An Analysis of Splinter Cell Blacklist: Benghazi

March 27, 2018

 

The Benghazi, Safehouse mission is the second story mission in the game after the prologue tutorial mission which features Sam Fisher infiltrating a CIA Safehouse in Libya. Fisher’s new partner, Briggs, an ex CIA Agent now a part of the Fifth Echelon informs Fisher that a CIA Operator knows more about the attack in the prologue. With the desire to find out more about the attack Fisher decides to infiltrate a hostile Middle East territory that is rife with insurgents at every turn.

 

The mission starts with the player in a back alley of the town surrounded by local markets and civilians going about their daily business, presenting the player with the idea that this is a bustling market area, a typical Middle Eastern town. The player receives an excerpt of initial story exposition helping to set the scene and give context of the overarching objective. Straight ahead of the player there are large double doors that are open, giving a view of an upcoming route forward, inherently capturing the player’s eyes. With nowhere else to go the player observes the open door and inherently wants to move forward.

 

The Player Starts in the Back-alley of a Middle Eastern Market.

The Overall Top Down Map of the Benghazi Mission.

 

When the player has passed the doors into the larger market courtyard an NPC scene of an insurgent firing into a crowd, causing chaos, is presented. The initial NPC scene helps to set the tone and adds to the overall intensity of the mission by assisting to villainise the faction immediately. The initial section of the mission is a linear path from point to point where the player can experience the setting and tone without danger, as Fisher is dressed in civilian clothes. Moving through the linear route the player will reach additional back alleys until Fisher changes into his tactical suite. By limiting where the player goes and what they see in their immediate vision helps to increase the player’s intrigue and by providing an element of mystery to the opening of the mission it makes the player ask, what will I find inside?

 

After Fisher changes into the tactical suite the mission now becomes the typical Splinter Cell mission. The first section proceeds to have two cover props and as the player approaches the objective text is displayed on an oncoming wall, a great way to keep the UI to a minimum and utilise the space. As the mission is the second mission in the game and what could be considered the first ‘proper’ gameplay mission that allows the player free reign the alleyway seemingly has cover props placed in a convenient way that allows the player to practice the previously learned cover skill, allowing the player time to familiarise with the controls further before proceeding. As the player moves forward they are again met with an instance tutorialisation of a core mechanic, focusing on a stealth kill. This section of the mission provides the player with an opportunity to practice the motions of completing a stealth kill from cover, an integral mechanic of the game. The area has been designed in such a manner that allows the player to practice this without any immediate risk as the enemy is positioned facing away from the player with a cover prop next to him, prompting the player to carry out a cover to cover action.

 

The Brake lights of the Truck Help to Lead the Player.

 

The player can approach the first cover prop take cover and quickly take out the first guard, reinforcing the player’s knowledge of the mechanic by putting it into practice. By completing this action it sets up the ‘Execute’ mechanic that the player is prompted to use, however the player is just out of range from completing the action. This prompts the player to complete another cover move to be in range of the two guards blocking the door to the next area by taking cover on a truck with its light turned on, leading the player. The designer has managed to lead the player through the cover to cover tutorial section nicely by utilising small environmental cues, such as the truck brake lights. The brake lights from the truck are a nice visual contrast from the heavily shadowed alleyway and assists the player to flow through the section nicely. The section is nicely framed with an archway covering the entrance with three NPCs unaware of the player’s presence immediately within the players view. Due to the linear structure of the mission it is easy to visualise a potential path through the area as each beat connects to each other seamlessly.

 

The Top Down Map of the Exterior to Interior Route.

 

Once the player is in range of the two unaware guards they can use the Execute ability, again this section reinforces the mechanic by making the ability to use it attractive to the player. The first third of the mission has been designed in such a manner that tutorialises a number of mechanics available to the player, making the mission fairly easy for the first ten – fifteen minutes. This can be noticed by the placement of NPCs and their line of sights, the amount of available cover & the available routes through the sections feel like they allow the player to explore the mechanics in a relatively safe manner. When the player completes this section they are able to enter the interior of the building where they are met with darker lighting and a number of unaware NPCs that the player can avoid by simply crouching past them to reach a linear corridor that is much brighter than the previous section, again adding contrast to the environment and leading the player through the space. Moving through the corridor leads the player to a ‘Dead Drop’ one of the games collectibles, the collectible appears to have been strategically placed within the players golden path and introduces the game element early to allow the player to understand what to look for in future missions.

