An Analysis of Splinter Cell Blacklist: Insurgent Stronghold

July 16, 2018

The Insurgent Stronghold is the third story mission in the game which features Sam Fisher infiltrating a location for a possible munitions supplier to the Engineers, Blacklist’s fictional terrorist group, that enabled them to attack a US military base in the prologue by tracing a money transfer to the site. Grim reports that it is the largest of the four camps in the area and warns the player it is heavily fortified. This brief narrative exposition creates an idea of what to expect in the mission, including difficulty, locale and themes. The mission is situated in Mirawa, Eastern Iraq, and portrays small Iraqi towns with dominant themes of military, munitions and insurgents throughout. The overarching objectives of this mission are to identify and interrogate the buyer of munitions and locate the source of the Engineer transmission found at a position deep within the compound.

 

The Camera Angle from the Drone in the First Beat.

 

A Top Down Map of the Overall Mission Footprint.

 

The mission has a very uncharacteristic beginning by starting with the player taking control of a drone which is providing sniper over watch for Sam. The player must eliminate the highlighted enemies to clear the way for Sam parachuting in. This moment is an interesting variation of the typical gameplay loop by providing a pleasant surprise for the player and could be thought of as one of the memorable moments from the mission as it assists in creating the player agency by making them feel “powerful”. Additionally, it provides the tactical characteristic expected from the title. Once complete the camera switches to the typical third person view of Sam and begins the introductory narrative exposition setting up the objective and allowing the player to navigate forward.

 

The player lands in a shallow stream and is surrounded by high cliffs with the only path being forward, by keeping the player in a constricted corridor with high cliff faces helps to make the player feel they are small and have a “mountain” or challenge ahead of them, they are literally starting at the bottom and have to navigate up through varying degrees of challenges to reach their goal, a literal mountain. The initial first beat of the mission is a linear path from point to point where the player can experience the setting, theme and narrative without danger as there are no immediate threats. By keeping the player in a linear route has allowed the designer to frame the path nicely allowing the designer to control the line of sight of the player ensuring that the objective text that is displayed within the environment is displayed in front of the player as they progress forward and enter trigger volumes to spawn the upcoming NPCs. Additionally, the high cliff sides help to subconsciously lead the player forward and retain their eyes near the centre of the screen.

 

The Cliff Help to Create Leading Lines in the Environment.

 

As the player progresses up the curve in stream and the cliffs inform the player that there is a turn coming up revealing a bridge which connects the two sections of the cliff. The archways of the bridge aids to frame a small house, attracting the player to it. This is the start of the traditional Splinter Cell gameplay loop.

 

Just past the bridge the player can use two sets of stairs to reach the higher sections of terraced houses or proceed forward to clamber in windows or to reach a flanking route. Upon getting closer to the houses the player begins to hear a group of NPCs, the initial encounter. The player has three options to progress deeper into the space, the player can choose to take a set of stairs leading to the road or proceed forward to reach two points of climbing each leading to a vantage point to survey the situation and plan an attack. The linear path flows smoothly into the first encounter and feels natural, largely in part due to the linear structure. The initial group of houses are patrolled by two NPCs that are talking between themselves.

 

After the NPC scene sequence competes the two NPC’s split and begin their patrol, one stays moderately static at the entrance of the roadblock with the other patrolling the flanking routes, providing an element of risk for the player during the encounter.  This particular space is small with short sightlines and focuses on cover to cover movement to promote bypassing the NPCs or stealth takedowns, with flanking routes through and around the houses it is considered a relatively simple encounter. This encounter is the first skill gate in the mission. Due to the encounter being considered easy with only 2 patrolling NPCs it is a good point to allow the player to practice the mechanics they learnt in the previous mission, Benghazi Safe House, which is considered the tutorial mission. Allowing the player to practice gives them an opportunity to fail and succeed on their own terms.

 

An Example of Layered Cover, Static & Moving NPCs.

 

After eliminating the NPCs, the player can only proceed in one direction to progress the mission, upwards. Everything in this section ensures that the player is facing forward towards the route including navigation routes and cover placement. To ensure that the player goes in the correct direction there are two invisible walls surrounding the houses in the form of barricades which gate the player into a particular path and in addition to this there is a radio playing music at the entrance of the steps bread crumbing the path. Whilst this is a small element it helps to attract the player’s attention in the direction the designer has intended the player to go, this helps the player flow through the level.

 

The Audio from the Radio Helps to Grab the Player's Attention.

