In Splinter Cell: Blacklist, a decidedly less gravelly-voiced Sam Fisher heads up new government outfit Fourth Echelon, an anti-terrorism task force out to prevent the titular blacklist – an escalating list of threats suddenly levied at the United States by a terrorist group calling themselves The Engineers.

Sam and his team (including series regular Anna 'Grim' Grímsdóttir) operate high above the clouds within a massive transport plane, a literal and narrative vehicle that can whisk Sam & Co. away to foreign locales at a moment's notice. Despite being the boss, Sam foregoes the corner office in favor of continuing his hands-on approach to combatting threats to national security in his latest covert op, the first from developer Ubisoft Toronto.
In Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Sam Fisher employs his craft through three different disciplines: the straight stealth approach of evasion over violence; striking from the shadows, hiding bodies and returning into the darkness; and shooting everyone in sight. These fall under the categories of ghost, panther and assault, respectively.

Performing actions in the levels corresponding with one of those disciplines awards points, which then are used to unlock equipment, guns and cosmetic upgrades for Sam – or used to upgrade the Fourth Echelon office (the aforementioned plane). Initially, Sam's sight when moving and using his thermal goggles is practically nonexistent; however, sinking cash into the sat nav section of the Fourth Echelon plane corrects this issue, while boosting his sight distance when wearing the goggles. It's just one example of the many upgrades available.

Earning cash is accomplished through in-game performance – taking out a hapless goon may award 100 points, but doing so stealthily and hiding the body in a nearby trash bin will yield more. It's in this way, through greater in-game rewards, that Ubisoft Toronto encourages the more classic Splinter Cell type of play style.

However, players aren't forced to play as the classically sneaky Sam. The mark and execute system is an empowering mechanic grandfathered in from Sam's last outing, Splinter Cell: Conviction. Sam monitors an environment and tags enemies; once they're lined up, a simple button press allows him to execute the marked bad guys in a stylish sequence.

It ups Sam's badass factor, obviously, but more importantly, it nips that old stealth stigma of "discovery equals death" right in the bud. If you've tagged enemies and become discovered, simply initiate the execution sequence.

Despite being a new studio, developer Ubisoft Toronto's staff is comprised of plenty of series fans, creative director Maxime Beland told me. "We've got a lot of new people at Ubisoft on the team and a lot of them were fans of the franchise and never got to work on it before. So we get a lot of new input on the brand – and obviously everyone has a different idea on where it should go – but it's interesting because it's a lot of fresh blood."

Catering to the hardcore fans is obviously very important to Beland, so he was all too eager to talk to me about perfectionist mode. It's an ultra-difficult level that removes a lot of the HUD indicators, and strips Sam's ability to execute after marking targets, as well as his ability to see through walls with his goggles. A.I. enemies are also immune to frontal hand-to-hand takedowns in the mode.

"My feeling with Conviction was that we were kind of missing a difficulty level, right?" Beland said. "Our normal should have maybe been rookie and our elite should have been normal – kind of we were missing that ultra-realistic level for the hardcore purist people." Being a longtime series fan, I naturally gave it a whirl – and then I stopped doing that because man it's hard.

My brief amount of time with Splinter Cell: Blacklist showed a game poised to reclaim its roots, yet carry forward the best ideals found in The Conviction Experiment. Beland credits much of this classic feel and approach to Ubisoft Toronto's mixture of new talent and some seasoned veterans – and at this stage, I'm inclined to agree with him. I took to Splinter Cell: Blacklist like Sam to a rainy rooftop at night: I felt right at home.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.