When you think of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, what do you think? You probably think of the goggles: that luminous trident of green orbs, iconically confounding, considering that humans traditionally possess only two eyes. Then there is their wearer, Sam Fisher, an NSA agent who, with his sculpted rubber suit and knack for hanging upside down, is the vision of a government-backed Batman. There’s the lock-picking, the split jump, the fiber-optic camera, and the night vision—casting the world’s dingiest corners in its grainy gleam. And don’t forget Fisher’s support team: his handler, Irving Lambert, communications lead Anna Grímsdóttir, and field runner Will Redding—all plugged into dim chambers and speaking through encoded channels. But these days, the chances are that, if Fisher and his kind come to mind, you think one thing above all else: Where the hell are they?
A cursory Google search will, like a well-fogged Clancy plot, dig up a few delusive leads. The most recent game in the series was, supposedly, 2013’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist, but I’m not convinced. For one thing, it doesn’t have Sam Fisher in it—at least, not the one we know. He has, like a crusty computer program, been softly rebooted. Voiced and motion-captured by Eric Johnson, he appears to be somewhere in the soup of his thirties, with a buzzed clump of ashen hair and a voice that, compared to the tectonic rumble of Michael Ironside, who voiced Fisher before, sounds prepubescent. What an odd idea. When James Bond is replaced by a fresh actor, the freshness is the point: the wrinkles are erased, the hair thickened, the martini-soused gut trimmed back. But Fisher can never be fresh; even younger actors have to be greyed up, salted with cynicism beyond their years.
With Ironside, sadly, goes the tone. Walking into my living room the other day, wherein my flatmate was playing Blacklist, I was assaulted with a barrage of bad writing. The script, by Richard Dansky and Matt MacLennan, sounds like a taurine-infused fourteen-year-old attempting to convince us of his knowledge of the intelligence services. We are told of “backdoors into foreign ELINT systems” and of being able to “just pull ONYX satellite time from the NRO.” We’re drummed with initialisms and acronyms: not only the usual “CIA,” “NSA,” and “FBI”—reasonable enough on their own—but of the “DCS,” “NCTC,” the “SMI,” and “DEVGRU.” Meanwhile, Third Echelon, the NSA sub-branch to which Fisher always belonged, has been promoted to Fourth Echelon (that’s an entire echelon higher); standard earpieces have been swapped for “subdermal radios”; while mission control is no longer based in a Virginia office, vested in comfortably deniable gloom, but an airplane called “Paladin One,” which cruises above the Earth’s trouble spots like something from a Marvel movie.
Told of this latest development, and assured of having “every resource that you’d have on the ground,” Sam says, “But fully mobile. Just like the good old days.” Well, excuse me Sam, but it’s nothing like the good old days; for a start, back then we weren’t all angry with each other for no apparent reason. Indeed, it’s ironic that Fisher and his team should wing through the skies, given that they sound like grounded teenagers—glum, humourless, directionlessly angry. Lines are spoken as if launched in the midst of a fight. It all feels strained and cringeworthy, as though the audience’s good faith was gone, and new, excessive indoctrination was required.
Compare the older Splinter Cell games (by my estimation, the good old days concluded with Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory), which still crackled with jargon but weren’t jammed with it. They had the faint air of fatigue to them—the creak of authenticity familiar to the forty-year-old techno-thriller reader, whose veins, like those of Clancy’s heroes, are silted with coffee grinds. The first three games—peaking, for me, in the middle, with Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow—understood that the thrills of high tech work best when dusted with grizzled nonchalance and liquorish wit. Consider the following exchange, from Chaos Theory, between Grímsdóttir and an unfazed Fisher:
“Lasers? Lasers are so—”
“I was going to say ‘seventies’. Could you please stop making me feel old?”
