Originally published on September 26.
I’ve played Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist a few times over the years, and this week made it the fourth time I’d started up a new game.
It’s a fantastic game, at least from what I’ve played (I’ve never gotten anywhere close to finishing it). It has a genuinely impressive amount of content for the stealth-action genre, a genre usually focused on hand-crafted, detailed levels and encounters. It lets you mostly play how you want – a change for the stealth-centred series, to appeal to a broader audience – and fulfils almost every stealth-operative fantasy you’d want. I don’t remember how I stumbled back into the sphere of Blacklist (I probably thought about John Wick or something) but I suddenly really wanted to play it again.
But every time I start it up (again), something stops me in my tracks. Sam Fisher’s mouth moves, he’s speaking, but the voice is wrong. Very wrong.
“Who needs to know?” the voice says.
Hang on, my brain tells me, that’s not right, like it’s some disturbing conflict. Like a cog is caught and clicking in the slow whirring of my head. That’s not right.
“Thanks, Vic,” the voice continues. “But if I need a karambit for aerial recon, we’ve got bigger problems.”
It takes me more than a second for it to register properly. Even though it was my fourth time watching the opening scenes, it hits the same way.
“Oh, right,” I’d say out loud, because I talk out loud a lot when I’m alone, “Sam’s voice is different in this one.”
But ‘different’ is a bit of an understatement, because ‘different’ means ‘not played by Michael Ironside’, the national treasure of Canada, whose only movie I can remember off the top of my head is Turbo Kid and nothing else. (Sorry, Michael.)
This time, when I finally put the details together in my head and the disappointment sinks in again, I thought a little longer. Why was I so disappointed? I’m barely a fan of the series to begin with. Why’d I care even this much?
Part of it is how useless the change seems to be, across almost every area.
Regarding the game’s story, Blacklist is probably the worst time for a change in voice actor, which – at least to me – implies at least a pseudo-reboot for the character. For one, Sam is the same age – so it’s not one of those reboots, where he’s a comic book hero who’s constantly and forever living in his late 20s. His daughter – in her 20s, and a major part of the previous games – is consistently referenced (you can call and leave phone messages, as Sam). A major supporting character, introduced early on, has ties to both Sam’s daughter and the story of Splinter Cell Conviction, the previous game in the series – ties which are declared outright in Blacklist.
Even disregarding Sam’s character, losing Ironside is a bizarre choice. Here, Sam’s more of a stoic militant hard-ass than I remember him ever being – an even perfect-er fit for Michael Ironside’s grizzliest voice. Ironside already sounds like he gargles scrap metal, and the way Sam talks down to every character in the game with overwhelming authority – the co-op character Briggs might as well wear a dunce hat, the way Sam treats him – is such an incredibly perfect fit for Ironside.
Now (or rather then, in 2013), Sam’s voice is startlingly generic. It has similar qualities – it’s stern and gruff, like there’s a well of anger beneath his words that probably makes him unfit for military work – but it’s young, or at least younger than you’d expect for a man with a daughter in her late 20s. Eric Johnson’s performance is fine, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with it, and it doesn’t take long to get used to Sam’s new voice. But a new voice constantly reinforces an entirely new character altogether. You forget it’s Sam.
It makes me wonder why they didn’t just use a new character to begin with, with Sam as the voice-in-your-ear overwatch character – which would’ve honestly been amazing. They could’ve even shed continuity, break open a brand-new Sam for a brand-new game with that brand-new Sam smell.
The one good reason I can think of (outside Ironside’s cost or untenable schedule, which is technically understandable) is that a new voice for Sam was meant to suit a new type of Splinter Cell.
In Blacklist, you can play loud, deadly, or silent. Loud is loud: shooting, getting shot and exploding things. Deadly is slicing through all enemies towards your objectives, cold and quick-witted. Silent is evading entire groups and levels of enemies, without being seen or the enemies being touched at all. Either way, you’re playing a very athletic, acrobatic, agile and able character, far more capable than Sam typically was in the series (except for maybe Conviction). It’s a character Michael Ironside may not suit entirely well anymore, who now sounds like the old man he very much is.
But to me, it’s a thin excuse (if it’s the case at all) that ignores everything valuable about Ironside’s iconic performance. What made Ironside’s voice so important to the franchise – at least to me and I’m sure a few others – is that his performance was one of the few identifying, iconic traits of the series.
Tom Clancy’s games are a staple of Ubisoft’s portfolio and the overall gaming market, but it’s a brand that’s rarely known for strong storytelling or characters or anything close to that. Like Tom Clancy’s written works, it’s more of a tone and atmosphere. ‘Tom Clancy’ means dry, emotionless military fiction that, in gaming terms, means a focus on thrilling simulator-ish military action gameplay. Whether it’s Splinter Cell’s stealth gameplay, Rainbow Six’s tactical squad-based shooting, Ghost Recon’s long-range tactical action, they are series that focus on realist equipment-based gameplay. Tom Clancy means a certain cast of characters and military-potboiler narrative, with a focus on gameplay and objective over all else.
While it’s a relatively innocuous addition for the types of games they are, Michael Ironside’s performance as Sam Fisher helped characterise the series, add a bit of flavour. Aside from the iconic three-dotted goggles and the beaming green backlight on Sam, Ironside is arguably the only bit of character or personality in the series. Ironside attached players to a central personality while also appealing outside the series’ immediate fanbase. Including an iconic performance like Ironside’s is also a bit of a masterstroke when considering its ‘integrity’ as a Tom Clancy’s series: Ironside fits Sam perfectly well, but he also doesn’t ‘get in the way’ of the overarching military fantasy every Tom Clancy’s title strives for. If you wanted a distinct and lasting trait for such a straight-laced, hard-edged military series, something to nail it down as memorable without sacrificing what’s expected from the brand, a lasting voice like Ironside’s is basically perfect.
For such an iconic part of the brand, losing Ironside’s performance in Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist was a short-sighted mistake on Ubisoft’s part. Though it doesn’t look like Splinter Cell will be back anytime soon (for other reasons), sacrificing one of the series’ only defining traits to (presumably) chase a larger audience simply undermined their own franchise.
Honestly, even without my half-assed arguments, playing Blacklist without the proper Sam is a buzzkill. For the biggest game in the series, it shouldn’t have been.
All images attributed to Ubisoft Entertainment.