Asymmetric multiplayer doesn’t come better conceived than Splinter Cell’s Spies versus Mercs. The spies have a third person view and access to gadgets and trickery. The mercs have a first person perspective, thick armour, and hefty guns. More fundamental than a clash between classes, the two teams play two very different games.
We’re playing in the 2v2 classic mode, a recreation of the mode’s Chaos Theory’s debut, although Blacklist provides an updated alternative complete with customisable loadouts and unlockables. There are sound reasons for that, relating to the intriguing meta-structure with which Blacklist ties together its co-operative, singleplayer and competitive modes. But, frankly, customisation runs the risk of diluting the asymmetrical purity of Chaos Theory’s set-up.
Spies are stealthy, limber and, very, very fragile, capable of climbing all over ledges and drainpipes in arenas which offer little more than corridors, open rooms and stairwells to the mercs. Playing as a spy now, we don the series iconic night-vision goggles and slink into an empty trainyard. There’s a laptop here we need to hack if we’re to win the match, and the two mercs, somewhere nearby, need to defend it. We hack the terminal, a countdown begins and the mercs come running, the flicker of their torchbeams lighting up the rusty cargo containers. Our partner and I jump to the roofs of those same containers, and a game of cat and big, brawny mouse begins.
Our first kill comes easy. One of the mercs gets a glimpse of our partner in the distance and gives chase, allowing us to drop behind him and press X for an instant takedown. Spies are deadly up close, you see, it’s closing the gap that’s the tricky part. As we’re preparing to slink back into the darkness, however, the screen suddenly whites out: the mercenaries’ torchbeams might give away their position, but spies who forget to remove their nightvision goggles during an encounter are liable to get blinded by the glare. Catching us so disorientated, the remaining merc goes for an easy kill.
Playing as mercenary, Spies versus Mercs is terrfifying: spies are hidden by shadows until you shine your torch on them, which makes for paranoid game of checking every corners and over your shoulder. In fact, the fascinating thing about Spies versus Mercs is that, whichever side you play on, you feel thrillingly, scarily vulnerable in a way Sam Fisher never is during the solo campaign.
Blacklist’s Sam Fisher is the Conviction model, post-makeover. We’re still not keen on the new Sam’s voice – it has none of the weary, aged fatigue that distinguished the otherwise unremarkable character from other games’ military-man leads – but we certainly enjoy the moveset: a predatory mixture of takedowns, enemy and environment influencing gadgets capped off with that signature Mark-and-Execute manoeuvre. On Normal, Mark-and-Execute still feels rather generous, in that a stealth takedown will reward you with three instant kills once you’ve marked your victims and closed range. But if you’re the kind of player who likes to leave a bodycount behind (a “panther”, in creative director Maxime Béland words, as opposed to a “ghost”) it still turns levels into intricate positioning puzzles in which you isolate the guards at the periphery of a group before instantly headshotting the remainder. One clever new feature is the addition of ‘High Value targets’ who need to taken alive, an optional wrinkle that stops Fisher from murdering enemies too indiscriminately.
Another legacy from Conviction is that sleek UI which still paints instructions onto the environment, but narratively Sam is a rogue agent no longer. We already knew that Blacklist would see Fisher commanding the newly formed Fourth Echelon task force, which means he’s been re-equipped with his beneath-the-doorframe peeking snake camera after Conviction’s edgier shard of glass. But the shift is more than just cosmetic: Conviction takes its single player, co-operative and competitive mode and uses Fisher’s role as the task force commander to tie them together.
To hear Ubisoft tell it, Blacklist doesn’t have a main menu screen, but the truth is more prosaic: that menu has been woven into the fiction itself. The Strategic Mission Interface is a blue, glowing and very Tom Clancy military sci-fi-looking map of the world, with potential missions – be they singleplayer, co-operative or Spies versus Mercs – identified by location. You pick your next mission via this interface, and, should you succeed, the funds you’re awarded can be spent on upgrades in any of the modes. It’s a neat, unified system designed to allow players to flow in and out of solo and online play and, indeed, to blur the lines between the two. Stroll up to the SMI (which is located on an airship, Fisher’s between mission hub) and you’ll even see which missions your friends are playing, should you want to join them. It seems like exactly the kind of the game that the Xbox One’s recently abandoned always-online requirement was intended to promote, and when we tell Béland as much, he smiles.
“You know, all the game designers in the world were thinking about the future and seeing what the consoles allow us to do,” he acknowledges. “Sometimes, you’re making a game that doesn’t fit with certain things but with Blacklist it made so much sense. Sam being the leader meant he had a headquarters that he would go back to between missions. It meant we could show you the solo, co-op and SvM content all at once. Not only do you see see all the content, but it’s linked through the economy system. I think it’s great, because often you buy a game where the solo campaign is like a six hour experience, and it feels like a tutorial for multiplayer, and everything you do in solo is lost. But in Blacklist, regardless of where you play you’re going to be making money, and that money you spend where you want.”
If you’re anything like us, you’ll be spending it on Spies versus Mercs.