Splinter Cell: Blacklist features the most diverse dog kills in all gaming. You can leap onto them from ledges and snap their necks in tailor-made animations. You can fry them with sticky shockers. You can knock them out with sleep gas. You can knife them in the neck when they lunge for you and, once incapacitated, you can sling them over your shoulder and launch them a good few feet in the air over and over and over. (Uh, to hide the body, you understand.)
It's not that Ubisoft are 'cat people'. Player choice when dealing with dogs represents an overall richer return to form for Splinter Cell, back with a vengeance after 2010's Conviction streamlined stealth and in the process omitted popular mechanics amassed over eleven years and four mainline installments. Many of these are back in Blacklist - you'll move bodies, tackle multi-route levels, employ non-lethal force and, for the first time in seven years, take on the world in the cult smash Spies Vs. Mercenaries multilplayer (more on that later).
Ubisoft's open-plan structure extends beyond your interactions with canines. Campaign, co-op and multiplayer converge on the Paladin One, Fourth Echelon's equivalent of The Avenger's Helicarrier which, according to your new tech guy Charlie Cole, "Makes Air Force One look like a paper plane."
Replacing a traditional menu screen, it's functionally the Normandy from Mass Effect: you'll roam the deck catching up with crew, visit the infirmary to upgrade skills, choose load-outs from lockers, and improve the Paladin One itself, building workstations for prototype weapons or sensors to better track hostiles during missions, say. Actually, Paladin One is designed in such a way that we've a sneaking suspicion it'll get invaded at some point. Convenient cover points and a large holding cell at the back aren't there by accident.
But enough speculation. We headed to the war room and accessed a high-tech tablet roughly the size of a dinner table to begin our first mission. Across an LED map of Earth were strewn several singleplayer, multiplayer and co-op assignments. It didn't matter in which order we played them, but for our first foray, we decided to go domestic, accepting a one-man operation slap bang in middle of the English Channel.
HIGH AND BLIGHTY
Landing on a rain-lashed sea fort in the dead of night, frothy tides rolling under a bright full moon, we were immediately reminded of Chaos Theory's excellent opener, and comparisons only mounted as we continued. Sam's goal was simple: bug three data points. Scattered around a non-linear space, they presented puzzles you could approach in any order.
One, for instance, sat in a luxury bedroom flanked by red lasers which had to be dodged. Just like with those dogs, there were multiple angles of approach: we could time passes between them, vault over a wall and creep through a bathroom, or shimmy along a high ledge outside as gales whistled and shrieked. Another data terminal lay at the centre of a large, circular courtyard. We sneaked around the left, hugging the side of a stationed chopper, then crept up behind a guard and broke his neck (you can select lethal and non-lethal takedowns from a radial menu); but we could have gone up the right hand side, or even made a beeline down the centre, providing the massive beaming searchlight faced the other way (a single alarm here meant mission over).
Blacklist might lack the ability for Fisher to conduct field interrogations, but the enemies standing in his way had a lot to say regardless. Poorly observed Brits were the enemy, clearly voiced by Americans whose entry points into their characters was the assumption that they talk about weather and say "Bloody 'ell" a lot. To reinforce their Britishness, a rec room decorated with quality rugs and Union Jacks even piped opera music.
Where Conviction felt like a game in perpetual motion, in Blacklist you're the one setting the tempo
Splinter Cell was always better at the blacker stuff, summed up in another confrontation with a dog. "My file says it's a pure breed," says Sam's coordinator, Anna Grimsdottir. "Guess you'll have to update that file," Sam dryly replies after capping the pooch. Maybe Ubisoft are cat people after all.
Where Conviction felt like a game in perpetual motion, here you set the tempo, employing Fisher's considerable field expertise to decide where to go and when. However, not all missions are so open. A later one set in a Benghazi town recalled Conviction's faster pace and brutish nature - alarms were no issue here.