Splinter Cell – A Look Back and Where it Stands Now

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In my personal opinion, I should not be writing this at all.  Splinter Cell is one of the best franchises that Ubisoft has in its library.  Almost every game within the series has seen critical and commercial success and although it isn’t reaching the sales heights of Assassins Creed, the franchise has a loyal fan base and rightfully so, Sam Fisher is considered an icon in gaming, but for whatever reason, Ubisoft refuses to release a new entry.

In the early 2000’s there were practically four titles that personified stealth: Metal Gear Solid, Hitman, Thief, and Splinter Cell.  All three of them took drastically different approaches to stealth with Metal Gear begin more action oriented, Hitman emphasizing creativity, and Thief being the hardcore stealth title, preaching patience over direct action.  Splinter Cell just happened to be a combination of all three as players had the freedom to tackle objectives in any manner they chose.

When the first Splinter Cell released in 2002, it leaned heavily on hardcore stealth mechanics.  Stick to the shadows, learn enemy routes, use various distractions, and only engage enemies when necessary.  It was a tense but satisfying experience that featured excellent level design that allowed easy navigation as long as the player took the time to explore their surroundings.  Needless to say, it was an instant hit and immediately established Splinter Cell as a franchise to watch.

Pandora Tomorrow, the sequel released in 2004, had a number of quality of life improvements and small additions that kept the single-player campaign fresh.  But this title’s biggest contribution to the series came with the introduction of Spies vs Mercs, a competitive multiplayer mode in which the spies would act as the attackers and the mercenaries would act as the defenders.  The spies would have access to all of Sam Fisher’s abilities from the single-player campaign but they were significantly weaker to damage.  Mercenaries would be given a multitude of gadgets and weapons to combat the spies, but they were slower and this was also done from a first-person point of view.   Spies vs Mercs was awesome and would be a staple throughout the series.

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The series would ultimately peak, in my opinion, with the phenomenal Chaos Theory, released in 2005.  This was and still is one of the greatest stealth titles of all time.  It was far more forgiving game than its predecessors, but the level design was vastly improved upon.  Each level was filled with hidden passages which gave the player an incredible amount of freedom and flexibility in regards to mission approach.  The AI was smarter, there was a light bar that acted as an indicator to the player to detail how concealed they were, ambient noise became a factor as being too loud would alert enemies to your presence, and Sam was given more tools to help in close-quarters combat if things got heavy.  There is far too many great things to say about this game and to top it all off, there was a new cooperative mode  so that you and a friend could tackle a separate story mode together.  Simply put, Chaos Theory was a classic.

Now, if the Splinter Cell series could be criticized,  it was that it’s narrative wasn’t particularly engaging or strong.  Splinter Cell Double Agent, released in 2006, took things in a different direction.   There was an emphasis on the narrative and on the series protagonist Sam Fisher.  It was dark and grounded with multiple endings, all determined by the player’s actions throughout the game.  Overall, Double Agent was solid, it featured the same gameplay mechanics from Chaos Theory and the multiplayer modes that had become staples of the series returned with different improvements and upgrades.  Because of the multiple endings, Double Agent left the series in uncharted territory as Ubisoft had a number of directions they could take the franchise.

It would take four years for the next entry in the franchise to emerge in Splinter Cell Conviction.  This was a vastly different entry from the other titles in the series.  There was an emphasis on action, dubbed by Ubisoft as “aggressive stealth”, and it introduced the “Mark & Execute” mechanic, which allowed players to target enemies and objects and shoot them in rapid succession.  Players could also interrogate enemies in real-time, utilizing objects around them to acquire information.  There was also a new mechanic known as “Last Known Position”, in which if you were caught, players would see a silhouette of themselves and this would be where the enemies would focus their attention.

