GamesBeat

How Ubisoft’s designers transformed Sam Fisher into a ‘panther’ and a leader in Splinter Cell: Blacklist (interview)

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Richard James Carrillo

As the latest addition in the Sam Fisher covert-ops video game series, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is going to be one of the biggest titles of the year. But fans might find it hard to recognize the master assassin in this new version. In contrast to Splinter Cell: Conviction, Sam is no longer the lone wolf. He’s the leader of the pack, as the commander of the newly formed Fourth Echelon agency, which is charged with stopping terrorist threats around the world.

In this game, a group of 12 rogue terrorists initiate an ultimate dubbed The Blacklist. They demand that the U.S. withdraw from war zones or face terrorist attacks on a regular timetable. As usual, Fisher doesn’t ask for permission to act. He takes to the air in his flying command center and relies on his colleagues to insert him into the right spots where he can take out the terrorists in places, such as a Benghazi, Libya police station or an abandoned warehouse in London. As Fisher, the player can choose to whether to complete the mission in stealth as a “ghost,” move in with a fluid “panther” style, or charge in like a complete maniac in an all-out assault. With these different types of play, the Ubisoft team believes they can satisfy all sorts of fans.

The game comes out on Aug. 20 on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. But we got a sneak peek at it and interviewed its top creators. Here’s our interview with Richard James Carrillo (pictured right), lead game designer on Splinter Cell: Blacklist. He worked mostly on the co-op game and the online systems for the PC version.

GamesBeat: Could you take us back to the last Splinter Cell and make a comparison to this game? What were you trying to do here that you might have wanted to do differently?

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Carrillo: The big thing that happened in Splinter Cell: Conviction was trying to find this perfect “panther” play style. What that entails is a character that can move swiftly from kill to kill, who can plan, execute and vanish. That was the big push for Conviction, to have this really lethal Sam Fisher — death from above and all those other kinds of things that fans really love.

With Blacklist, we tried to push that even further, and we tried to bring him back to his roots. You see Sam Fisher in his gear again, with the goggles and the wetsuit. You have the ghost-type of playthroughs you can do. You go from A to B without being spotted. We try to support as many playstyles as possible. We try to support player choice as much as possible. That’s something we learned from Conviction. Let’s blow this out a little more. Let’s make sure every player can attack it the way they want to attack it.

GamesBeat: How about the story here? It’s very different from Angry Sam Fisher, I guess? [Laughs]

Carrillo: Yeah. After Conviction, Sam is out of the game a little bit. Even in Conviction, you see a Sam Fisher that’s got his backpack on. He’s trying to go back to being a regular civilian. In Blacklist, he goes back to the wetsuit. He gets pulled back in because of the Engineers. This is a terrorist cell that’s handed an ultimatum to the United States, saying, “Get your troops out of all of our countries or we’ll bring the war to you.”

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With that, they create a blacklist. This is a list of escalating terror attacks on U.S. interests. They’re all attached to a countdown. When that countdown hits zero each time, you’re going to get a new attack. You don’t know what, you don’t know where, but you know when it’s going to happen. Sam gets pulled back in to head Fourth Echelon. This is the first time you’ll see Sam in the driver’s seat. He gets to call all the shots. He gets to build his team the way he wants to. His mission is to stop these attacks at all costs.

GamesBeat: What can you tell us about the command room?

Carrillo: Yeah. Their main hub is the Paladin. They’re always airborne. It’s a mobile command center. It’s interesting. We try to build this hub experience where you can talk to other characters on your team. As you talk to them, you get to unlock a little more about characters other than Sam. Obviously, he’s the leader. He’s in charge. He’s making all these calls. He’s upgrading the Paladin. You get to take the driver’s seat on that one, get that experience of Sam as the leader.

GamesBeat: Can you describe some of these other characters?

Carrillo: We have Grim. Grim’s come back. She and Sam kind of left off poorly in Conviction, as many of the fans could tell you. Nowadays, they’re just looking forward and trying to move ahead to stop these attacks. Their personal things are set aside right now.

We have Briggs, who comes from the CIA. He’s very much the schoolboy type of character. Sam’s becoming his mentor, as you’ve seen in this demo. Briggs takes more of the overwatch role. He’s protecting Sam and giving him support, but Sam is still the main character who puts the boots on the ground. You have Charlie, the tech guy.

GamesBeat: Charlie’s pretty geeky. He’s doing comic relief?

Carrillo: He does have a comic side. A lot of people love that character. Overall, he’s a fresh pair of eyes on the experience. Everyone else has that hardcore outlook. He’s the average person from the outside world who doesn’t really understand how deep in he is. He provides that comic relief because he seems so out of place.

GamesBeat: You almost have a meta-level here, in some sense. You have this interaction going on between these characters in between the missions, and then you go down into the missions.

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Carrillo: Yeah, definitely. Something we did in Conviction was the U.I. all over the walls. You had videos showing on the walls. You had your objectives. We’re pushing that further with these panels. In the mission, you get to interface with your team in a unique way. We’re pushing that team aspect. Sam is in control, but he’s no longer that lone wolf. He’s leading the pack. You constantly interface. Sam doesn’t do everything. You have a guy who’s hacking. You have a girl who’s trying to get you as much information as possible, more direction on where to go. You have the support on the ground as well. It’s almost always a team effort. You’ll see that dynamic in a new and interesting way.

