Sam Fisher's always been like what Liam Neeson is now. He's the exemplar of the old-dude badass in the video game pantheon. Even in the first few Splinter Cell games, you'd hear Michael Ironside's distinct growl in Ubisoft's stealth action series and think, "This guy's been around the block a few times…" If Sam was old then, he's even older now. But unlike most middle-aged men in real life, he's becoming quicker and more lethal than ever.
While I loved the stripped-down, domestically centred take that 2010's Splinter Cell: Conviction delivered on, many fans missed the globe-trotting nature of Sam Fisher's previous adventures. That hotspot-hopping comes back in spades in Blacklist. The game's plot brings America's geopolitical involvements home to roost in a big way, as it pits Sam against a terrorist coalition that threatens to pull off attacks in the United States as long as the country's troops remain stationed abroad.
I saw an extended version of the same preview shown during Microsoft's E3 press event, which had Sam hunting a terrorist for information on the Blacklist. This new game makes Sam the boss of Fourth Echelon, a reborn version of the covert-ops division he used to work for. There's no more Pentagon office anymore; it's just Sam and a group of hand-picked agents in a flying mobile headquarters. That leaner, faster model extends the gameplay too, as Sam's able to string together stealth and combat in extremely fluid ways.
Ubisoft's Toronto dev studio takes over where the Montreal team left off and they're calling the new philosophy governing Blacklist's gameplay "Killing in Motion". It means that Sam can vault from a stealth position, stab an unsuspecting enemy in the neck and pull off two Mark & Execute kills while running to a wall that he'll effortlessly climb in seconds. The old days of watching a light meter and trying not to cough too loudly appear to be gone.
But if you're an old-school Splinter Cell fan, Ubisoft says not to worry. The game's developers say they're seeding three tiers of play into Blacklist for various sorts of gamers. Each environment will have hardcore stealth routes, less-demanding pathways that will still require players to be sneaky, and options to blow through a level like an action movie. To prove the point, the devs played one part of the game seen in the Xbox press event differently. Instead of having Sam charge through the front door of the room where his target hid, they took Sam to the outside of the building, used thermal imaging to spot the guards and planted a breach charge that staggered everyone in the room. Sam then went in the back door and took advantage of the confusion, shooting two guards mark-and-execute style and pulling off a close-quarters hand-to-hand takedown on another.
After the death of the target Sam was sent to interrogate, another action sequence showed off more of Blacklist's new features. Because he's in charge now, Sam can do things like call in an airstrike to clear out enemies from his escape route. There's also a UAV drone that you can use to gather intel on enemy positions, too.
Other mechanics and features from Conviction like Last Known Position and those nifty projected cutscenes will be returning too. Sam's ops suit — marking a departure from the plainclothes look in Conviction — and weapons will also be upgradeable. Blacklist adds a tactical crossbow to Sam's arsenal, and at one point a developer used a taser-style shocker bolt to silently take down a sentry.
Away from the battlefield, Blacklist will offer interrogations with branching options. Each one will be different and how brutal you decide to be while extracting information will affect how you progress through the game's campaign. Sam's operating way outside the law in Blacklist to combat enemies that do the same. While story details weren't divulged during my demo, Ubisoft Toronto devs promised that they're going to make the most of the moral grey area that the game happens in, touching on those real-world issues that studio head Jade Raymond wants to work into AAA games.
Blacklist will clearly be a departure from the older games in the series but I walked away excited and impressed at how good the game looked and at the smoothness of its action. Splinter Cell: Blacklist currently has a mid 2013 release window for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, so we're probably going to get a closer look at Sam Fisher's new reality in the coming months.