“I've got bad news for you, Sam, you are old”
I’m afraid the bad news doesn’t stop there. For anyone wondering where Splinter Cell has been for the last seven years—or, for purists, the last 15—a more grim diagnosis than mere age was provided by Maxime Beland, creative director of Blacklist and its action-packed predecessor, Splinter Cell: Conviction. “Although Chaos Theory was an amazing game,” he begins, “when they actually get to play it, we lose a lot of people. Stealth, I think, has always been delivered as very hardcore gameplay.” The solution? “James Bond and Jason Bourne run fast, they don’t make noise, they kill one, two, three or four guys super quickly and silently with a sound suppressor, so it’s a lot more dynamic. So we needed to do something with that.” First, I can’t help but wonder how many of Roger Moore’s Bond films Beland has seen—in which nothing, not even saving the world, was worth doing at more than a saunter; and second, I would argue that, unlike Jason Bourne, Sam Fisher knows precisely who he is.
Or at least he did. Watching him glide and gut his way through terrorist strongholds in Blacklist, I’m not so sure he remembers. The game sports three styles of play: Assault, in which Sam mows down his enemies, with gritted teeth, having swapped his mission briefing for a marathon of Rambo films; Ghost, a limp attempt at the style of stealth once favoured by the series; and Panther, a blurry blend of the two. The rationale behind such a tactical dilution is simple: money. “We need to make the ten people who are attracted to Splinter Cell and stealth happy, we can’t just make two happy because they want to hide in the shadows and look at the control paths for a minute and then steady the camera placement.” Fair enough. The more people playing Splinter Cell the better, I say.
But the problem with Panther is that it digs its claws into the game’s design. If you go for full-on stealth, you find that “Ghost” may be better amended to “Poltergeist,” as you’re ushered toward mischievous tactics: lobbing distracting noise-makers, say, or elbowing the odd guard to sleep. (You can clobber as many as you like, as long as you aren’t spotted, and still attain a Ghost rating.) The maps—often brightly lit, with no need for the series’ signature night vision—are so thickly thronged with erratic guards that you can sense the designers urging you to thin their ranks with the game’s Mark and Execute feature. This mechanic, introduced in the previous game, slows time and strings together kill-shots in a quick-pan sweep—whisking Sam, for a moment, to the plains of a Western. On several occasions, even after persevering with a sneaky approach, an action-crammed cutscene will undo the mood and deposit you into a firefight.
Meanwhile, players who courted maximum carnage—who munched through Blacklist as an appetiser for the next Call of Duty—were shortchanged with awkward controls and a Fisher who fumbles like never before: hurdling cover rather than slumping against it, or entering into a psychological crisis when faced with a climbable pipe. So Panther it has to be. Beland said, when brought on half-way through the development of Conviction, “He can be hanging on a ledge and not have to be moving at one centimetre per minute. Sam is a panther, not a grandmother, and that’s my line to the team.” In Blacklist, if Sam is a panther, he may need to check his rump for a half-lodged tranquiliser dart.
It’s not so difficult to see why this broad direction was appealing to Ubisoft. Much as was the case in Conviction, when everything clicks, and you spring through courtyards sprinkling headshots and shimmying across balconies, the game is a good time; you just have to squint to make out much that resembles Splinter Cell. What’s more, when I look at Sam, it’s tough to shake the feeling that Ubisoft fetishes his slinking, malleable movements as an object of corporate worship. Jade Raymond, who at the time was the head of Ubisoft Toronto, the studio behind the game, said, “Sam does it automatically. The Killing in Motion, being able to Mark and Execute while moving through the map, makes it much more accessible to more of an action gamer.” It does, and thus makes it a juicier proposition for a company like Ubisoft, on whose corporate strategy Raymond said, “It’s about being agile and adapting to the market so we all see major shifts.” In other words: going Panther.
It didn’t work. Blacklist sold around two million copies, while, according to Raymond, Ubisoft was hoping for five million. For reference, Splinter Cell games traditionally sell roughly two million each, so why the inflated target? We may look to Assassin’s Creed—another Ubisoft franchise that started stealthy before billowing into action, and one on which Raymond and Beland both worked. Those games regularly sell ten million or more, and it isn’t worth harbouring any animus toward Ubisoft in its hopes for a bleeding effect: for the success of one series to seep into another. But where does that leave us? It’s 2020, and the chances are slim of spotting Fisher out in the field. If, by some miracle, a new game is in the works, I have but one modest request. For those of us who are happy with, as Beland says, hiding in the shadows and moving at one centimetre per minute, who don’t wish to be panthers or ghosts but rather slightly superannuated agents of the NSA: Could you please stop making us feel old?