nearly a decade since that game came out, and it’d be silly to expect Ubisoft to simply reskin the classic Spies vs. Mercs mode with fancy next-gen graphics and few new gadgets. Indeed, there have been broad, sweeping changes to the formula, some of which have a drastic impact on the feel of the game, but it’s clear that Ubisoft Toronto is quite conscious of the reputation they need to uphold. In fact, they’re so concerned with keeping longtime fans happy that they’ve developed two separate multiplayer variants?one that attempts to emulate the classic Splinter Cell experience, and one that introduces new levels of complexity and ups the player count.
But before we get into the nitty gritty of what that means, let’s talk basics. On the surface, Blacklist‘s take on Spies vs. Mercs is something of a hybrid between Pandora Tomorrow/Chaos Theory and Double Agent. To begin hacking each of the three terminals, you’ll need to walk up to a physical box and spend a few seconds getting the process started, but once it’s going, you’re free to leave and hide out anywhere in the immediate vicinity while it completes. If the mercs can flush out and kill the person who started the hacking, there’s a brief window where another spy can hop on the terminal and continue the process. Once the timer expires, however, it’s back to square one.
More dramatic changes have been made to the spies themselves. In short, they’re not nearly as fragile as they once were. In the past, they could only take down the mercenaries if they managed to grab them from behind, and getting spotted was almost always a death sentence. Now they’ve inherited Sam’s Killing in Motion ability, which allows them to take down opponents with a melee attack from the front. On more than one occasion, I managed to take down a group of three mercs in the span of five seconds?even when they knew I was attacking. As a veteran of the franchise, it’s unsettling at first, but once I got used to the fact that the spy’s role is now more predator than ghost, it was fun to exercise my edge in close-quarters combat.
Though these core changes are universal, Blacklist‘s multiplayer also features two different rulesets that further modify the experience. The first of these, Spies vs. Mercs Classic, is designed to closely replicate the experience of the original games. Matches are two-on-two, and spies have access to their traditional suite of gadgets?night-vision goggles, sticky shockers, as well as smoke and flashbang grenades. As in prior games, the maps are relatively dark to help spies move freely and stalk their prey.
The second variant, Spies vs. Mercs Blacklist, takes a much heavier hand. For starters, matches are now four-on-four, meaning it’s much easier to find a direct confrontation if you’re looking for one. It also introduces six new character classes?three per team?each of which grants a unique special ability that can be activated to aid your team in combat. On the spy side, the Intel Scout can reveal enemy positions, the Predator can activate a temporary cloak, and the Saboteur can destroy enemy gadgets within a given radius. On the merc side, the Disruptor can jam enemy’s goggles, the Hunter can deploy unmanned UAV drones, and the Peacemaker sports a higher damage threshold and the ability to quickly regen health with an adrenaline shot. As if that weren’t enough, you’ll also be able to build your own custom loadouts, mixing and matching these abilities with guns, gadgets, and equipment that offers bonuses like increased movement speed or larger clip size.
The other big shift in Blacklist mode is that spies now have access to lethal firearms in addition the traditional stun gun. I was initially appalled by the thought of spies being able to go in guns blazing, but it’s not as big of a game changer as you might think. In practice, it took so many bullets to make a dent in the mercenaries’ armor that it wasn’t ever all that plausible to engage in a head-on firefight. If a group of spies caught a lone merc off-guard and focused fire, they might be able to take him down from the shadows, but for the most part, you’re going to need to stick to the tried-and-true tactics here.
The thing is, for as much as Blacklist mode mucks with the established formula, it never really felt out of character with the core tenets of Spies vs. Mercs. All of the special abilities are handled in such a way that they feel like minor sidegrades rather than cheap tickets to victory, and a few of them are really just reimagined versions of gadgets from previous games.
In fact, the one thing that makes me even the slightest bit hesitant about Blacklist‘s take on Spies vs. Mercs isn’t the player count, the abilities, the character customization, or even the fact that the spies can now use guns. Despite my initial reservations, all those major changes actually ended up winning me over after a few rounds. As much as the diehard Pandora Tomorrow fanboy in me hates to admit it, they’re smart, logical ways to extend the experience, add enough depth to keep it competitive with modern multiplayer games, and make it more enticing for newcomers.
No, the only thing that gave me pause in all my time with Blacklist‘s competitive multiplayer was the simple fact that, as a spy, I felt entirely too powerful. In previous iterations, there was a persistent sense that the spies were fighting an uphill battle against a superior enemy, that they were only able to succeed through cunning, precision, and no small amount of luck. In Blacklist, I felt comfortable waltzing into a crowd of enemies and taking them all down before they knew what hit them. It was less tense, less deliberative, and altogether less terrifying to go toe-to-toe with the mercs.
Now, I’ll admit that my time with Blacklist was brief. It may well be that once the game is finally out in the wild and people have picked up on the most effective mercenary tactics, the game will settle into a much more familiar balance. Even if it doesn’t, I’m not entirely certain that what I played was any less fun than my fond memories of Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory; it was just different. Truth be told, I can already see myself sinking dozens, if not hundreds, of hours into Blacklist‘s multiplayer. The rules may have changed, the balance may have shifted, but at its heart, this is still the Spies vs. Mercs mode I fell in love with nearly a decade ago.