GamesBeat: You have something almost like an economy here as well, as far as what you earn and buy, the gadgets that you can get hold of over time. Did you want to give players more variety there, more choices in how they could do each mission?

Carrillo: Yeah. You have Sam Fisher as the leader now. Now that he makes all the calls, he can decide what he wears, what he brings into each mission, what he upgrades with, and also how he upgrades Fourth Echelon altogether. Each mission, you’ll be earning in this universal economy system. That includes spies versus mercs. That includes co-op. You’re always earning for Fourth Echelon no matter what you do. Those earnings are based on your playstyle.

We listened to the fan reaction from Conviction on this one. There was a little issue with ghosting a mission perfectly and not being rewarded for it. You’d put in all this effort and all you’d get was the usual “Mission Complete.” You could have played it any old way, and we’d show you the same banner. We wanted to reward those players who put in the extra effort. No matter what playstyle you use, you will get rewarded. But those ghost players who go the extra mile will get more rewards. With those rewards, you’ll be able to upgrade Sam and unlock new gadgets. We have a ton of new gadgets and weapons in this game. You can upgrade these altogether, too.

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GamesBeat: What are some of the cool technologies at work here?

Carrillo: We’re bringing back the sticky cam. That’s an old favorite. We’re upgrading it a bit to have the tri-rotor, which makes it more of a mobile sticky cam. It can take out enemies.

GamesBeat: Like a flying drone.

Carrillo: Yeah. It can also use distraction techniques. Sleeping gas is a big favorite right now. What’s more interesting is…. It’s less about the lethal gadgets and more about the nonlethal gear, the distraction tools. Sleeping gas can take out groups of enemies at once. But on the other side of it, you have a lot of new archetypes that bring a lot of different dynamics as well.

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GamesBeat: It’s a very peace-loving game, then.

Carrillo: [Laughs] Well, it can be. That’s one of the big things about the game. We allow the players to attack in any way they want. They can go nonlethal the entire way, using the ghost playstyle, sneaking through from A to B without ever raising any alarms.

blacklist 7GamesBeat: You’ve shown a couple of levels here. What are some of the takeaways from these two particular stages?

Carrillo: The interesting thing here is that one of the levels we’re showing, Benghazi, is a daylight map. The other level we’re showing, London, is a nighttime map. We wanted to compare those dynamics. We have a lot of variety in the game. It’s a huge game.

We wanted to show everyone that the daylight maps … I know there’s a lot of curiosity about that. People are wondering if it’s going away from stealth, but you can stealth the daylight maps as well. It’s a lot harder — there aren’t as many shadows to stick to — but you can get through them without being spotted. It’s just that you have to use all your distraction techniques and all your gadgets perfectly. It’s more of a challenge, I would say, than a nighttime map where have that cover of darkness.

GamesBeat: Is there any reward for using no tech to get through a mission? [Laughs]

Carrillo: Well, with the scoring system overall, we’re constantly tuning and tweaking it to make sure it properly rewards players. We definitely want people to utilize all the tools we’ve given them, though. There isn’t really more reward for not using the kind of gameplay features that we want everyone to use.

GamesBeat: What else is happening between now and the release date?

Carrillo: In terms of the development of the game, it’s just putting those extra fine touches on. Making sure it’s playing really well and looking really good. The build you’re seeing today is something a bit older that we polished up to make sure that we could bring it here. These guys are always constantly working. In the coming months we’ll be showing you co-op. We’ll be showing more of the spies versus mercs. We have a bunch of passionate teams working on those game modes.

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GamesBeat: What are the fans going to think of Sam Fisher after they’ve finished this game?

Carrillo: You’re going to see a different side of him. We’re putting a lot more depth into Sam Fisher as a character. With the leadership role, he has a lot more pressure on him. Making the calls is not as easy as it looked in the older games when people were bossing him around. You’re going to see more depth. You’re going to see him out of his element a little bit, especially on the daylight maps. We’re excited about showing this character who’s gone through so many games in some unique and interesting new situations.

GamesBeat: If you pull back, have you addressed any concerns that people might have about… This is a long franchise. It’s been going on so long that people may be getting fatigued in some way. They may want something brand new. How would you say you’ve addressed anything like that?

Carrillo: I think the biggest thing Blacklist offers is that openness and variety. Generally, when you have long franchises, you need to keep varying how they play. You need to keep giving the player more options. Each rendition can’t just look like we put some new maps in.

We’ve evolved Sam Fisher as a character. We’ve evolved his surroundings — Fourth Echelon, the characters around him — and evolved the story. We’ve escalated how deadly this new enemy is. We’ve also always stuck to that real-time, real-world type of feeling, making it more like a ripped-from-the-headlines story. The variety of gameplay and the variety of situations Sam has to deal with in a leadership role offer a lot more to the dynamics of the game to make it stand out.