Sneaking around in the darkness, lurking in the shadows, waiting for a guard to turn their back so you can make a move, the Splinter Cell games have always primarily been about stealth. Inspired by the militaristic fiction of the Tom Clancy novels, past Splinter Cell games have plunged you into a world of espionage, politics, and classified operations, tasking you with going behind enemy lines on only the riskiest of missions, to get in, achieve your objective, and get out - preferably without being spotted or triggering an alarm.
With their emphasis on think first, shoot later gameplay, the Splinter Cell games carved themselves a niche of their own, far removed from that of other third person shooters, like Gears of War and Army of Two, as they were all about the sneaking, rather than the shooting. After taking something of a hiatus, stealth specialist Sam Fisher made his return to the gaming world at the recent gaming conference E3 in the latest game, Splinter Cell: Blacklist - but there have been more than a few changes to the tried and tested formula.
The plot, as you may imagine, is typically cliched stuff. A group of terrorists have decided they've had enough of America building its military and political presence in countries outside the US, and makes up a list of worldwide targets that it plans to wipe out, one by one - the Blacklist referred to in the title. Once again reprising the role of Sam Fisher, you're put in charge of the 4th Echelon - an elite military unit that answers only to the President, and are tasked with stopping the terrorists, before the Blacklist reaches zero.
So far, so Splinter Cell, but as soon as our demo begins, it's obvious things are very different this time round. Far from the slow, carefully planned, well thought out gameplay of the previous games, Splinter Cell: Blacklist seems to take a much more loose approach to combat. While there's still the option to play stealthily (much like in any other game), it's no longer a necessity, and seemingly isn't even encouraged, as the number of enemies you'll face has been increased, and the demo level - set on the border between Iraq and Iran - seemed to be designed with few hiding places - as though you have no choice but to march in, all guns blazing, in the complete antithesis to what the series has always been about.
In previous Splinter Cell games, combat has always been a last resort - something you did when you had to, when you were cornered, and had no way out. Even then, you'd try to do something that wouldn't kill your enemy - and if you absolutely had to take them out, you'd do it silently, so as not to rouse suspicion. And indeed, this is how our demo started out - moving into a tent, Sam spotted a guard patrolling just outside, and, picking his moment carefully, grabbed the guard and pulled him into the tent. Unfortunately, it was here the game started to show its true colours, as Sam pulled out a knife, and plunged it into the poor guard's throat, which even splashed blood up the wall of the tent. From a stealth perspective, of course, this made no sense - if you're taking out your enemy, you want to leave behind no trace that you were there - and a large blood stain on the wall of a tent is certainly a giveaway. If there was an option to silently disable the guard without stabbing him in the neck, we didn't see it - and this was only a taster of what was yet to come.
Outside the tent there was a large, open area, full of soldiers keeping watch, and this is where the developers took the chance to show off a new feature they call "Killing in Motion". By crouching behind the tent, Sam could mark enemies, before pressing a button to leave cover, and sitting back as the game automatically took each enemy out, in one swift movement. Complete with a slow-mo shot of each soldier being hit by the bullet, it's clear where the focus seems to be for Blacklist - and it's seemingly not with the thinking crowd.
Following this, Sam demonstrated the moves he's apparently been studying from his friend Ezio from fellow Ubisoft title Assassin's Creed, by running up to, and then scaling a wall, like a veritable Spiderman. This is another new feature for Splinter Cell: Blacklist, intended to give you more options for how you approach a situation - for example, should you come across a patrol blocking the way, instead of trying to sneak your way past, you can simply leg it up the side of a building, and leap across the rooftops, bypassing the situation entirely. In the demo, though, it again seemed to suggest that for Blacklist, stealth had fallen by the wayside in favour of the sort of high-octane, blood spurting violence you can find in any one of a number of identikit titles, as Sam scaled a cliff, in the middle of the day, without any cover, just behind the area that was once filled with guards. Perhaps there was a way to bypass that area without shooting the guards first - maybe we could have crept past them and around the corner - but for the moment, it certainly seems that Splinter Cell's leaving the stealth crowd behind in favour of becoming a generic third person shooter.
As the leader of the 4th Echelon, you have a number of extra abilities at your disposal - including the ability to call in that most stealthy of attacks - an air strike. After causing something of a ruckus, Sam decided he'd attracted one too many guard's attentions, and legged it into a nearby building (smashing the door down with his shoulder), to buy him some time to upload the co-ordinates for the air strike. After a brief wait, a huge explosion occurred outside, blowing most of the area to smithereens, along with rapidly eliminating the problem he'd caused. Hey, even if it wasn't that quiet, at least it got rid of the enemies.
The demo came to an end with Mr. Fisher finding his quarry, and putting a gun to his head in an attempt to make him talk. Cue the camera zooming in on the man's beaten, bloodied face, as a trickle of blood makes its way down his cheek. In the end, the man wasn't talking, and actually pulled the trigger on Sam's gun himself - cue the obligatory close up shot of a man shooting himself in the head, before falling to the ground, dead.
With its penchant for unnecessary violence, gun-friendly gameplay, and heavily cliched plot, things are looking difficult for Mr Fisher if he wants his game to stand out in the same way it usually does. He's worked his way out of trickier situations than this before, but from the demo that was shown at E3, Splinter Cell looks set to turn its back fully on its more unique, stealth roots, in favour of becoming just another third person military shooter. With around a year to go until the game launches, though, there's plenty of time for things to change - but perhaps it's not a coincidence that the game's name is more than a little bit similar to Black Ops. Fingers crossed the rest of the game looks better than the demo at E3.