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Conviction was a faster, leaner title, and was by far the most accessible in the series.  Sam Fisher was on the run and while the narrative would ultimately turn out to be just ok, the game was really fun to play even though if it removed aspects of what made the Splinter Cell series great.  Gone were the night-vision goggles, hacking, and lockpicking mini-games, this was a title that emphasized fluid movement and efficient action.  Sam was surprisingly spry for his age, zipping around levels with ease and eliminating enemies quickly before returning to the shadows.  Sadly, Spies vs Mercs did not return, but cooperative mode did with a unique story and other modes.   Overall, it was a solid package, but it is not fondly remembered because it didn’t feel like a Splinter Cell title.

The last known entry in the series is Splinter Cell Blacklist, released in 2013.  Now, before I get into the game, there was a bit of controversy with Michael Ironside, the voice of Sam Fisher, being replaced by another voice actor.  For whatever reason, Ubisoft believed that a different voice was needed and this really upset off fans.  I didn’t have an issue with it personally, but it was strange to hear the character voiced by a different actor after all these years.  With that being said. Blacklist could be viewed as a soft reboot of the series.  The gameplay however, was reminiscent of Conviction and players were scored based off their actions, which were detailed under Ghost, Panther, and Assault classifications.

Blacklist introduced the Paladin, a military plane that acted as the hub that the player could explore in between missions.  You were also able to select side missions and co-op missions and the points earned from these could be used to upgrade personal equipment and the Paladin itself.   What was interesting was that players could use the Paladin to deploy a strategic mission interface, which would allow you to see enemy positions so that you can create a strategy before deploying on a mission.  Spies vs Mercs returned and was updated to allow customization of different classes.   This version of the competitive multiplayer mode is easily the best in the series and is one I highly recommend playing if you’re looking for a change of pace.

Splinter Cell Blacklist featured a surprisingly strong narrative with a number of unique twists and can be considered to be the best in the series.  The title itself, like the rest of the franchise, was solid all-around, and even though the gameplay leaned on an action-heavy approach, the stealth was still great, and it was nice to see that players were rewarded more for emphasizing stealth over action.  Blacklist was a step forward for the franchise and it honestly looked like the future was bright.  Unfortunately, Ubisoft has yet to release a follow-up and that isn’t even the most frustrating part.

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As of this writing Sam Fisher is now nothing more than a cameo character that is taking out of hiding every so often so Ubisoft can capitalize on his popularity.  He has been seen in the new Ghost Recon entries, Wildlands and Breakpoint, and will be featured in a mobile title known as Elite Agents, which has a release date to be determined.  Regardless of how much fans clamor for a new Splinter Cell, Ubisoft has ignored these pleas and has decided to move forward with other, better selling franchises like Assassins Creed and Far Cry even though these franchises have been milked quite extensively the past couple of years.

It is disheartening to see one of the best stealth franchises in gaming collect dust on the shelves at Ubisoft, but that is where we are currently.   I find it strange that Ubisoft hasn’t made a push to create a Splinter Cell collection just to see how it would sell.  Fans of the  franchise are tired of seeing Sam Fisher appear in other games.  With the popularity of the franchise remaining strong, there should be no reason why a new Splinter Cell title isn’t in development.  It’s been seven years and no word, which is more than likely a strong indicator that the series will remain dormant until otherwise stated.  But don’t you fret, because Ubisoft will make sure that you remember Sam Fisher, even if its not how the fans want to see him.

If there ever was a time for Ubisoft to pull their head out of their collective asses and announce a new Splinter Cell, now would be the time.  Moving into the next generation of consoles would be perfect to show how the new hardware and updated GPU’s can affect stealth gameplay.   The market for stealth franchises isn’t crowded because Metal Gear Solid is MIA because of Konami’s ignorance and Thief has fallen by the wayside after its disastrous 2014 iteration.  While the Dishonored series is great, there haven’t been any announcements on a future title and currently Hitman remains as the only storied stealth series still standing even after lackluster sales of the criminally underrated Hitman 2.  Splinter Cell would kill in this market and its painfully obvious that Ubisoft is just messing with fans at this point.

The time is now for Sam Fisher to make a full return and not in some bullshit cameo or as a central character in a mash-up mobile title.  Splinter Cell deserves another shot and should not be languishing in the dark like some cast-off.   This franchise deserves better than that.

 

 

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