 

Moving further down the hallway the player will reach the staircase that leads to the second floor. Once the player has reached the second floor they are given tactical info from Briggs that suggests going in to the room to the right, doing so provides the player with a stealth approach. However there are two guards that will see Fisher if the player moves too early, this is where the lighting and the use of darkness is introduced. One of the two NPCs begins to patrol the hallway on the golden path however stops just before the corner where the player has taken cover on, preventing them to easily use a stealth takedown unlike before, the enemy encounters difficulty have been ever so slightly increased. This is where the player can use the light switch to turn off the light in the hallway attracting the patrolling NPC to come closer to investigate the lights. This reinforces the basic gameplay loop of the game, stealth past NPCs, move through the space silently and utilising the darkness as a tactical advantage.

 

The Introduction of the Light switch and Darkness.

 

By moving into the room to the right there is evident environmental storytelling, bullet holes, blood & debris scattered in the room that suggests that there was a struggle or a fight, with the militia forcefully evicting people. This helps to convey the hostile environment the mission is set in and provides an element of backstory to the mission space.m The layout of the environments feel and look real supporting the grounded in reality aspect found in Tom Clancy titles as each section feels like it is a location that could be found in the real world. The next section the player finds themselves in again increases the challenge in the encounters. In this section the player will enter an apartment with a number of patrols moving around the room, some chatting, one moving around the bedroom and one using the bathroom. The added challenge of the NPCs patrolling the claustrophobic space helps to add tension and inherently forces the player to plan their approach and act fast on it. The number of routes the player can take have also been increased, adding to the complexity of the space.

 

The Entrance to the Second Apartment.

 

When entering the apartment from the window the player must eliminate a distracted guard to reach the entrance and from there complete a cover to cover move to progress into the room unaware allowing the player to reach the overturned couch allowing them to bypass the enemies patrolling. The cover here has been placed in a way that suggests a route to the player whilst holding the tension as it is close proximity to enemies. When exiting the apartment the player reaches another dimly lit corridor with ceiling lights providing small cues that show the player the route. The third apartment the player reaches relies on the use of all of the skills previously learned during the mission and is designed to encapsulate the key mechanics in the game previously observed.

 

The player can take out an unaware guard which unlocks the execute option of the remaining out of melee range guards, the reduced cover options in this apartment forces the player to use the execute option to complete the objective. Upon eliminating the enemies the player is given story exposition through a cutscene and broadcasted audio before the mission continues. From here the mission leaves behind the sections that helps to tutorialise the mechanics of the game and lets the player use them in a more traditional gameplay scenario, giving the player more of an option on what to use and how to use it.

 

Outside the player is met with a linear path to a scalable wall. This is prompted by the wooden beams and the dangling cables slightly off the edge of the wall, a visual cue of a vertical navigation component. Despite the mission taking place during the daytime there are a number of pockets of darkness that help to retain the expected darkness of a Splinter Cell game, a good example of this is in the first section when outside. The player reaches a walkway that has low hanging cloth that creates natural looking shadows, again giving a nice visual contrast. The lighting setups appear to support Stealth and Panther playstyles, despite the mission set in a daylight map, the map has dark shadow corners throughout.

 

Moving forward the player is introduced to some of the vertical navigation that can be found in the missions, shimmying along a thing ledge and zip lining. The zip line is a great moment in the mission that feels to be placed intentionally introduce the ‘Death from Above’ mechanic. Once the player has zip lined across the encounter their first ‘real’ Splinter Cell encounter. The area features a patrolling group of Militia that can easily spot the player if their movements aren’t timed. The player if aware can avoid NPCs to reach the safety of cover if they are patient. The long low cover helps to give the player an option to reach the building whilst still being vulnerable to being spotted.

 

Attracting the Patrolling NPC to Eliminate Him Stealthily.

 

If the player reaches the lower level they will find a number of props intentionally placed in the space to provided cover options to eliminate the roaming NPCs by stealth. The tense encounter provides the player an opportunity to put what they have learned about the game and it’s mechanics into practice. With the lack of shadows the player needs to rely on making cover to cover movements and timing their attacks to prevent being discovered. There is a small tower with hanging wires from the edge that helps to suggest an option the player can take to flank the NPCs at the back of the patrol. The varied heights of the space assists in creating and blocking line of sights for both player and NPC alike. Whilst the encounter is small it features all the core elements seen in larger spaces throughout the game.

 

Player Taking Cover Against a Prop in a Dark Alley.

 

 

An Overview of the First 'Traditional' Encounter of the Mission.

 

The Top Down Overview of the Rooftop Section.

 

After completing the encounter the player can move forward into another part of the apartment complex. This section has intentionally been designed to give the player an experience of the different types of ‘shimmy’ across ledges as part of the navigation as along the ledge there are different blocking objects which force the player to go from a crouched shimmy to a standing shimmy. After completing the navigation route the player lands in a back alley and is introduce to the concept of High Value Targets (HVTs). The HVT is conveniently placed in a room that is easily accessible on the main path, as the player can use the window to capture him easily. The next section the player will see two NPCs blocking the main path, preventing the player from moving down the hallway. The player must use the window located to the left where they must shimmy to bypass the NPCs, retaining the stealth element.

