Splinter Cell could make its virtual reality debut soon, according to a Wednesday report. The stealth action franchise is one of two Ubisoft works, alongside Assassin’s Creed, rumored to be coming to the Facebook-owned Oculus platform in an exclusive deal.
No sooner had The Information’s report hit the virtual airwaves, Splinter Cell fans were sent into a flurry of excitement. The sixth and most recent entry, Blacklist, arrived way back in August 2013 just prior to the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One. But despite the holdover, titular character Sam Fisher enjoys a strong following, thanks to his series’ unique blend of atmospheric sneaking and broader storytelling based around real-world events.
Virtual reality, on the other hand, is in its infancy. PlayStation VR titles like Resident Evil 7 and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim show the first shoots of an exciting new medium taking form. You can swing a sword like a real warrior, and wave a flashlight around like you’re really in spooky surroundings! Other experiences like Beat Saber show how the headsets can unlock new modes of gameplay, but these applications are all still pretty limited, both in scope and in adoption.
The biggest recent breakthrough in VR-gaming was probably Astro Bot, hailed by reporter Jeremy Horowitz as the technology’s Super Mario 64 moment. Super Mario 64 was hailed as a breakthrough 3D platformer when it launched in 1996, but it was just that: a breakthrough. The most exciting and innovative games were still to come.
Ever since Facebook bought Oculus in 2014, the firm has gradually enticed newcomers with increasingly-accessible headsets. The $599 Rift required a computer when it launched in 2016, but the $199 Go in 2018 and the more powerful $399 Quest in 2019 ditched this requirement, dramatically lowering the barrier of entry to begin playing VR-games. The $399 Rift S, launched earlier this year, still uses a computer, but it does so to offer higher-fidelity graphics. Still, Oculus has languished in second place with 19 percent of the market, behind Sony on 43 percent, and the entire VR remains tiny compared with mainstream consoles.
Still, the Oculus portfolio is growing, and a killer exclusive of Splinter Cell’s caliper could be exactly what it needs.
Splinter Cell VR: Why the Game is Perfect for Oculus
Splinter Cell was something of a revelation when the first launched in 2003. It was a groundbreaking newcomer to the stealth genre, pioneered by Metal Gear Solid in 1998. Mathieu Ferland, the executive producer of Splinter Cell, described Hideo Kojima’s game as “a huge inspiration” in a VentureBeat interview.
But Splinter Cell was very much unlike its inspiration in a number of ways. Metal Gear Solid told an ambitious and somewhat convoluted tale of cloning, nuclear weapons, genetically-engineered viruses and nanomachines, a story that would grow increasingly ambitious in later sequels. Solid Snake was the larger-than-life figure at his core, a one-man army that did it all.
Splinter Cell, on the other hand, was famously grounded. The original told a somewhat believable story of information warfare in the near-future, where the president of Georgia leverages cybersecurity leaks to plan an attack on the United States. Subsequent games followed a similar formula, gradually shaken up by more action elements to mixed reviews, and at times slipping into a more jingoistic worldview emblematic of other Tom Clancy-branded works.
Sam Fisher’s mission in the original involved assisting the National Security Agency in its efforts to stop the attack. News reports between levels detail NATO forces’ movements and paint a picture of how the crisis is quietly shifting through the player’s efforts. Far from acting as the heroic badass like with Solid Snake, Fisher is depicted through these reports as practically invisible.
This approach plays out in the gameplay. It’s not just about sneaking around to get the upper hand on enemies: Fisher is regularly told to avoid stepping into areas, as an American operative spotted on the streets of Tbilisi would spark an international crisis. The player’s invisibility is critical.
This plays out through the interplay of light and shadow. A light meter shows how visible Fisher is at any time. Players can flick off the lights to create more darkness, or shoot them out for more permanent cover — the latter with the tradeoff of creating more noise, which could then attract guards. The highly-acclaimed third game, Chaos Theory, used a dynamic soundtrack by Amon Tobin to heighten the tension and react to in-game events.
Fisher is weak: the character dies after a couple of bullets, raising the stakes as he moves through shadows, quietly playing his role as the silent splinter that aids a mission far, far larger than himself.
Imagine all of this in virtual reality. Crouching, moving forward, knowing that the guard right in front of your face in the darkness is one misplaced step away from bringing the whole place down. Picking up a can with your hand, gently tossing it to distract attention. Watching a scene play out, perfectly orchestrated, as you bide your time to make your move.
Most virtual reality games are about transporting the player into a setting, using their virtual hands to manipulate objects and make their presence known. Splinter Cell would almost do the opposite, asking the player to avoid disrupting guard routines and the rest of the simulated world. A VR version would place you in a scene like an oil rig, and ask you to move through it like you don’t exist.
Far from reviving a beloved franchise in the hope of boosting a nascent technology, Splinter Cell in virtual reality could take the stealth genre to muscle-tensing new heights.