 

The short traversal up the steps leads to the first loading gate, where the previous area is unloaded, and the next area is loaded, this technique helps to “dog leg” the mission improving performance and the streaming of assets. Shortly after entering the third beat the player takes control of the drone gadget, another interesting memorable moment of the mission. The introduction of the drone is another stage for a feature introduction as it lets the player recognise the unique aspects the gadget offers, if they already haven’t used it, qualifying the gadget to shine. At this particular objective the player is given mandatory full control over the gadget in a safe vantage point designed specifically for it, allowing the player to understand its advantages at their own pace.

 

The Drone Sequence in the First Beat Showcasing the Gadget.

 

Moving the drone inside of the building results in the player finding 4 NPCs. It is here the player must identify the supplier of munitions and the supplier to the Engineers. The NPC silhouettes make this objective fairly easy as the leader stands out from the other NPC’s, it also foreshadows the introduction of the heavy NPC archetype. Using the drone to identify the supplier triggers further narrative exposition and cuts to Sam outside. The following objective is to infiltrate the building and interrogate the supplier. The player can use the door or choose to clamber over the wall to reach entry points through windows, using this method the player can only reach the first open window due to a pillar blocking the player from navigating further so the player and their view ensuring the player enters through the open window, whilst moving around the corner the player will get a glimpse of a patrolling guard, foreshadowing their patrol path.

 

When entering the building there are two routes shrouded in darkness, creating an instance of relative safety for the player to plan their next approach. The player has two options, the first or second floor. At the corner of each route a light attracts the player’s eye and adds contrast to the environment. After choosing to move to the first or second floor the player can take cover on strategically placed cover outside of the main NPCs patrol paths allowing them to plan their attack and identify possible routes. The building itself has a number of possible entry points from the exterior due to the large number of open windows, giving the player plenty of options for stealthy engagements.

 

Multiple Entry Points Give the Player Options.

The Drone Sequence in the First Beat Showcasing the Gadget.

 

Entering into the primary encounter space the player is met with a corridor shrouded in darkness surrounding the central courtyard that has the theme of a makeshift workshop with NPC’s tinkering on workstations and radios. The cover here is primarily low cover situated around the central courtyard giving the player a flanking route to avoid NPCs on the ground floor, whilst still retaining the vulnerability due to the low cover. It is worth noting the cover orientation suggests to the player how they should move through the space by helping to position the player and the camera in the stealthiest approach which helps to create a positive element of flow. A notable aspect of this space is that the designer has ensured that the player can visibly see the entrance and exit, so they can create a mental map of the space allowing them to effectively plan their strategy. This design concept is carried throughout the mission.

 

The Player Using the Flanking Route to Observe NPC Patrol Paths.

 

The player can choose to eliminate the NPCs in the space or attempt to avoid them using the clear flanking routes to reach the exits on the other side of the room. Due to the linear structure of the first three beats it is easy to visualise a potential path. The increased NPC presence steadily increases the pacing and challenge. There are two exits of this first location a ladder which leads to a high vantage point only accessible by reaching the second floor. The other exit is also risky as there is a high chance that the player will get spotted instantly. It is here the player must both time their movements and choose wisely. By creating chokepoints like this it helps to create interesting moment to moment gameplay, where the player must react quickly.

 

Multiple Entry Points to Enter the Room with the Heavy Archetype.

 

When getting close to the door the guard in the next room checks the door is secure by shaking the door handle, this enables the player to understand the oncoming threat giving the player an opportunity to alter their approach, empowering the player and potentially varying the pacing. Using the ladder accessible only from the second floor, creating a tense moment of timing, to avoid patrolling guards grants the player access to the vantage point overlooking the room the guard is in. The room the player is now in is the first location, or skill gate, where the Heavy Archetype is introduced after being foreshadowed during the drone event previously. Whilst hanging from the edge the player will see that the NPC simply has a looping patrol path, stopping at particular points of a circle.

 

An Example of the Patrol Path of the Heavy NPC.

 

The player must time their entrance to eliminate the guard silently using a melee attack from behind as any attack from the front will be redundant. Passing the gate and opening the door will trigger a narrative cutscene, progressing the story and objective. After the cutscene concludes the player find themselves in a small room with the only point to progress is a small hatch in the floor leading to the first phase of a series of cave systems in the mission footprint highlighted by light protruding from it, catching the player’s eye. Entering the hatch highlights a Sawtooth design concept, a point of no return, as once the player drops down they cannot return, this helps to unload the previous area and load the next and highlight to the player they are progressing. Traversing the short section of cave system, the player comes out to a vista of far reaching cliffs and mountains, framed by an opening in the rocks, adding depth to the scene. This small element helps the player to situate themselves, after beginning at the bottom in the stream they have navigated up through the challenges to reach higher up the mountains which makes the player feel accomplished.