 

After bypassing the NPCs there is a staircase that leads to the lower floors however a guard is patrolling nearby, this is where the player can again utilise the light switch mechanic to prompt the NPC to move again giving them the opportunity to eliminate the guard stealthily before proceeding. There is a nice contrast in this section of interior and exterior as the interior is dark and grimy whilst the exterior is bright. When reaching the bottom floor the player must enter a garage that leads onto a courtyard being patrolled by a group of militia. Immediately there are cover elements available to the player giving them an opportunity to plan a route from the relative safety, if they avoid the patrolling group. The courtyard is open with only one cover element to it, a parked car. If timed correctly this allows the player to make a cover to cover move to the car and to the shops on the other side.

 

The Police Station is the next section of the mission where the player must infiltrate it and find Kobin. Here the player must use all of what they have previously learned during the previous sections as this section helps to culminate all previously explored loops into one area. The space is occupied by a large number of roaming NPCs and a guard dog ingredient that pose a constant threat to the player. The increased number of NPCs helps to add challenge to the mission. There are a number of routes through the mission space that the player can take by utilising the strategically placed cover props. The right hand side looks particularly appealing to the player due to the visual signposting through the destruction of the wall, by making the visual language of the destroyed wall obvious helps to give the player a route. By taking the right hand side the player is kept in darkness and has plenty of cover to proceed as there are crates that lead on to a truck that lead on to a garage space, layering the cover in a grounded way helps to give the space an element of realism. The main path of the player is routinely signposted to the player particularly navigational elements, like the only cracked wall, visually suggesting that it can be vaulted on.

 

The Destroyed Wall Looks Particularly Appealing to Climb Over.

 

The Destroyed Section of the Wall Makes the Visual Language of the Prop Stand Out.

 

Entering the police station it immediately feels claustrophobic due to the small corridors and the low ceilings, this in addition to the roaming NPCs stimulates the tension of the section. With the addition of an abundance of environmental storytelling it really adds to the feeling of the space. Moving through the space will lead to an impasse blocked by a group of NPCs in a hallway. The player cannot open the door or face getting spotted so they must use another route through an office leading to the flank of the NPCs allowing the player to silently bypass them, making the player explore the space. The corridors are tight with lots of vulnerable low cover elements and multiple line of sight blockers making moving through the space tense and at times slow, slowing the overall pace of the mission down.

 

Eventually the player will find a route to the third floor where Kobin is being kept and tortured for information. The player will find themselves behind a two way mirror where they can eliminate the militia torturing Kobin, a great set piece. Once completed the player receives narrative exposition through a cutscene and a radio broadcast. The final section features an escorting objective, where the player must protect Kobin and eliminate the patrolling militia NPCs without the ability to take cover. The rooms have been designed to allow the player to eliminate the NPCs quickly by giving them access to all of the NPCs immediately, the player just needs to take the shots. After reaching the window of the room the player must eliminate the reinforcements and upon eliminating the final enemy the final cutscene plays and the mission is complete. The pacing of the final section of the game was over in a flash.

 

Overall the Benghazi mission in Splinter Cell Blacklist is a great example of tutorials that are designed into the game well, they never feel forced and are bread crumbed to the player well. The player learns the tools and puts the tools into actions in the last couple of sections helping to reinforce their knowledge for the missions ahead. The mission space was interesting to explore with a variety of environmental storytelling that supported the narrative. The cover layout and the respective props used felt right, nothing felt out of place. Whilst there were bitesize encounters throughout the mission none of them felt exactly the same, the encounters felt unique throughout. With the mission being the second mission in the game and the first real gameplay segmented mission I feel it was successful in portraying the core mechanics of the game and helped to set the tone, pacing and flow of the upcoming missions. What this mission does well is illustrate to the player the typical gameplay loop.

 

Analysis Summary

 

Tutorials

 

  • The tutorials were well implemented as they didn’t feel like tutorials rather just parts of the mission itself and allowing the player to use what they learned.

 

Cover

 

  • Throughout the mission the cover layout was good and allowed the player to complete cover to cover movements with relative ease. The varied heights in cover assisted in created different gameplay strategies and by giving the player routes through a mission it inherently helped the flow of the player.

 

Lighting

 

  • Despite the mission being situated during daytime the pockets of the darkness and light helped to create a striking contrast between the traditional Splinter Cell missions.

 

Pacing & Flow

 

  • The mission felt nicely paced throughout and flowed from section to section seamless with areas that opened up routes and small cues that led the player.

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