The plot might sound like a hyper-testosterone driven Hollywood film, but this a made-in-Canada video game: Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. The first game from Ubisoft Toronto hits stores today on all major videogame platforms, and the stakes are high for the studio's team, as well as for the province's video game industry.
In 2009, the Ontario government announced a $263 million grant to Ubisoft, the Paris-based game company, to found a Toronto studio with the intention of creating 800 jobs in 10 years. Four years later, Ubisoft Toronto has a staff of about 300 and says it’s well ahead of schedule in terms of the 800-job target.
Toronto has become known for critical darlings produced in the indie sector, including DrinkBox Games’ Guacamelee and Capy Games’ Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. But the rationale for the grant was that a blockbuster AAA game the likes of Splinter Cell could attract greater numbers of both experienced and aspiring developers to the city.
The province is also supporting other studios with financial incentives. Rockstar Toronto, for example, received government assistance to start an expansion at a location in Oakville, Ont. The studio, which has worked on the Grand Theft Auto series and 2012’s Max Payne 3, reportedly received $2 million in grants.
But Ubisoft Toronto is by far the Ontario government’s biggest gamble in the games industry. And this first project is no minor game or a second-line title — Blacklist is the sixth major entry in a longstanding series of espionage action games. So this week, all eyes in the Canadian game development industry are on Ubisoft Toronto to see whether it can deliver.
Debuting in 2002 with combined sales of more than 22 million copies, Splinter Cell is one of Ubisoft’s tentpole franchises alongside the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Rayman.
Several members of Ubisoft’s long-standing Montreal team moved to Toronto to seed the company’s second major Canadian location. Managing director Jade Raymond, one of the producers of 2007’s Assassin’s Creed, was joined by creative director Maxime Béland and senior producer Alex Parizeau.
Béland’s no stranger to the pressure. “The sad answer is that every game I’ve made has the most pressure I’ve ever seen,” he told CBC News.
“It’s always stressful, it’s always big. The pressure is always at the maximum. And I don’t think it’s only on AAA games. If you’re passionate, if you’re an artist or a creator and you’re working on something that you care about, you self-impose stress and tension and all that onto yourself.”
In 2006 he headed the launch of Rainbow Six: Vegas, another game in the Tom Clancy universe. He also served as creative director for 2010’s Splinter Cell: Conviction. But its introduction of more gunplay, direct confrontation with enemies and an overall greater emphasis on action over stealth soured some fans on the series. (Fun fact: when you type Maxime Béland into Google’s search bar, the first autocomplete phrase that appears is “Maxime Béland ruined Splinter Cell.”)
Criticism from gamers didn’t seem to sway the actual critics, however: Splinter Cell: Conviction was praised as the best game in the series, and currently enjoys an 85/100 rating on Metacritic, the reviews aggregator site.
The team is taking even more risks with Blacklist. Early previews in the games press have been promising, but fans have so far expressed a more reserved optimism.
The most controversial change was the loss of voice actor Michael Ironside, who had played the role of the grizzled Fisher since the series’ outset.
Ironside was replaced by Edmonton actor Eric Johnson, who appeared on television's Rookie Blue and Smallville. Ubisoft said it wanted voice talent who could also perform motion capture for their characters.
The team has also made changes to Splinter Cell's strategic recipe, allowing players to put a greater emphasis on lurking in the shadows rather than running and gunning, a return to the approach taken by the series’ older games.
Game director Patrick Redding said that getting that balance between accessibility and complexity was a challenge that he embraced as a self-described masochist.
“At the end of the day, regardless of how great the production values are, or how big your budget is, games are based on mechanics,” he says. “That’s what makes them different from other mediums. It’s what allows them to be interactive, it’s what allows games to produce experiences, or allows players to produce experiences for themselves that are unique. It’s what gives games their power.”
Despite the pressure for success, the team still managed to have a bit of fun with shout-outs to the studio's home town. One of the multiplayer maps, while based on the U.K. Millennium Mills, is named Landsowne Mill, after the Toronto street closest to Ubisoft’s studio. And minor characters were given the names of local sports players, including the Blue Jays’ J.P. Arencibia and the Maple Leafs’ Leo Komarov.
But with the amount of provincial grant money and so many jobs riding on the success of the game, the question is whether the changes and themes chosen by the Toronto development team will resonate with an international audience.
The early signs are positive. On Metacritic, the game currently boasts an 82/100 average rating. The National Post said that, despite “some rough patches,” Ubisoft Toronto has made “a game which excels by making all of its moving pieces work together in unison.”
Raymond adds that the pre-orders for the game at retail were filled and stores have had to order more copies to meet the demand.
And even as the champagne corks are popped for the launch of Blacklist, the studio is already working on five separate projects, including collaborating with Ubisoft Montreal on an unannounced game in the Assassin’s Creed series.
“Setting up a new studio from scratch, hiring over 300 people in three years and shipping the biggest game ever to come out of Ontario and the biggest game in the franchise to date is quite an accomplishment,” says Raymond.
“The game industry and our team here is full of people who want to outdo ourselves each time, so we’re setting the bar even higher with all of our next projects.”