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Fifty Shades of Black: Splinter Cell Blacklist Hands-On Preview


With a little over a month before the release of Splinter Cell Blacklist, Sneaky Bastards goes hands-on and speaks with Game Director Patrick Redding about his systemic approach to stealth.


Splinter Cell Blacklist Game Director, Patrick Redding

Splinter Cell Blacklist Game Director, Patrick Redding

As we load into Splinter Cell Blacklist’s Abandoned Mill level, the first thing we toy with is the light and shadow system. Conviction’s black and white filter has been replaced with a light on the back of Sam Fisher’s Ops Suit; for all intents and purposes, the system is binary to ensure his visibility threshold is clear, but Game Director Patrick Redding tells us there’s a little bit of wiggle room. It’s a light and shadow system designed to be tested against singleplayer and co-operative AI, so how does it factor into the return of Blacklist’s adversarial Spies vs Mercs multiplayer mode?

“That’s an example of where obviously the singleplayer and co-op versions of that have to be the leader in terms of how the system is going to work, because we’re designing for an AI that’s present in two of the three modes,” Redding explains.

SCB_Screenshot_MPEVENT_SVM_PERSPCTVMRC“Then, in Spies vs Mercs, you have to approximate some things. In the Classic Spies vs Mercs mode, there’s actually a different lighting setup. It’s much more high-contrast and much, much darker with serious, pitch black shadows. With that in mind, they could do small modifications to the lighting rig of the Spy character, so that you really disappear into the dark. That was an interesting balancing act between a mechanical feature that was built into the avatar’s design, and then a level design implementation of how the lighting was going to work.”

Spies that remain still within a dark area literally fade into nothingness

 
Our prior hands-on time with Spies vs Mercs highlighted just how simple and effective this shadow blend actually is. Spies that remain still within a dark area literally fade into nothingness – though they can still be revealed by the flashlights of inquisitive Mercs. But flashlights are an important progression tool in the singleplayer and co-op level design, too.

SCB_Screenshot_MPEVENT_COOP_SamBriggs05“It does two things,” says Redding. “It makes the AI smart, whilst also revealing their location.”

An unconscious body left hidden in the shadows by Fisher won’t be found by a guard unless he’s progressed to a search phase, or has his flashlight turned on. For extra safety, bodies can be dumped in certain containers around the level that essentially sets them as forever hidden.

And what’s going to push the AI into search mode? A whole range of factors that players must stay apprised of. If an enemy is in a radio conversation with another AI, knocking out that enemy mid-sentence will cause the AI on the other end of the radio to become suspicious. Furthermore, enemies will start to notice if their colleagues are disappearing one-by-one. Breaking multiple lights, especially within the AI’s vision, can also be a cause for alarm.

Sound is also a key factor. Fisher essentially has six movement speeds: two when crouched, two when standing, and then a free-running-like Active Sprint mode for both crouched and standing. According to Redding, any movement is going to generate a small noise event. The severity of that event will change depending upon the selected difficulty level. In realistic or perfectionist mode, anything above the crouched, slow walk will create noise. As Fisher increases speed, the radius of detection widens. Of course, if he sprints, enemies will hear him no matter what.

Blacklist’s game-wide, economy-fueled customisation system allows players to purchase stealth-related Ops Suit attachments that muffle the amount of sound generated when moving. However, they’ll be sacrificing armour and ammunition capacity. According to Redding, different materials will make different noises, and ambient sound is a very minor factor, but Blacklist isn’t requiring players to keep an eye on a sound meter at all times.

SCB_Screenshot_MPEVENT_COOP_SamBriggs04

What we’ve tried to do is keep all these things as systemic as possible

 
One of the new factors Fisher will have to deal with when encountering enemy dogs is their smell radius. Dogs essentially act as roaming security systems; they will bark when players get too close, alerting nearby enemy AI to the disturbance.

“We also have the classic laser grids and security cameras, and the drones,” adds Redding. “What we’ve tried to do is keep all these things as systemic as possible. So, by having a new AI type, which is the Drone Operator, we can add drones into the environment so that, in some situations, you arrive and they’re already deployed and on a patrol path. So now you’re dealing with what’s effectively an unpredictable, mobile camera – that’s also armed with an explosive.”

SCB_Screenshot_MPEVENT_SVM_17The Drone Operator also jams Fisher’s vision modes until he’s taken out. Players will always have two vision modes available, after unlocking the second mode. Night vision is equipped by default, whilst the additional mode can be continually upgraded with new features like sonar vision or colourised thermal vision.

The addition of new AI archetypes like the Drone Operator highlights how Blacklist has shifted the in-game threats slightly away from static security systems and more toward human enemies.

“By and large, when you’re dealing with a human AI, there’s an increased level of tension,” explains Redding. “Security systems create a very binary model of detection. They can be stressful, but often they feel like more of a nuisance.”

Maintaining that tension has been a key design pillar for Blacklist, much of it concerning the amount of resources available to Fisher at any given time.

“I’ve always said that a lot of ways stealth games are ultimately survival horror games in reverse,” says Redding. “You take one piece of it and reverse it. You’re the monster. But you still have to worry about scarcity. There’s the low level – how much ammo do you have on your person? How much health do you have before you need to run and hide in the corner? We have regenerating health, so it’s not quite the same as when we had medkits hanging on walls periodically.

Stealth games are ultimately survival horror games in reverse… you’re the monster

 
“A big part was to say, up front, we would be putting constraints on how much stuff you could carry. And, yes, by upgrading your Ops Suit, you could choose to be more armoured up, and have more ammo, or you could choose to be stealthy and carry less stuff. That obviously affects that tension as well.”

SCB_Screenshot_MPEVENT_COOP_SamBriggs02

Redding toys with increasing tension even further with the introduction of a forced stealth section at the end of the Abandoned Mill level.

“Our forced stealth section is literally a room,” says Redding. “You need to get to a truck, plant a tracker, and then get out of the room, not only without being detected, but without touching anybody at all. So you can’t use any of your non-lethals, you can’t subdue people using hand-to-hand knockouts. The most you can do is maybe try to distract them by using noises. But the second they suspect anything more suspicious than a mouse, then it’s all over. That’s the most rigid and strict version of that we implemented. There are a couple places in the game where we have slight variations on that. But we really tried to keep that to a minimum.

“I think that forced fail on detection is a thing that people by and large do not like, even if they’re hardcore stealth fans. So it’s okay to have small, bite-sized chunks of that as a way of giving you a little punch in the ribs. But you never want it to last more than a few minutes.”

It’s possible to complete the entire singleplayer game as Fisher without killing anybody

 
SCBL_SVM_MIDREZ_SPY2It’s what we’re told next that is the most exciting news to us: it’s possible to complete the entire singleplayer game as Fisher without killing anybody. Blacklist does introduce a small number of situations in which players will have no choice but to deal with enemy AI, but the developers aggressively avoid creating forced detection systems. According to Redding, 99% of the game can be played without touching anybody. That is the Splinter Cell Blacklist we want to play.

Splinter Cell Blacklist will be available August 22. The game will be playable at the Ubisoft booth at PAX Aus in Melbourne. Get your paws on it, then stop by the Sneaky Bastards Stealth Gaming Panel on Friday at 3PM.

Daniel Hindes

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One Response to Fifty Shades of Black: Splinter Cell Blacklist Hands-On Preview

  1. By DeviousBoomer, July 9, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Hopefully I won’t be working at 3PM so that I can drop by. Hope to see you Bastards around.

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