Splinter Cell: Blacklist's Spies vs Mercs mode offers a sense of claustrophobic fear that few multiplayer games have been able to offer. It's an asymmetrical assault mode where one team of heavily-armed mercenaries attempts to defend three terminals from nimble spies attempting to hack in and steal the ones and zeros within.
No matter which side you're on, when one terminal is being hacked, all of the conflict and chaos is focused like a laser to one room where the mercenaries must hunt for the original hacker to stop the countdown. You can't leave that room until the job is done – either the terminal is hacked or the hacker has been dealt with. It's about the most tense 90 seconds I've been asked to endure in a video game.
Producer Sébastien Ebacher, who was in charge of co-op in Splinter Cell: Conviction, says fans lobbied for the return of 'Spies vs. Mercs,' so the team at Ubisoft Montreal decided to take the challenge.
"I'm happy now that we took that challenge to try and innovate on a concept that was so innovative at the time," Ebacher told Joystiq. "We have the classic mode, it's close to what it was and it's really intimate, basic yet strategic, and you use the light and shadow, very core to the pillars of Splinter Cell. So, you could be happy with that – you have Spies vs. Mercs and could be happy with that – but we gave ourselves the challenge to say, 'You know what? We're Blacklist, let's try to build on it.' The franchise changed a little bit with Conviction, in terms of pace and controls of Sam, so we asked ourselves if we could benefit from that. So we challenged ourselves to have an eight-player multiplayer mode and see if we could still have the strategy go on. And right now, I think we've succeeded."
Outside of the traditional two-on-two Spies vs. Mercs matches essentially identical to the classic mode, Ubisoft Montreal has added a "Blacklist" variant supporting up to eight players. In these bouts, light and shadow take a backseat to classes and customizations – as you play across all modes, you'll earn currency to upgrade your spies and mercs, fine-tuning them for your preferred play style.
At the outset, three different classes designed to support certain styles of play are accessible. There's the digital ghillie suit-wearing spy who can turn invisible at a moment's notice, but his counterpart on the mercenary side has an AR drone that can pick up heat signatures and tag located spies, nullifying the effect. Another mercenary can lay down proximity mines, while a disruption ability on the spy side has an EMP blast that can disable nearby mercenary tech.
Ebacher says the classes were very much designed in this manner, to effectively have an exact counter on the opposing side so as to keep one from being too powerful over the other. "It's simple in the concept and the objective, but you can pass a lot of time in that game finding the way to play it that fits your own play style. And I think that people enjoy an experience when they feel intelligent playing the game and I think that Spies vs. Mercs offers a lot of those opportunities to feel intelligent, whether via the way you play the game or the way you customize the tools you're using."
Initially, classes appear to be balanced; however, those checks and balances will presumably get a bit muddled as players unlock and equip new tech that I wasn't able to see during my brief play session. Regardless of selected class, the only successful strategy I found was working in tandem with your own side. Cohesion, team work and careful execution of abilities are paramount to victory in Spies vs. Mercs.
"Everybody knows these concepts. You played hide and seek when you were young, so the vanish part and escaping – you don't find those type of gameplay a lot in the actual online multiplayer market," Ebacher concluded in his interview with Joystiq following the demo. "I think that there are so many games right now doing multiplayer, that new experience where it's tactical and strategic and that you really have to outsmart your opponent, I think that it's a good time to have that offer on the market and I think that it's really attractive."
The allure is certainly there – even after its introduction with Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow in 2004, Spies vs. Mercs still feels completely unique in Splinter Cell: Blacklist and is without a real rival in the multiplayer space today. Purists should be satisfied with the original two-on-two variant focusing on light and shadow, but they shouldn't stop there. The most potential lies in the new Blacklist mode, where there's more opportunity for groundbreaking strategies and team work to evolve from the addition of special abilities.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist launches on August 20 for the Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Wii U.