Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Opinions vary on the how good Splinter Cell: Conviction, the 2010 entry in Ubisoft’s action-stealth franchise, turned out, but everybody agrees something very important was missing from the package: Spies vs. Mercs. As multiplayer modes go, it counts as one of the best ever conceived, elevating three consecutive Splinter Cell games into a superior category. Then Conviction dropped it cold.

Fans and critics didn’t take the absence kindly. So when Ubisoft Montreal went to work on Splinter Cell: Blacklist (due August 20 on PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U), they made a point to include not one, but two versions of Spies vs. Mercs.

It essentially boils down Coke Classic versus New Coke. The differences will almost certainly polarize gamers into diehard either/or camps, and that’s a shame, because both have their vicious charms. Even more impressive, both games play identically on the exact same maps, and yet feel entirely different.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist

The classic

The basic song remains the same. A team of stealthy, agile agents infiltrate an area to hack data terminals and make off with sensitive information. A patrol of heavily armed soldiers hunt them down and shoot them full of holes. That asymmetrical magic remains intact throughout, but the more pure representation of it falls to Spies vs. Mercs Classic. This is the original-gangsta mode, drawing from the 2-vs.-2 days of Pandora’s Tomorrow and Chaos Theory and slipping a few modern improvements in under the radar.

It works like this: A smart merc owns the map. A good spy steals it out from under him.

As a spy carrying nonlethal gear only, you work the shadows and climb up to places mercs can’t reach, though their bullets can. Matches play out in two 10-minute rounds; spies have that long to hack the three terminals on the map, itself divided into three sections. That means exposing yourself for a few dangerous seconds to initiate the hack and then hiding anywhere in the area while the counter fills. If mercs kill the hacker, the remaining spy has a few seconds to pick up the hack before the counter resets to zero.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist

So a good little support spy runs interference. Playing on an industrial map called Silo, my data-hacking teammate hid up in the dark scaffolding while I harassed the mercs searching the room. I just had to keep their attention on me … the guy they weren’t really after.

It’s easier to do that now. The maps don’t have cameras and sensors to tip off the mercs to spy locations anymore. Stun bolts from your crossbow buy you a few seconds like they did in Chaos Theory, but the spy’s melee attack earned itself a major update. No need to sneak up on unsuspecting mercs anymore. Just get close enough and crotch-punch the unhappy gun-thug. That’s goodnight, sucker. But “easier” isn’t “easy,” and spies have to chose their moments carefully. One merc outmatches a spy in combat; two makes it no contest.

Spies vs. Mercs Blacklist changes that equation. This version bumps the player count up to 4-vs.-4 and introduces three new elements: character classes, customization, and lethal loadouts for spies. Objectives and principles remain the same. The experience doesn’t.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist

The new formula

Classic plays out as a tense thriller. Every move carries a steep risk/reward proposition, and with players operating in pairs, mistakes are costly. You wait more as a spy. You hide. Blacklist is much more a run-and-gun game where both sides have plenty of backup if things go sideways. Instead of striking from the shadows, I took position behind cover and sprayed bullets at anyone who walked through the door. A teammate tagged mercs with stun bolts from across the room so I could jump down and finish the job. We rampaged over that map.

The spies’ guns feel thin compared to the mercs’ artillery, but I shredded plenty of mercs in face-to-face shootouts. That just doesn’t happen in Classic.

In some ways, this undermines the whole idea of Spies vs. Mercs, but I got a big kick out of it. Allowing spies to be more proactive combatants ups the ante, and I even carved a lot of entertainment out of playing for the mercenary side … never my favorite team in previous games. Few things feel so wonderfully desperate as plowing through Silo’s abandoned railyard, gunning down every spy in sight while the hack counter ticks up to completion, and still not finding the hacker. The multiplayer experience that draws you in that deep really does its job right. But I also really enjoy how Blacklist helps mercs become more proactive, too.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Mercs don’t feel like the dumbed-down alternative to the sophisticated spy anymore, integrating gadgets like drones and sensors so they’re instinctive-use items. It’s easy for mercs to do more than simply play catch-up — smart, too, and I like feeling smart. Me and my partner planted mines by terminals, temporarily coated others in deadly VX gas, found dark corners to camp in, and wiped out all comers.

At least, until a Saboteur spy disabled our explosives with an EMP burst, the Intel Scout tagged our location, and an invisible Predator spy assassinated me. Everybody wants to be the Predator, but you really do benefit from going in with a diverse crew.

Each class comes with some delicate balancing — that Predator only packs stun bolts — and a special ability that counters the other team’s strategies. On the merc side, you pick from a plodding Peacemaker heavy gunner with an adrenaline shot, a shotgun-toting Hunter and his deployable, explosive drone, and the electronics-frying Disruptor … very handy for exposing cloaked Predators. I found myself favoring Disruptors and Saboteurs as the all-arounders, but it’s not long before you earn tokens to unlock customizable character slots and the money to modify armor components, nightvision goggles, and yes, gadget and weapon loadouts.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist

I’m less convinced that a bunch of fully customized characters can maintain that balance, but that’s tough to judge at this point. An up-armored, invisible sniper sounds too big a tipping point to me.

That said, the maps accommodate both Classic and Blacklist nicely both in their verticality and their complexity — Cartel features a town square surrounded by houses to sweep for hiding spies, and each room has its own escape hatch. More than that, the lighting enhances the hunt like few other games do. The contrasts are sharp, not muddy, and a precision design keeps the light sources from giving away too much or revealing too little.

My biggest concern goes to longevity.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist

The bottom line

Splinter Cell: Blacklist has built a genuinely compelling game here — two, in fact. Classic Spies vs. Mercs fired off all the old instincts from the original, even though the details differ. Blacklist accelerates the teamwork and offers a more aggressive game. I want to play both versions for a long, long time, but arriving at the very end of this hardware cycle, I’m worried about the player base splintering into last-gen and next-gen. This should be a launch title for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox Fusion (or whatever it’s called). As-is, Ubisoft won’t even confirm Blacklist on those platforms. Either way, too many players could get left behind.

And that would also be a shame, because one of the best multiplayer modes ever conceived is back and meaner than ever. Get excited.