How Ubisoft “marked and executed” the fun of Splinter Cell

In the video above, IGN demonstrates a new feature in the fifth Splinter Cell game. The feature, called Mark and Execute, allows you quickly take out up to four enemies at once with a guaranteed kill. It looks like a great new addition to Sam Fisher’s arsenal of hand-to-hand and firearms tactics, but it’s actually one of the worst single features added to the entire franchise. In fact, I’d say Mark and Execute could be even worse for the franchise than Splinter Cell: Double Agent. If you’ve ever played Double Agent, you know that’s a strong accusation. Obviously I plan to explain myself, so let me go ahead and do that.

In the original Splinter Cell, and the two games that followed it, if you were in a room with two enemies that you intended to kill, you had to be careful. If you landed a headshot on one of them, but he was standing where his partner could see him, the partner would either open fire on you or hit an alarm, often costing you the mission. If the first guy fell in the shadows, but made noise on the way down, his buddy might come over and investigate the source of the sound. That would provide you an opportunity to sneak up on the second guy and take him down. If you screwed that up, he’d either shoot and kill you before you even had time to draw your weapon or he would hit an alarm. The safest thing to do was usually to try to sneak up behind the first guy, grab him, drag him into the dark where he couldn’t be seen, wait for his partner to be far enough away that he wouldn’t hear anything, and then knock him unconscious. Then you had to repeat the process with the second guy, third guy, and every other guy in the room. These stealthy takedowns were a hallmark of the Splinter Cell series.

Mark and Execute changed that. Starting with Conviction, the fifth game in the series, you could take out a room of four guys just by looking at them. There was no skill involved. You just look at each guy, push a button to mark him, then wait for everyone to be within firing range, press another button and let the bodies hit the floor (sorry). Sure, you have to do a hand-to-hand kill to earn back the ability to mark more enemies, but that’s not hard, especially in Conviction. When playing through the game, I felt like the developers had intentionally placed a single enemy facing away from me in a perfect position to be taken down by hand just before every room full of enemies that I needed to Mark and Execute. A guy standing over a computer, a guy standing with his back to a window, a guy guarding a door. Every time I used Mark and Execute, I had regained the marks within the next three minutes.

Many people will argue that the “infiltration” missions in Double Agent were one of the worst things to ever be added to this series. I would say that’s debatable. Ubisoft learned their lesson with Double Agent. People said they hated the infiltration missions and we never saw them again. The impact on the remainder of the series is negligible because Ubisoft realized it was a mistake and decided against that path for future games.

But no one seems to be complaining about Mark and Execute. Most people think it’s a cool feature that makes the game easier. They’re correct. It definitely is a cool feature that makes the game easier. But that’s the problem. The game isn’t supposed to be easy. You’re not supposed to be able to take out a room in under a second with the push of a single button. You’re supposed to have to work for those kills. You’re supposed to stay hidden, creep around, drop from ledges, pop out of the shadows, grab bad guys, fire headshots and Sticky Shockers, and actually do something for those kills (or K.O.s, if you prefer those).

The only thing Ubisoft learned from Conviction is that Mark and Execute is, you guessed it, a cool feature that made the game easier. So they brought it back for the upcoming Spinter Cell Blacklist, and they made it even “better.” Previously you had to remain still while executing your enemies. Now you can run across the room, shoot three guys, immediately transition to a hand-to-hand kill, mark a few more people, execute all of them, and never press more than maybe four buttons. That’s not fun. That’s easy. Splinter Cell isn’t supposed to be that easy.

The new “killing in motion” take on Mark and Execute seems to be one of the big new features in Blacklist. That’s disappointing. Apparently Ubisoft realized that some people felt this way, because they included a mode called “Perfectionist Mode” that handicaps the player in several ways, including the removal of Mark and Execute.

I’m not saying Mark and Execute was the biggest flaw in Conviction, but I will say that it seems to be the one with the most prominent effect on the next game. Double Agent was a huge misstep, but didn’t influence its successor as much as Conviction apparently did. Another new “feature” in Conviction that felt like a complete dud was the weapons locker system that allowed you to swap out your current weapon for any other weapon you had previously picked up off of a downed enemy. I had hoped that “feature” would be removed in later games in favor of the classic SC-20K rifle and 5.7mm pistol, but some of Blacklist’s trailers seem to point to a system like that of its predecessor. Even so, the silencer-free firearms found in these lockers only prove to add an additional challenge to the game as you attempt to take down enemies without being heard. Mark and Execute once again spoils the challenge by making it easy to take out an entire room at once, essentially negating your weapon choice entirely.

Splinter Cell Blacklist is being hailed as a return to the roots of the franchise. I can see that, but I can also see a lot of Conviction in it, and I’m not sure I like that. Conviction was a fun game, and I enjoyed playing it, but it didn’t feel like a Splinter Cell game to me.

In the coming months we’ll see whether Blacklist can live up to its classic roots. Fortunately, there seems to be no trace of the incredibly bad Double Agent in this game, and hopefully Conviction‘s influence will remain minimal.