Spies vs. Mercs: How Splinter Cell Enhanced the Stealth Genre


With the release of the first ever 3D stealth video games in 1998, namely Metal Gear Solid, Tenchu, and Thief, the popularity of stealth mechanics was elevated to heights previously unreachable. The success of these three projects helped solidify stealth as a sub-genre and gave way to a wave of video games that valued and emphasized covert strategy, planning, and careful execution. The core idea behind stealth game play is based upon hiding and generally avoiding detection while either bypassing, disabling, or eliminating enemies present within a playspace. However, developers of great stealth experiences understand that simply filling a game with stealth paraphernalia and forcing players to execute enemies with sneaky take-downs doesn’t make for particularly fun or thought-provoking encounters.

Thief: The Dark Project, which is arguably the best stealth game ever designed, was almost cancelled halfway through its development cycle. Proper stealth experiences require responsive AI which can decipher complex aural and visual cues to interact with the environment and player in a believable way; and this is where Looking Glass Studios, the developer behind the Thief series, was experiencing major difficulties. So, they got creative:

Truly great stealth experiences are defined by the opportunities for creativity that they grant their players. This tenant of the stealth genre is upheld by the systemic relationship between singular objectives, open map design, believable AI, and the tools a game gives its players. In this way, stealth games are often more akin to puzzle games than action games. While there are certainly moments of waiting and planning, vertical and open map design help to highlight several obstacles, goals, and movement paths, which allows players to interpret patterns and develop solutions as they actively work their way through the level.

Dishonored 2, which I would describe as an immersive stealth sim, is the ultimate embodiment of this idea. Players can traverse the map in a more traditional way by knocking guards unconscious, sneaking across rooftops, and hiding bodies in dumpsters – or they can do this:

Stealth is about using wits to outsmart and outmaneuver opponents, even when the mission goes awry, so the fantasy of being a assassin is immediately spoiled in games like Assassin’s Creed 3 and Return to Castle Wolfenstein in which players are presented with a “Mission Failed” or “Game Over” prompt upon detection. These fail conditions don’t make much sense when the player has the knowledge and ability needed to develop new strategies on the fly. Regardless, no matter how well designed and believable a stealth experience is, nothing feels quite as genuine as Spies Versus Mercenaries, the competitive multiplayer mode introduced in Splinter Cell’s sophomore release, Pandora Tomorrow.

First released in November of 2002, Splinter Cell is a stealth action franchise that revolves around Sam Fisher, a covert NSA and CIA spy who is voiced by fan favorite, Michael Ironside. The Splinter Cell series, which in my opinion is the poster child of stealth games, builds its game play experience using traditional stealth elements such as the manipulation of light and shadows, intricate maps that are filled with shortcuts, and acrobatics. The series’ third person perspective allows for more complex animation and movement options, so players are often tasked with dangling from ledges, hanging upside down from pipes, or suspending themselves between parallel walls, which lends the Splinter Cell games a more cinematic feel.

I first played the series’ Spies vs Mercs mode when Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory released on the original Xbox. Despite being subject to changes and adjustments throughout the series, the fundamentals of Spies vs Mercs have remained the same: a team of player-controlled spies are tasked with either hacking computers scattered across a map or eliminating the opposing team of player-controlled mercenaries who are guarding the computer terminals. The Spies, which are played in the third-person camera perspective, are equipped with the standard non-lethal gadgets, move-sets, and tools that are expected in a traditional stealth game. The Mercenaries are played from the first-person camera perspective and are equipped with assault rifles, explosives, drones, and other gadgets you might find in a modern FPS.

Spies vs Mercs capitalized on the best parts of stealth game play and mitigated the tediousness associated with the genre’s weaker points. By removing AI-controlled guards and replacing them with those operated by other players, Splinter Cell was able to satisfy and fulfill the assassin fantasy like never before. While it’s a great tool to communicate feedback to a player, it’s a little silly hearing a guard obliviously yell “WHAT WAS THAT?!” when the player is clearly standing next to him in the shadows. Since they’re controlled by actual humans with the capacity to create new strategies on the fly, the guards in Spies v Mercs behaved unlike anything ever experienced in a stealth game and added a level of dynamism and challenge that was previously unmatched.

Thanks to the multiplayer format, the Spy team experienced a stealth mission that was authentic, fluid, and ever-changing. No longer did players have to commit patrol patterns to memory, and instead they had the privilege of using their tools to antagonize the opposing team, react to their decisions, and develop strategies in the heat of the moment. On the flip side, the mercenary team caught a glimpse into a side of the stealth fantasy that has never been explored and were able to feel the fear and dread of knowing that in the shadows resided a boogeyman that was waiting for them to make a mistake.

By alternating between two different perspectives, Splinter Cell enabled its players to develop new stealth strategies that could be employed in subsequent matches; and thanks to the addition of a match timer, players were encouraged to act fast and therefore mistakes felt like a natural part of the stealth gameplay, rather than a negative action that would penalize them.

Ultimately, Splinter Cell’s Spies vs Mercenaries mode injected a dynamism into the stealth genre that was unattainable with contemporary artificial intelligence, and as a result ended up creating a cat-and-mouse mode which resulted in one of the most satisfying multiplayer experiences ever created.

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