Revisiting Splinter Cells’ Spies vs. Mercs

Last Updated March 12th, 2022

When it was decided that multiplayer would be added to Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell series, the studio had a problem on its hands: how do you add multiplayer to a stealth-oriented series and make it fun? Sure, the series has shooting elements, and some players even enjoyed taking a more aggressive, lethal approach, but implementing a pure shooting-based multiplayer mode would surely upset the stealth purists, and vice versa for the series’ shooter fans. So what was Ubisoft to do? Well, appropriately enough, the studio dreamed up a competitive multiplayer concept which pitted the two playstyles (stealth and shooting) against each other, and thus Spies vs. Mercs was born.

Aggression vs. Subterfuge

First introduced in 2004’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (the second core game in the series following 2002’s Splinter Cell), Spies vs. Mercs is a unique multiplayer concept which, as the name implies, involves one team of spy players going up against a team of mercenary players. The goal for the spies is to sneak around a map and stay hidden as they try to hack terminals, while the mercenary players simply have to sniff out the spy players and eliminate them.

The mode’s mercenaries control in a way similar to characters in other shooter games, using a first-person viewpoint, firearms, and lethal gadgets like grenades. The spies, meanwhile, are controlled from a third-person perspective, giving them added situational awareness, and they also have heightened agility, allowing them to sprint around the map, quickly scale walls, and hop over low obstacles with ease. If a spy player is caught out in the open, a mercenary player can easily gun them down, which means spies have to take advantage of their speed as well as non-lethal gadgets like smoke bombs and EMP grenades to disorient the mercenary players.

With the exception of 2010’s Splinter Cell: Conviction (which featured a pure co-op multiplayer mode called Deniable Ops), every core Splinter Cell game since Pandora Tomorrow has featured Spies vs Mercs, adding up to a total of four different iterations: Pandora Tomorrow, 2005’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, 2006’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent, and 2013’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. In researching this article, I decided to revisit the Spies vs. Mercs modes from the two Splinter Cell games I happen to own: Double Agent and Blacklist. While the online communities for both games are unfortunately dried up, I was able to at least access each game’s respective Spies vs. Mercs mode and see how much functionality each mode still has.

Double Agent

Considering it originally launched a decade ago, it’s not very surprising that Double Agent’s online community no longer exists. However, the game’s Spies vs. Mercs mode is still accessible by playing LAN (local area network) matches, and it’s still somewhat playable even if you’re by yourself thanks to its dedicated co-op challenges which pit either one or two spy players against AI bot mercs in simulated recreations of the standard spies vs. mercs format. The AI bot mercs are surprisingly skilled at routing out the spy players and eliminating them, and completing the co-op challenges even allows the player to unlock a handful of rewards such as new profile titles and skins for their spy character.

However, there’s really no variety in the different challenges themselves other than the map they are set in and the number of AI merc bots that spawn, which means it can get boring quickly, especially if you’re attempting them by yourself. Also, there is no bot support for the spies, which means that, while you can play private competitive matches, populating them with bots results in a match where you (a lone spy) must go up against three AI bot mercs, which is basically the same setup as the co-op challenges. All this means that, while Double Agent’s Spies vs. Mercs experience is still somewhat playable, there’s not much incentive to actually play it unless you can somehow wrangle up some friends for private LAN matches.

Blacklist

After an extended hiatus following Double Agent’s release, Spies vs. Mercs sat out the 2010 release of Splinter Cell: Conviction and didn’t make its return until 2013’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Sadly, despite being a much newer game than Double Agent, the fact that Blacklist is now three years old and that it didn’t exactly set the world on fire back when it was still new and fresh means that it too is now home to a completely empty Spies vs. Mercs experience.

What’s even more unfortunate is that, unlike Double Agent, the Blacklist iteration of Spies vs. Mercs has absolutely no bot support, which means that, again, unless you can convince some friends to purchase Blacklist and join you in private matches, all you can really do at this point is wander around by yourself in private lobbies. It’s a shame, really, since I remember playing Blacklist’s Spies vs. Mercs back when the game first launched and really liking it.

Blacklist’s spies have more offensive capabilities than past iterations, able to utilize their own silenced firearms and eliminate merc players with one-hit-kill melee attacks if they can get close enough. Blacklist also features three different “classes” for each side, and each class has its own signature skill or gadget, adding an additional layer of strategy onto otherwise straightforward matches.

Lastly, private Spies vs. Mercs matches in Blacklist (even ones you sit through by yourself) grant the same XP and in-game cash rewards which public matches once granted, which means that if you do manage to recruit some friends, you can all enjoy the full benefits of the game’s progression system, and you can even support the game’s story campaign since in-game cash earned from Spies vs. Mercs matches can be used to purchase new equipment for the story campaign’s protagonist Sam Fisher.

The Future of Spies vs Mercs

While Ubisoft has yet to confirm anything itself, rumors began cropping up last month that a new Splinter Cell game is currently in development and that it will feature the return of acclaimed actor Michael Ironside as the voice of series protagonist Sam Fisher (Ironside was replaced in Blacklist by actor Eric Johnson, a move which fans were very unhappy about). If this new Splinter Cell game is indeed real, and if it also includes a new iteration of Spies vs. Mercs, I’d be ok if said new iteration took an approach similar to Blacklist’s Spies vs. Mercs mode, albeit with a few changes.

First off, there needs to be full bot support for both spies and mercs. I know it would be tough programming competent AI behavior for spies given their added speed and agility, but with the power of today’s game engines, I think it would at least be doable. Not only would full bot support make Spies vs. Mercs more accessible for casual players, it would also allow all players to continue enjoying the mode long after the game’s multiplayer community died out, a much more appealing fate than the ghost town which Blacklist’s Spies vs. Mercs mode has become. Also, it would be awesome if private matches awarded XP and currency just like they do in Blacklist’s Spies vs. Mercs, again, just to give players more leeway over how they want to play.

Lastly, and I admit this is more a matter of personal taste than anything, it would be cool if we could transfer our customized spy (and maybe even merc) characters over in the new game’s co-op multiplayer mode (if it had one). Getting to play as established characters in co-op like Sam Fisher or Conviction’s team of American spy Archer and Russian spy Kestrel is cool, but having the option of playing as our own personalized spy characters would certainly be a welcome addition (at least in my opinion).

It would also be neat if there was a secondary co-op mode where players could take a louder approach, seeing how many waves of AI enemies they could fight off while playing as their merc characters. Such a mode may seem like a harsh deviation from Splinter Cell’s stealth roots, but I doubt fans would be against yet another way through which Ubisoft could extend the game’s lifespan.

As someone who has thoroughly enjoyed the unique dynamics of Splinter Cell’s Spies vs. Mercs concept, I really don’t want Blacklist to be the end of the line for the mode. A new iteration of Spies vs. Mercs deserves not only to take advantage of more modern gaming innovations, but to also have some real staying power. Naturally implementing things like full AI bot support and co-op-specific game modes for spy and merc characters would involve extra effort on Ubisoft’s part, but I think many Splinter Cell fans would agree when I say that the added effort would be well worth it.