No, the real question about the new Splinter Cell is how irate Sam Fisher purists will be. The series peaked in the eyes of many last generation. The last two entries were variable in quality or a big step away from the established formula.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a trip back to the roots. Back to gadgets that'd make Bond jealous, back to playing the unseen killer. They've made a Splinter Cell game actually feel like Splinter Cell. Yet it'll still manage to anger purists. At least some of them. But we'll get to that.
Sam Fisher is back (complete with new face and new voice), and is now in charge of Fourth Echelon - a tiny black ops agency for U.S. security matters. And tiny it is: four people, plus crew, on the modified transport aircraft that makes up their H.Q.
They're on the trail of terrorist group The Engineers, to stop them before they finish their planned attacks on American soil. They've already levelled a U.S. air base in the biggest attack on U.S military installations since Pearl Harbour, and they also intend to ravage the country each week until the United States withdraws its troops from abroad. Their operations have names like "American Consumption" and "American Fuel", and together constitute what they call "the Blacklist", which sounds like someone decided on the game's title before the plot and had to find some way to link everything together. So Sam and his team have to go through a series of missions across the globe before the attacks are completed.
Ubisoft have made a big deal out of Blacklist covering three distinct play styles: Ghost, Panther and Assault. Ghost is, on paper, the hardest as you knock enemies out with non-lethal means or better still, sneak past without being seen or heard. Old-school Splinter Cell. Panther emphasises the importance of stealth, but you can stab or shoot enemies with headshots, and as long as it's with a silencer. This tactic brings back the "mark and execute" technique, as you select a trio and press a button to watch Sam take them out. Assault tosses any sneaking out the window and let's you charge in, throwing grenades without a care.
Each mission's scored across the three categories. There is incentive to stick to one style, as ‘mastering' one gets you more points, all of which can be converted into cash and can be used to buy new equipment and gadgets, or you can even unpgrade the Paladin, your aircraft, which provides new functions such as a on-screen radar during missions.
The system works brilliantly. Ghosting will require multiple plays of areas as you work out the most optimal route. Panther is a mix between old-school Splinter Cell and Conviction. It is these two styles, either singularly or a combination of the two that most players will end up sticking with. So, what won't purists like?
In many areas you're forced into direct confrontation. Also there are some situations you can't sneak past, and need to use gadgets or melee attacks to proceed. A requirement that may disgruntle some. We're willing to take it, given the rest comes close to matching Chaos Theory, the series' highlight, for both atmosphere and gameplay.
And you can rejoice that there are still missions where you cannot kill anyone, others where you have to remain unseen. And even the toughest super spy will be severely tested by delving into any of the many side quests that are seamlessly accessible from the main campaign world map.
Side missions can all be played in co-op, and for the most part also alone. They cover several types of gameplay, which include a small variant of Horde mode, and some of the most hardcore stealth missions the series has featured - get seen and you have to restart from the beginning: no checkpoints.
If there's a weakness, it's in Fisher's new voice. Personally we miss Michael Ironside's charm and bone-dry humor. The old Sam wasn't afraid to joke as he had guards in a headlock.
But Ubisoft tie missions together with fantastic cutscenes, and avoid the worst clichés - you'll never need to hit the X button repeatedly in some sudden QTE. There's a nice touch as the main menu is intergrated into the Paladin itself, so you're always immersed in Sam's world.
The storyline is significantly better than the shambles we were served during Conviction, were virtually nothing made sense. Absolute purists will still sneer at the differences, but otherwise Splinter Cell: Blacklist is clearly the best game in the series that we have seen on this console generation. (Even if the new Sam Fisher is somewhat stiff).
Many of the side missions can be played in co-op, and there's a dedicated co-op campaign as well that can be played both online or across split-screen (though there's no split-screen on the Wii U version). Spies vs. Mercs game type makes a return. That said, at the time of this embargo we couldn't test these modes. Come back in a few weeks after the game's officially launched for a Frontlines special on it.