 

 An Example of a Vista & a Simple Navigation Puzzle.

 

 

"The environment feels and looks real supporting the grounded in reality aspect..."

 

 

Navigating a short traversal beat it opens up another vista that the player is working towards. Reaching the top of a cliff edge reveals a further military compound the player must reach. This highlights the player path and gives them clear goals. In addition, it uses a Denial and Reward concept to enhance the player’s progression. First the player has an opportunity to briefly observe their goal but are taken on a route that they can no longer see it before emerging closer to the objective with a new angle of visibility. Now up a considerable height, conveyed by the view and the nearby waterfall, the player must complete a short navigation puzzle in the form of climbing and reaching for small cracks in the cliff before reaching the safety of underneath a bridge where a restock and resupply crate is located, the placement of the crate signifies to the player that combat is ahead. The next section is made up of a destroyed building taken over by militia with military equipment and supplies scattered throughout. The environment feels and looks real supporting the grounded in reality aspect found in Tom Clancy titles. In the area there is an increased presence of patrols moving around the space in and out of the immediate space of the player creating peril. The added challenge of the claustrophobic sight lines and obscure routes helps to add tension which inherently makes the player carefully plan their approach, controlling the pace of the mission by slowing aspects down. In addition, the complexity of the space has increased with multiple entry points and climbing points and signifies an increase in pacing. The number of routes the player can take have also been increased, adding to the complexity of the space.

 

Eliminating the first patrol in the destroyed building opens up a route to flank the right of the compound to get to a strong vantage point over an unaware guard looking over maps, attracting him and eliminating him opens up an obvious path of cover for the player to use. There are abundant opportunities here for quick cover to cover moment assisting the player to remain hidden. Exploring the space further, the player hears a consistent beep coming from a tent nearby. By getting closer to the tent it highlights an optional route to take and introduces the cut fabric mechanic, where the player can open up routes by cutting sections of material in tents, to access a Dead Drop. From opening up the route the player has access to a string of lower cover to use to reach a height vantage point and multiple cover to cover options that lead deeper into the compound.

 

An Example of Diverging Paths Leading the Player to Different Safe Areas.

 

The encounter here relies on creating and blocking enemy and player sight lines. Using architecture and propping to block lines of sights in strategic places to prevent the player easily observing all of the NPCs at once ultimately helping to lead the player through the area, as the player needs to constantly change position to be able to identify and avoid threats, due to the carefully positioned NPCs and their patrol paths and the tactically placed crate. In all of the encounters during the mission there are a combination of strategically placed static NPCs that guard a chokepoint ultimately making it occasionally and intentionally awkwardly difficult for the player to progress and patrolling NPCs that add a hazardous variable that can potentially lead to a change in tactics or routes, increasing the dynamic aspects of each encounter. Exploring the space leads to a conveniently parked truck creating a safe vantage point for the player where they can choose to go right towards a catwalk or forward towards crates. Having divergent options allows the player to produce their own second to second gameplay whilst still retaining the core gameplay loop.

 

Upon navigating through the encounter, the player will come to the start of another cave system. The cave system is littered with equipment and pockets of darkness with poorly fitted dim lightbulbs bread crumbing the path for the player. After a short traversal section there is another Sawtooth moment, a point of no return, signifying progression and the beginning of a new area. The player recognises they are getting deeper in the cave system with the environment providing a noticeable alteration from previous examples of the cave system with stagnant water, darkness and being surrounded by rocks in a makeshift tunnel held up by broken and warping wooden beams. The claustrophobic space helps to create anxiety in this particular beat. After completing the short traversal segment, the player will reach a makeshift well where they can rappel up to start the next area.

 

"Multiple layers of verticality with flowing traversal..."

 

 

After rappelling up the player is in a point of safety where they can choose to go either left or right. Their line of sight blocked by a house in front suggesting that they have no choice but to make their way through the interweaving and tight corridors to either side. The introduction of the new combat ingredient, the guard dog, on the left-hand side inherently makes the right-hand side much more appealing. The introduction of the guard dog also creates another variable in the environment which the player must take into consideration, stepping up the challenge of the encounter. Moving to the right the player reaches a corridor surrounded by low cover walls with a lone NPC patrolling up and down. The area is covered by cloth creating pockets of shadow which creates a nice visual contrast in the environment. The next area the player reaches has multiple layers of verticality with flowing traversal and hidden routes that lead to central access points to the next area combined with tight winding paths creating natural chokepoints and convenient line of sight occlusion created by architecture and smart propping.

