One hallmark of this generation in gaming is that large numbers of people came out of the ‘I hate stealth games’ closet en masse. It’s not too hard to see why, as the stealth genre of gaming was a distinctly fifth and sixth generation phenomenon. It rose to prominence partly as a result of the technological capabilities straddled the line between being able to capture the gameplay and graphical elements that create an immersive experience.
There was a time when it seemed like just about every game out there had sections where your character was required to get around unseen. Here’s a list of games, just off the top of my head: Metal Gear Solid, Tenchu, Syphon Filter, Thief, Perfect Dark, Beyond Good and Evil, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Hitman. Hell, even Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had sneaking missions. Some of these games were made better by adding stealth elements, some were made worse, but only one was the best of the bunch.
The Splinter Cell series.
Wait a minute…did I just say that Splinter Cell was better than Metal Gear Solid? Oh my goodness, I did (but with a caveat)! Full disclosure, I love the MGS series for its characters, its boss fights, and its clever metatext. It is unmatched on many levels that Splinter Cell can’t even touch. Strictly as a stealth game though, being completely honest, it’s actually kind of crap.
As a genre, stealth can be an unforgiving beast. In so many titles from its heyday, it’s pretty much a situation of ‘get discovered, die, try again monkey boy!’ People mostly look back on that with no small amount of disdain, but I actually kind of like it. To me, it’s not much different from something like Dark Souls, which forces you to be extremely careful and value your life at risk of losing a ton of progress. Of the biggest problems with stealth in the MGS series is that it’s too easy to exploit. On Normal difficulty, all you need to do is hide in a preset location (locker, box, etc.) or just stand and kill enemies until they stop coming. Sure, it fits in with the whole super soldier vibe they have going, but it always felt so … gamey to me.
Splinter Cell took the basic premise from MGS; a single soldier who specializes in infiltration missions, but inserted it into a more plausible world and focused more on gameplay over story. Series protagonist Sam Fisher is older and less angsty than l’enfant terrible, and he has a more dynamic set of moves and tricks at his disposal, particuarly in more recent installments.
I’ll be the first to admit that the first two Splinter Cell games haven’t aged that well. While they still look better than most games of the era, but they are a little too linear to really be fun nowadays. Also, the imposed limitation of ‘set off three alarms and it’s Mission Failed’ is frankly annoying. Every title released after those ones however was and still is fantastic. Chaos Theory, considered by many to be the pinnacle of the series, refined the core gameplay by allowing you more leeway to get up close to enemies. In the previous two games, the objective was to find gaps to slip through. In this one, it was more about stalking them from the shadows.
Splinter Cell: Double Agent is one of those series installments that doesn’t really fit in with the others; a sort of half-departure. Mechanically, it’s similar to Chaos Theory but it treads a different path in terms of storytelling and player choice. It was a good year or two before games like Mass Effect came along and allowed the player to make complex choices which had long-term ramifications. In theory it was a cool idea, but it never really forced you to commit to and live with a genuine dilemma and so you never felt as conflicted as the game wanted you to. In spite of this, the scenarios and gameplay were as strong as ever, and it ended with a cliffhanger about Fisher’s future.
Because of the lukewarm reception to Double Agent in 2006, the writing was on the wall for the series to go in a different direction. As Splinter Cell: Conviction was being developed, early articles and screenshots showed Fisher using crowds and environmental materials to maintain cover. It was a cool new approach with a lot of potential, but Ubisoft was working on another game which used similar mechanics: Assassin’s Creed, which ended up becoming a massive hit.
Things were quiet for a while on team Splinter Cell as they went back to the drawing board. In 2010, they ended up returning with a finished product; something far more interesting than Assassin’s Creed‘s boring combat and samey mission structure. Rocksteady had cracked the code of how to marry combat with stealth in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The question remained of how to implement fluid transitions, gun combat, and a more efficient HUD. What they came up with was amazing.
Splinter Cell: Conviction took everything that was awesome about the series and distilled it into a pure gameplay experience. First, the HUD was all but eliminated. In place of it, color determines your level of cover; if you are completely hidden, the screen is black and white. As for objectives and in-game messages, they are displayed within the environment throughout the mission. Mark and execute is another element they added which not only evens the odds against enemies, but allows you to set up traps and elaborate set pieces of simultaneous destruction.
Conviction was a phenomenal and necessary evolution in the Splinter Cell series. With Blacklist approaching in the coming months, it looks like it will be moving even further into new ground. Up to now, legendary Canadian character actor (and action movie ‘that guy’) Michael Ironside had played the role of Sam Fisher, but has been replaced by a younger (still Canadian though) actor named Eric Johnson. In addition to this change, Fisher himself appears to be getting younger. It makes sense on one hand, since according to series canon Fisher should be pushing 60 by now. Then again, wouldn’t THAT have been an interesting way to do a stealth game? Old Snake was a cool idea, but talk about an interesting gameplay challenge to have to deal with persistent injuries and lowered stamina due to the main character’s advanced age.
In the last couple of years, stealth has been making a bit of a comeback. Games such as Batman: Arkham Asylum/City, Mark of the Ninja, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution have iterated on genre conventions to make it more accessible for new fans. For all their relative successes (and let me be clear — I love all of those games), the one difference between them is that their protagonists are somewhat superhuman; far superior to the enemies they stalk. Sam Fisher, for all his toys and training, is still just a man. This vulnerability is what makes him such a fantastic character, and what makes the Splinter Cell series such an immersive and thrilling experience.