For years, a waspish mental voice has nagged. "You could have been subtler about that," it pines, as I glare blearily at yet another heap of ripped, shredded NPCs. "You didn't have to go in 'all guns blazing'. Was it really necessary to shatter that poor man's patella? You could have shot out the ceiling lights, or snuck through a vent, or done anything except erupt into a whirlwind of roundhouse kicks and stabbing."
For years, I have looked upon this waspish mental voice as my better Angel - a kindly spirit, who simply wants to put my higher intellectual functions to the test. But I've come to realise - quite recently, in fact - that it's also the voice of a Devil. Because it doesn't want me to have fun. It wants me to be efficient, yes, efficient like the Anthrax germ or Tescos. It wants me to be quiet as nightfall, as palpable as spider silk. But it doesn't want me to enjoy myself. And if I'm not here to enjoy myself, then, pray tell, why am I here?
And what does all this have to do with Splinter Cell: Blacklist? Well, I should hope it's bleeding obvious what it has to do with Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Ubisoft has been trying to wrestle the ever-inadequate categories "stealth" and "action" into one, all-pleasing melting pot for nigh on a decade now, and with Blacklist the publisher may actually have managed it. Sam Fisher's new adventure splits three ways in terms of how you earn upgrade-unlocking cash and bragging rights - "Ghost" tactics are about avoiding all contact with the foe, "Assault" obviously rewards the act of going loud, and "Panther" is a mixture, encouraging you to play aggressively without getting bogged down in an actual firefight.
It's a nice balance on the strength of a couple hours play, reinforced by choice of difficulty setting - the hardest mode switches off the game's "Mark & Execute" instakill feature, dials up enemy watchfulness and limits the capabilities of certain gadgets, such as night vision goggles. But what I'm most struck by right now isn't the balance, but how much more fun I'm having as a Panther than a Ghost or an Assailant, and that's principally because that guiding Angel/Devil voice has fallen silent - not entirely satisfied, perhaps, but mollified.
The simplest way to explain this is by way of analogy: as a Panther, you're Batman. That's to say, you can see the point of subtlety and sneaky-smarts, but at the end of the day all you want to do is thwack somebody firmly in the oesophagus. Panther players are those who start off incognito, but swiftly escalate proceedings into the realm of carnage, and spend the rest of the scenario dancing on the edge of being detected. In the past, this sort of behaviour would have been punished with a game-over screen. "You can't have your cake and eat it!" boom inflexible classics like the original Metal Gear Solid and, indeed, the original Splinter Cell. But latter-day Fisher knows better.
Being a Panther is all about rapid adaptation. You'll waltz somebody down into a chokehold, rousing the suspicions of their friends, then flit round and catch one of them in a running grab, before picking off the final guy with a silenced pistol shot (the motion capture is every bit as excellent as Jade Raymond promised). You'll fling yourself carelessly out of windows in order to swing round the outside of a building, yanking guards out into the air like handfuls of celebratory confetti. You'll switch from stunning blows and holds to knife swipes to save time, jump off roofs onto people's heads, and never once bother yourself with the act of hiding a body. You're a drifting, shifting terror, and this takes cunning, but even the Assault-minded will be impressed by the chaos you leave in your wake.