Friday, June 25, 2021
As of 13th November 2013, Ubisoft confirmed that Splinter Cell Blacklist had sold two million copies worldwide. It was seen by the publisher as a game that fell short of expectations, at least as far as sales figures were concerned, and this, in a nutshell, is perhaps why, eight years on, we've seen neither hide nor hair of a new outing. And worse still, you can't help but feel that there's little future hope for Splinter Cell's long-awaited return, despite Fisher appearing in cameo roles in other Tom Clancy titles, like Ghost Recon Wildlands, Ghost Recon Breakpoint, and Rainbow Six Siege. It’s getting a bit silly now, isn’t it?
It's almost like Ubisoft acknowledges that people like Sam Fisher, that they want to see more of the character, but it's not willing to commit to a new game; at least not yet. Numerous glimpses of Fisher in his iconic three-light NV goggles feel like trolling at this point, however – Ubisoft will be acutely aware that fans would give their eye teeth for a new instalment of Splinter Cell, especially given the big stealthy hole left by the absence of a proper Metal Gear game in the last six years, but there's ample reason for the studio to be somewhat reticent in revisiting its iconic espionage series.
First of all, there's what Ubi saw as an underperformance for the last game – at the end of the day, video games are obviously a business, and if a game fails to do the numbers, then why would you pour cash and resources into something that didn't make bank last time around? Secondly, fans didn't respond all that well to the absence of stalwart Fisher voice actor Michael Ironside, whose whispering, gruff tones came to define the series. Ironside is getting on in years now, too (he's 71-years-old), so a return to the role outside of small cameo appearances in other games, seems unlikely. Would Blacklist's Eric Johnson be keen to return to the role? Given the backlash last time around, probably not.
That leaves the option of a complete reboot a distinct possibility, and, goodness knows, there's a definite demand from fans for Splinter Cell to return – evident in the tidal wave of disdain following every Ubisoft event that doesn't end with an announcement. E3 2021 was no different, as the latest Ubisoft Forward event predictably culminated in disappointment, yet again. Ubi is guaranteed to have crunched the numbers regarding the time, money, and effort it would take to resurrect Splinter Cell, and maybe it simply doesn't add up. But with a potential resurgence in spies, stealth, and top secret missions coming by way of Perfect Dark and James Bond making eagerly anticipated video game comebacks, there's never been a better time for Sam Fisher to pounce from the shadows, fingers and toes crossed, of course.
An almost eight-year gap does essentially grant Ubisoft carte blanche to do what it wants with Splinter Cell, were it to pull the trigger on a new one. Currently, series custodian Ubisoft Toronto has its hands full with Far Cry 6, having previously released Watch Dogs: Legion (directed by Splinter Cell alum Clint Hocking, no less) – it's apparent that the studio can turn its hand to whatever IP is thrown its way, but Splinter Cell is clearly a franchise that doesn't fit Ubisoft's current business model, which deals exclusively with vast open worlds like Assassin's Creed or live service games like The Division. Beyond the odd outlier like Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, smaller, single-player experiences are, by and large, a rarity for Ubi these days.
Factor in the departure of Splinter Cell Conviction and Blacklist Creative Director Maxime Beland last year, and someone new at Ubisoft Toronto would be required to step up to the plate (Hocking being a possible safe pair of hands). Furthermore, being tasked with spearheading a new entry in such a beloved, renowned IP could be seen as a daunting, potentially thankless assignment – succeed in delivering a great game after eight years and fans will clearly be elated; conversely, botching such a long-awaited revival could prove to be the final nail in the coffin for Splinter Cell. And, obviously, nobody wants that. Hocking has tangoed with Fisher plenty of times before, most notably directing Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory - could he maybe be coaxed back to lead development on a brand-new instalment?
It's also worth remembering that Splinter Cell Conviction and Blacklist were fraught with development issues, as then-developer Ubisoft Montreal clamoured to make the stealth genre more mainstream. Blacklist's prescribed Ghost, Panther, and Assault gameplay approaches were maligned for pigeon-holing how you're encouraged to play the game. Conviction had its own problems, too, with Ubi changing direction some way into development, in favour of something more recognisably Splinter Cell. You could argue that since the purity of the original game and its first two sequels, the series has struggled to find its feet and nail its identity.
Maybe Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain raising the bar (and expanding beyond straight-up stealth) made Ubisoft think twice about competing with its own take on Hideo Kojima’s 2015 opus, and, despite that game shipping an impressive six million copies, as of December 2015, stealth games remain somewhat niche. Not every stealth-based title is a multi-million seller - Eidos-Montréal’s 2014 Thief reboot performed poorly, and, while Arkane’s first Dishonored did well, the 2016 sequel limped its way to 2.5 million units sold (equally beloved by fans and celebrated for its magnificent design). The Tenchu series (one that Ubisoft incidentally has publishing history with) also unceremoniously fizzled out, thanks to increasingly lacklustre efforts and weak sales figures to match. Even ninjas can’t guarantee that your stealth game will be a hit, which is saying something. Perhaps linear stealth titles don’t cut the mustard, when it comes to coaxing in a broader audience?
A forthcoming Splinter Cell animated Netflix series and continuing talk of Tom Hardy taking up the goggles as Fisher for a live-action movie adaptation may serve as helpful barometers to gauge broader interest in Ubisoft's dormant stealth series. But until the return of Splinter Cell to video games gets greenlit, every instance of Sam Fisher appearing in a mobile game like Tom Clancy's Elite Squad, popping up in Fortnite, or receiving another cameo in a different Ubi title, will always feel like a huge slap in the face. Ubisoft knows we all want it; let's just hope that one day, it finds the best way to bring Splinter Cell roaring back to life - or switching his goggles back on, with that iconic sound effect. It's been too damn long.
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