Posted August 7, 2013 by Peter in Events

Splinter Cell: Blacklist multiplayer hands-on

Splinter Cell: Blacklist logo
Splinter Cell: Blacklist logo

After Ubisoft gave us a hands-on session with Splinter Cell: Blacklist the other week, there seemed little left to do than wait for the game’s release in the third week of this month. Except that wasn’t the case, thanks to a second event held this week dedicated to the game’s multiplayer mode, the revamped Spies vs Mercs.

There are two sides to every story, apparently. This duality can be seen in a lot of elements of Blacklist – starting with having a very extensive multiplayer mode at all in the latest of a series known more for single player story lines. Then there are the two variant multiplayer modes – classic Spies vs Mercs, and the Blacklist version – both included. And most obviously, there are the two deliberately unbalanced sides, both of whom you’ll spend time controlling.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist Spies vs Mercs
For the purpose of this event, fixed teams were formed – standing up for goodness, honour and/or justice were myself, Andy from mkgaming.com, Simon from ready-up.net, and Ben from godisageek.com (later having to leave and being replaced most competently by Diogo from expansivedlc.com). This was key – having set teams all day, and the time to play as a group did show the game in a different light to the “what are we meant to be doing?” single session of last month.

Team tactics quickly formed – playing as spies to focus on a single terminal, the hacker hiding away and the rest of the team causing as much interference as possible to prevent mercs from searching properly. The improved visibility that spies have goes far beyond their third-person viewpoint, with equipment allowing them to map enemy locations using sonar pulses (albeit making walls and floors become hard to judge), or with a recharging piece tagging the mercs within range for the rest of the team.

On the other side, playing as the mercs quickly became a matter of hoping you could trust your sensors and sharing that information (“movement at Bravo! Something is moving at Bravo! … the mine got him”), and a sense of trust formed of who could do what, and when.

It would probably go without saying that playing a game – any game – with a fixed group will mean the whole group improve, just as having several people communicating is going to keep them working as a group. But here that communication is essential as there simply isn’t room for lone wolves. Even a great player will not be able to carry a team, either as spy or merc; and a glory hog is likely to find themselves spending more time respawning than playing. With this in mind, seeing how the game copes with randomly assembled groups once out in the wilds of release will be key.

An additional thought that came to be expressed by people there yesterday – whether this extra time given to the multiplayer, both in development and promotion, was to try and create content that would still be played long after the single player campaign is cleared; and if the tournament arranged for the press and community was to present the game as a potential title for the professional gaming circuit.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist Spies vs Mercs
Certainly, games did get very tense and involved. By the end of the afternoon I’d discovered several swear words I didn’t realise I knew, and the remaining teams could hold some very even matches. The final match played – our Team 2 fighting for all that was good against insidious rivals Team 1 – had our team of mercs guarding the remaining terminal for a frantic two minutes to hold a draw (“Mine it! Camp it! Anything!” becoming my rather unconvincing war cry, in the need to defuse the tension during the respawn timer). Both teams tried to co-ordinate, doing their best in the maelstrom of bullets, stabbings and explosions.

(Ubisoft’s Mark Bassett, host for the day, said that he hadn’t seen any drawn games before, but by the end of the afternoon had witnessed four of them.)

The imbalance is key – both sides are extremely vulnerable to specific skills held by the other, and when this has sunk in it becomes like a two sided rock-paper-scissors; yes, this is a terrible analogy, but perhaps one of the few that might fit. Certainly, you cannot see the teams as basic red and blue mirrors of each other, with any attempts to be equal in abilities. With a degree of irony – but very likely a greater degree of design – the imbalances between the sides lead to a very strong sense of balance, as when working with or against an experienced team (or both), you never feel helpless… but you never feel especially powerful in comparison either.

Obviously, you can tip things slightly in your favour thanks to the upgrades – as mentioned in the original article, there are claimed to be around 500 unlockable items for Spies vs Mercs. This session started with everything locked, giving a greater sense of the effort needed; for the record, a loss would pay around $20k, and a win could pay $50k or more ($100k being common). Put into perspective, basic equipment purchases tended to be priced in the $40k to $60k bracket, with obvious variations – a new pair of boots and a different gun being at the opposite ends of costs.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist Spies vs Mercs

While only played briefly as side games at the event, the difference between classic and Blacklist SvM was pronounced. With lighting being a bigger factor, and only 2v2 teams, there is a lot less action but a lot more tension in the classic game.

When the dust had settled and the results were in – third place, by the way, with the mentioned drawn game being ruled on points – it was time to relax and reflect with the other competitors. We all had stories to share – where did you hide? How did your team work together? What equipment did you take? – which suggests promising things for when the game is released.

That is, if – and it is a big “if” – the random groups that will likely be pulled together in game lobbies can find ways to gel as well as the fixed teams playing for around six hours straight at the event. But equally, it will be interesting to see if future tournaments get organised when the player base develops.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is due for release in the UK on August 23rd (August 20th in the US)


Peter can be described as an old, hairy gamer, a survivor of the console wars of the 1990s, and a part-time MMO addict. He has an especial fondness for retro gaming and observing the progressions in long running gaming series. When scandalously not caught gaming, he can also be found reading comics and fantasy fiction, or practising terrible photography.