TORONTO - "Splinter Cell" has a new home and leading man for its sixth instalment.
Game development has shifted to Ubisoft Toronto from Montreal, with Eric Johnson ("Rookie Blue" and "Smallville") taking over from the iconic Michael Ironside in the lead role of super operative Sam Fisher.
More importantly, the video game franchise continues to expand and fine-tune its game play. Fans will see the results for themselves on Aug. 20 when "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist" is released.
But change seems good in this case
In "Blacklist," Fisher is back fighting the good fight — this time in charge of Fourth Echelon, described as the "very sharp pointy end of the (anti-terrorist) spear."
A terrorist group known as The Engineers, at the behest of 12 rogue nations, is demanding that the U.S. pull its military from their countries. A shopping list of terrorist strikes, with dates, comes with the threat.
"Splinter Cell," which debuted in 2002, made its mark as a stealth operative game with Fisher using his trademark space-age goggles to wreak havoc from the shadows.
"The lights go out, they come back on and everyone's dead," summed up game director Patrick Redding.
You could also use Fisher's skills to simply avoid being seen by enemies.
"Conviction," the previous "Splinter Cell" game, opened the door to more aggressive play — offering other options than the stealth approach.
"Blacklist" continues that trend, although developers say players will be rewarded more the stealthier they go.
The playing style spectrum varies from ghost (full stealth) to assault (guns a-blazing). Somewhere in the middle lies the so-called panther approach (moving in and out of the shadows to take care of business).
Redding says developers have tried to figure out the mix between stealth and action since the franchise started.
They seem to have hit a nice balance in "Blacklist."
"We know the mix we want," said Redding.
Playing a chapter set in an abandoned mill against a rainy London backdrop, it's clear that the ghost or panther approach is the way to go as you elude or dispose of bad guys in working your way down the building.
Getting into a police station to rescue an asset in an earlier portion of the game allows you the option to damn the torpedos and shoot first, although you may find yourself retreating into the shadows to ease the enemy disposal.
Redding says the "Splinter Cell" fan base is among the most passionate in Ubisoft franchises. There are fewer people taking part in the forums than say "Assassin's Creed," but they post more.
"That core group is incredibly protective of the franchise," said Redding.
"I think that that group was nervous, frankly, about the idea that 'Splinter Cell' would move into more action-oriented direction," he added.
But he says the die-hards — after getting over the shock of change —have grown to see the benefits.
"They start to understand some of the value in the evolution of the series. They realize things cannot remain stagnant. ... And I think for a lot of them, what they realize is 'Conviction' introduced some features and some game mechanics that benefit the series."
The new game has been in production for almost three years, with Redding and others arriving in May 2010 to begin production of "Blacklist" at the new Toronto studio.
For Redding, a San Diego native who has spent eight years at Ubisoft, the move to Toronto was a chance to step outside the box while remaining in the Ubisoft family.
It was also a chance to get "a fresh perspective" on the "Splinter Cell" franchise.
"For a lot of us, we were looking for the opportunity to kind of shake things up," said Redding, who was game director for the co-op, multiplayer portion of "Conviction." "We didn't want to become complacent, we didn't want to kind of become the lotus-eaters of the Ubisoft Montreal studio. We wanted to make sure that we were growing and continue to develop.
"So when the new studio opened in Toronto, I think a lot us kind of wiped one tear away — because we all love Montreal, for a lot of us that's home and it's a big city for us — but it was a chance to engage in almost a startup culture. To be the first in the door, to be able to literally flip the lights on for the first time and start filling seats up and be responsible not only for a new game but also for building a new studio culture from the ground up."
Redding says the change in leading man was required by the game's move from voice action to full performance capture (body, face and voice).
"It really elevates the process," he said. "It allows them to bring their best work to the table. And had we simply elected to just dub in a voice, we would have been missing some of that context, for sure.
"As good of an actor as Michael Ironside is, I think he would have been put in a very, very awkward position."