 

The location has three main lanes for the player to take each overlooked and patrolled by NPCs that are weaving in and out. In addition, the designer has placed a roaming Hight Value Target the player can choose to capture, creating an enticing optional objective which creates an added ingredient to the mission encounter. Reaching the exit of the space there is a noticeable guard overlooking the main entrance. If the player explores the flanks of the space they will find a route to out manoeuvre the guard and eliminate him silently to proceed unseen, retaining the stealth the mission appears to be designed for. Upon eliminating the final guard, the player will reach another Sawtooth element highlighted by a flickering light. Jumping down the player will reach another instance of the cave system. After completing the traversal section, the player will come to the next loading door, signifying the next area and beat. Vaulting up to the gap in the wall immediately displays a layer of cover that acts as a vantage point but also helps to prevent the area being fully revealed until the player decides to vault up and engage in the encounter.

 

The Cover Placement of the Crates Prevents the Player from Having a Strong Point.

 

Additionally, the cover placement blocks the players initial line of sight with stacked crates preventing the player from seeing straight down the lane. The player must choose to flank on the left or right. This particular encounter is a challenge due to the close proximity of NPCs that can easily hear or see the player. The varying sizes in encounter spaces is extremely noticeable in the mission and adds a nice level of variation.

 

After bypassing or eliminating the NPCs the player must jump down to another cave system, creating another traversal section. Reaching the end opens up to a vista showcasing the final section of the mission. Traversing along a thin edge of the cliff face the player must navigate to the building ahead. This is a linear point to point section as the player can not divert from the designated path. An element of environment storytelling is portrayed here. The building is damaged and crumbling with evidence of a previous battle or drone strike. Proceeding forward the player will reach a cutscene where it will provide the final narrative exposition. The penultimate section is a particular memorable moment with it being an exotic gameplay sequence. It portrays Sam running from a drone strike where the player must run down a linear path, vaulting over objects whilst explosions are going off around them, so they can extract to the incoming helicopter, a particular movie like experience.

Elements of Environmental Storytelling Litter the Final Area.

 

Memorable Moments & Focal Points

 

During the mission there are two stand out moments for the player during the first and last beat. The two moments tie in to each other with the first being controlling the drone and the final moment being the drone being used against you. Throughout the mission there are notable focal points that give the level a visual identify and assists the players in orientating themselves within the game world.

 

Pacing

 

The pacing increases steadily throughout the mission with each encounter increasing in intensity and complexity inherently adjusting the pacing from slow traversal points to tense claustrophobic encounters. The combination of contrasting resting and suspenseful beats against higher paced gameplay beats enriches the players appreciation of the second to second moment. By keeping the pacing varied it prevents the pacing becoming flat or repetitive.

 

 

Flow & Navigation

 

As the mission is a linear mission connected by individual instances of encounters the map has good flow throughout. There was never an instance where the player was awkwardly turned 180 degrees or had to unnecessarily back track. The designer leads the player through the space nicely with the use of light, leading lines and audio to ensure that the player always knew where the entrance and exits were and with the added element of on screen breadcrumbs there was never a point the player felt confused. In addition, the objective placement of AI, collectables and cover help to promote the player to explore the space to its fullest.

 

Each of the spaces felt connected to each other with each having a consistent visual theme and an increase in architecture scale carried throughout it felt there was constant vertical progression. The light and composition of the spaces helped to create a clear relationship between cover objects, creates a sense of scale and illustrates the distances between them inherently making the spaces easy to read and navigate through.

 

Layout

 

The layout of each encounter felt varied with diverse encounters with plenty of cover, tight corners and line of sight blockers. Using structural components to organise the shape of the space it creates a natural looking game space. The layout of each area is broken up into two sections, one section being a closed in linear path which leads to an arena like open space, each being a self-contained “level” by itself.

Within each encounter spaces they can be seen to be broken up into lanes, each with positive and negative spaces. The use of lanes or corridors gave the player easy identifiable routes to take preventing any confusion or frustrating when navigating and provides the player a level of affordance. By keeping the layout relatively similar across the encounters shape it helps to give the player familiarity whilst still feeling fresh.

 

Overview Maps of Each Beat.

 

 

 

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