Splinter Cell: Blacklist preview: The king of multiplayer returns

Spies vs. Mercs comes back fitter, meaner and quite possibly better than before.

If you've played any of the Splinter Cell series before Conviction, you likely don't need telling how good Spies vs. Mercs can be. A true classic from the last generation of multiplayer, Spies vs. Mercs was doing the whole asymmetrical thing before Nintendo took a stronghold on the concept, and it was doing it rather well. You're either one of the nimble-footed spies, clambering around maps in third-person view as you try and sneak your way to a series of data terminals that must be hacked, or you're the merc, a soldier lumbering around in first-person and keeping a gun trained on the shadows where your would-be-assassins lurk.

Still, it's nice to be reminded exactly how good Spies vs. Mercs is, especially after its curious absence in Conviction. Blacklist's take on the mode is more than a gentle reminder, though - it's a sharp slap in the face quite rudely letting you know of its brilliance. It's the kind of brilliance that had me commandeering demo pods being used to show off Blacklist's co-op mode (a mode that, for what it's worth, is a little rough around the edges and doesn't quite match the charm of Conviction's Deniable Ops, at least not in the two co-op only maps being shown right now) at the end of a long day to squeeze in another match.

Blacklist makes a handful of alterations to Spies vs. Mercs, in one half of its offering at least. Spies vs. Mercs Blacklist doubles the player count, pitting four mercs against four spies, and weaves in the customisation that's a central part of Ubisoft Toronto's take on Splinter Cell. There are still three terminals spread out across a map to be hacked or protected, and it's still got that tantalising split between the hunters and the hunted, but it's a noticeably more pacey and explicitly tactical take on the mode.

Loadouts can be created from scratch (at least they can once you've unlocked the ability to do so, and in the current set-up that's possible after just a single game) but there are a number of presets spread across recognizable classes. The spies have to hand a saboteur who can disrupt enemy equipment, an intel scout who can tag enemy's whereabouts and a predator who, much like their namesake, can disappear out of sight thanks to a digital ghillie suit. Mercs, meanwhile, have a hunter who's access to a UAV drone that's got the nasty ability to detonate on demand, a powerful peacemaker who's in the tank role and a disruptor who can deactivate the spy's own electronic devices.

There's a tangle of abilities in play at any one point, and part of the pleasure of Spies vs. Merc Blacklist is working together as a team to untangle it all - there's a great amount of satisfaction to be had in having a tight-knit team of mercs, a hunter scouting down an area before a disruptor neuters the enemy threat, teeing up the peacemaker to swoop in and finish off the job. It's a tangle that's also disarmingly complex at first, though when it finally all clicks in place there are contests that come close to replicating the joy of a classic Spies vs. Mercs match.

Thankfully, Blacklist also has a mode that doesn't just come close to replicating a classic Spies vs. Mercs match - with a little nip and tuck made in all the right areas, it does it's very best to outdo it. Spies vs. Mercs Classic proves that less really is so much more, stripping away the customisation introduced in its partner mode and bringing the player count down to two on two encounters. There's a larger emphasis put on the play between light and shadow, the maps on which Classic mode games take place cast in a thick dark that's only occasionally punched by little pools of light, or pierced by the flashlights on the end of the merc's rifles.

What follows is real survival horror, as two mercs go side by side into unlit and unexplored rooms frantically waving their lights around in pursuit of spies who could be waiting in the rafters, ready to pounce. The maps do a great job of teasing out the tension, working like haunted houses that are decked out with all the steel walkways and abandoned trainyards that you'd expect of the Clancy brand and full of tricky corners and hiding places for spies to seek shelter in.

It's wonderfully fraught, and also unique - there's no other multiplayer experience that can quite match the excitement and instant drama created by a round of Spies vs. Mercs. That's as true today as it was when the mode debuted with Pandora Tomorrow in 2004 - and it's great to have it back.

This article is based on a press trip to Ubisoft's offices in Toronto. Ubisoft paid for travel and accommodation.

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