Waking up a Sleeper Cell

After years of indie hits, the GTA's first big blockbuster game comes out of the shadows in Splinter Cell: Blacklist

It was always part of the mission. When Ubisoft set up camp, they already knew which game they were going to make.

There’s no shortage of great, weird games, coming out of Toronto. Trust me, it makes my job a lot easier. But most of these games are downloadable indies. They aren’t those eclipsing triple-A releases, the kind GameStop encourages you to pre-order, like Halo or Grand Theft…

Well actually, come to think of it, Rockstar Toronto, who contributed to GTA, are located nearby in Oakville. That makes Ubisoft Toronto, which opened in 2009 near the Junction, the city’s first real humungo blockbuster studio. That makes Splinter Cell: Blacklist Toronto’s first real humongo blockbuster game.

“A lot of people made a big commitment coming to Toronto to set up the studio,” says Alex Parizeau, senior producer on Blacklist, who slept on an inflatable mattress while working on the game, “I moved for this. A lot of others came from all over the world, left jobs. Everyone here wanted this to be a success very badly. That’s what makes it possible to overcome the fact we’re a new team on a project with high expectations.”

Splinter Cell, a Tom Clancy-branded Metal Gear alternative, proved to be a kingmaker for Ubisoft’s Montreal studio. Followed up by Prince of Persia: Sands Of Time and eventually Assassin’s Creed, it’s hard to understate Ubisoft’s Canadian legacy. When then Splinter Cell: Conviction producer Alex Parizeau was confronted about a Toronto new studio, the stealth op series was already decided to be its first project.

Sam Fisher, the night-vision-goggled stealth agent is back in the black tights and flashbangs for the latest Splinter Cell. (And this time, he no longer sounds like Michael Ironside). After a catastrophic terrorist attack in Guam, Fisher and his private military group, Fourth Echelon, are enlisted to take on a collective known as The Engineers, who announce that they will attack different symbolic American institutions until the U.S . withdraws its military strongholds freckling the globe.

“When we work on Clancy games, we always make sure we build a plot that feels like it could happen,” says Parizeau. Sometimes that direction can make things odd. And prescient.

The first full level of the game takes place in Benghazi, a place whipping around the news cycle after an attack last year. But Blacklist has been in development for a while, and the Benghazi stage was worked on two years before it became a hot topic. Parizeau, who has worked on other Splinter Cell games, explains that when you’re choosing confliction hot spots of the globe for your game, odds are that by shipment one of them has become controversial. This isn’t the first time it’s happened, either.

“If stuff starts happening in those locations, real world stuff,” says Parizeau, “you always feel a little bad.”

To some, Splinter Cell is a boring choice for Ubisoft Toronto’s maiden voyage. For Ubisoft, who has invested hundreds of millions into the studio, it’s not just a safe bet, but a good luck charm ensuring that the new outpost would find the same fortunes as Montreal.

“You can’t fail. There’s a lot of money, a lot of expectations,” says Parizeau. The Toronto studio employs around 300 people, and on top of Ubisoft’s investment, there’s over $200 million from the Ontario government to sweeten the pot.

Blacklist was a massive project, with its multiplayer and co-op modes worked on by an additional 100 people in Montreal and Shanghai. Just to show how serious the company was about the new venture, they made Assassin’s Creed producer Jade Raymond the studio’s managing director.

Montreal has a community of top-tier game developers. Beside Ubisoft, Warner Bros., Eidos and EA have situated there. Toronto is its weird opposite, most populated by smaller developers like Capybara, Queasy Games and Metanet.

“I’ve been in the industry for a while in Montreal,” says Parizeau. “It’s a lot of people but a small world. Toronto, interestingly enough, is almost as big as a community, but it’s more focused on the indie scene. For me that was the biggest cultural difference. There are a lot of people really passionate about games, approaching it in a far more different way. It’s very humbling to be honest.”

Blacklist has a kitchen-sink approach to gameplay, with Fisher capable of huddling in shadows as much as dishing out handfuls of bullets. For those waiting for a more uncanny contribution from Toronto’s big game building, one to match its strange neighbours, Parizeau explained that the studio will be going multi-project, and new titles will be announced soon.

Soon we may see some more snowflake franchises, along with the healthy, balanced, stealthy assassins.

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