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“That’s not Sam Fisher.”
What I’d really meant to say was, “That’s not Michael Ironside,” the actor who provided vocals for Splinter Cell’s singular protagonist since the Tom Clancy-branded stealth-action franchise launched in 2002, but it’s fairly tough to separate the two in my mind. After debuting the first gameplay trailer for 2013's Splinter Cell: Blacklist (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) and showing the extended level in action, developer Ubisoft made it pretty clear pretty fast that it was going in a very different direction for its 21st century ninja.
Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they’ve finally closed the loop. He’s got the signature tri-lens goggles and the 5 o’clock shadow, but the transformation that started years ago is now complete. What started out as Splinter Cell is only barely recognizable anymore.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m looking forward to Blacklist. I just kinda wish Ubisoft went ahead and handed the series over to an entirely new character, because the new voice just punctuates how much the guy running around and shooting people isn’t really Sam Fisher anymore.
In fairness, the team at Ubisoft did have concrete reasons for recasting the role. “The game incorporates full performance capture,” says Arne Pedroso, the senior PR manager handling Blacklist. That means everything — body, face, and voice — captured at the same time, similar to what James Cameron did on Avatar. “It required an actor who could not only do the voiceover but also a demanding physical performance.”
Ironside, at 62, didn’t fit that bill. Eric Johnson, age 32, did. Johnson’s best known in America for a recurring role in Smallville and as the unfortunate lead in Syfy’s aggressively stupid (and short-lived) Flash Gordon series, so I do have questions about him matching Ironside’s gravitas. But roles get recast all the time…we’re already up to three actors who’ve essayed Jack Ryan, Clancy’s major motion-picture hero, and the search is on for a fourth.
But more than that, the entire tenor of Splinter Cell has changed.
Early games in the series focused on light, shadow, and using those two elements to your advantage as you sneaked around enemy installations. “Mark and execute” (which lets you tag multiple enemies for insta-kill fun), introduced in 2010’s Splinter Cell: Conviction, is now the signature feature; Ubisoft even used that red “mark” chevron popping in over a terrorist’s head to reveal what game we were watching during a press conference.
The cheer from the audience that went up pretty much said it all. Splinter Cell doesn’t hide in corners anymore. It executes.
That’s been coming for a long time. Ever since the first game, where Sam’s right cross felt as potent as a custard pie to the face, Ubisoft’s upped the badass quotient with every iteration. By Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Sam could instantly shiv anybody who crossed him. Then Conviction introduced agro-stealth gameplay, letting players go far more proactive than ever before.
Stealth, however, still played a major role. Even if you decided to walk into a room and kill everyone, sneaking and deception played into your tactics. Enemies tracked your last known position — shown as a Sam Fisher ghost frozen in position — so you could quickly flank them…or lead them into ambushes.
Not once in my behind-closed-doors preview did I see a last-known-position ghost, possibly because it’s a moot point. Everything seems built around direct confrontation, not guile. Sam leaps right out into the open and pops villains at a full run. The grizzled cold warrior who distrusted authority and expended real effort in his missions has become a spritely acrobat who’s apparently both in charge of an intelligence agency and its top field operative.
I also somehow doubt you’ll shoot out any lights in Blacklist. But if you run out of mark-and-execute tokens (earned by making a melee kill), just wait. An enemy will bum-rush you even in the middle of a firefight so you take him out and charge your marks. It’s apparently that core to the gameplay. You’re not supposed to go without it.
That sounds like a great game to me, but it doesn’t sound like Splinter Cell. The deliberation’s gone. The pacing’s off. All kills, no waiting.
Put another way, the franchise has gone from stealth with gunplay to full-bore third-person shooter with stealth elements. High-impact, low patience. And again, that’s fine, but where Conviction balanced the sneaking and shooting with understated elegance and made players responsible for which path they took, everything I’ve seen says Blacklist went a different route. It’s not about traversing enemy territory anymore, outgunned and alone. It’s sweep and clear and cruise missile strikes at full speed.
That, to me, isn’t Sam Fisher’s style. He’s too smart. Too experienced. Sam’s not a ninja because he flips out and kills everybody. He’s a ninja because everybody dies, and nobody sees it coming. I’m going to miss that…and the real Sam.