Splinter Cell: Blacklist feels like it's trying to be all things to all people.
It pulls elements from the most recent entry, Conviction, while harkening strongly back to some of the older Splinter Cell games like Chaos Theory. It brings back the legendary Spies vs. Mercenaries multiplayer along with a death match mode that by all accounts shouldn't exist in a Splinter Cell game.
It does all these things and, somehow, does them successfully on almost all counts.
Is it worth a purchase? Let's dive in.
Inconsequential Geopolitical Terror
Splinter Cell: Blacklist brings back Sam Fisher and the ever present Anna Grimsdottir, in Sam's ear as always. After the events of the previous games, they now run a different outfit. Smaller and more agile than Third Echelon, Sam runs Fourth Echelon himself, making the big decisions in the field and answering only to the President of the United States.
With a new terrorist threat appearing in the form of a group called The Engineers, Sam is back in the hotseat again. The Engineers, requesting the removal of U.S. troops from all their various locations worldwide, have threatened the country with a series of attacks with a very specific countdown attached to each.
The story presented is incredibly current, probably more so than Ubisoft Montreal could've ever predicted. Questions about surveillance float around the periphery while ones about American military presence internationally are at the center of the action. With PRISM and Syria very much in the news, it's hard not to feel like the story's been "ripped from the headlines," if only it hadn't been in development for years before.
As entertaining as the story is, it serves mainly as a framing device for the action and falls a bit short on its own. As nation-altering events take place, the characters at the center don't seem to develop much at all. The interactions feel like something out of an episode of 24, and the characters adhere pretty closely to the tropes we commonly see in those sorts of stories. Despite the scale of the action going on, it all feels inconsequential.
The story also leaves some pretty big questions hanging that feel forgotten about more than as a potential opening for a sequel or DLC, though both are possible.
I also can't help but wonder if dropping the series' history wouldn't be a positive thing. One of the biggest changes to Splinter Cell is the dismissal of Michael Ironside as the voice of Sam Fisher. Ubisoft's reasons for this are admirable—uniting the motion capture and voice acting makes a lot of sense—but replacement Eric Johnson simply isn't as memorable as Ironside. He gets the job done, but not with the same amount of style. Further, he sounds a lot younger. So much younger that when Sam talks to his nearly-adult daughter, Sarah, he doesn't sound old enough to be her father.
Play It Your Way
The Splinter Cell of old—the first three or four games—was almost a puzzle game disguised as an action game. There was a certain way through a level, and deviations from that method didn't always work out too well. The games were known for their trial-and-error gameplay, and there was an expectation of precision on the part of the player.
The biggest change came along with Conviction. The emphasis on story required a different style of game; Sam Fisher was more of a predator, and non-lethal attacks were entirely absent. Improvisation was encouraged and very a very useful playstyle.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist combines these two disparate ideas and, somehow, makes them work. As you play through each level, you're rated across three playstyles: Ghost, Panther and Assault. The Ghost is very much like the old Splinter Cell games.
You only get Ghost points for making it through the level unseen. Stealth takedowns, non-lethal methods, and enemy avoidance are the name of the game. Panther is the style we got used to in Conviction. You can use your visibility as a strategy. Putting someone down out in the light attracts a lot of attention, giving you the opportunity to disappear and yank guys into the shadows and put more down using the Mark & Execute ability. Assault, finally, is exactly what it sounds like. Donning heavier armor and focusing on heavier weapons turns the game into a cover-based shooter.
The most impressive thing is that all of these work well and that you can, to a large degree, switch between them at will. Those who want to play Ghost-style might find themselves restarting more often, but that puzzle-like play is still there, albeit at a faster pace overall. Assault and Panther don't, as it might seem at first, dumb the game down. Instead they offer ways to improvise when things go wrong. If you don't like restarting, you can go Panther for a while to clear out a problem area and then move back to Ghost.
Blacklist also has optional side missions that show off each of these styles. The game starts from a hub area, the Fourth Eschelon airplane known as Paladin. Talking to different members of your team leads to missions that requires absolute stealth or complete dismantling of the enemy force.
The different missions are a great way to cut your teeth on the various styles without going through the learning curve in the main campaign. They're a bit more focused and give good opportunities for experimentation and exploration.
These missions are all single player or co-op, and all are very playable alone, but are definitely designed to take advantage of a two-person team.
Both those levels and those of the main campaign were designed with great care to allow these different play methods to shine. As a result, they feel more like real places and less like Splinter Cell Obstacle Courses than ever before. They're open and reward exploration with fun paths through levels and different ways to approach enemies.
All of this comes together to make a game that it feels really good to be good at. The more you develop your skills, the more rewarding encounters and levels become. Replaying level is a must to experiment with the different styles and to hone skills in each style.
The only element pulled from the generation-straddling Double Agent is the system for upgrading your plane. Each mission yields money from accomplishing goals and finding enemy information, and the money can be used to improve your plane and your available equipment, leading you down paths of greater stealth or heavier duty equipment, allowing you to get the most out of your preferred playstyle.
Not-So-Alone In The Dark
The other part of this collection of old and new is the return of Spies vs. Mercenaries, the legendary multiplayer from Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. It's back and it's a lot of fun. It's so fun it's almost sad that it's in a Splinter Cell game.
While Splinter Cell has done well enough for Ubisoft, it's never been a huge seller, and I've found my love of the game doesn't bleed over to too many of my friends. Like so many other recent multiplayer experiences, Spies vs. Mercs is enhanced greatly by playing with people you know have microphones and are willing to talk—both of which are easier to get out of your friends than of strangers. I'd love to see this sold as a separate game.
There's also a deathmatch mode that, conceptually, feels incredibly out of place in a Splinter Cell game but somehow works and ends up being surprisingly fun and playable.
Cooperative missions, too, are back and just like Spies vs. Mercs it's a ton of fun. The only problem I had with it when playing with a friend is that each player only has access to the equipment they've unlocked in the main game.
If you have two equally advanced players, this can lead to an interesting stealth and assault pairing, but if someone is just starting out, but playing with someone closer to the end of the game, there's a wide gap in equipment. One player's rolling around with sonar goggles that let them see through walls, along with a radar mini-map, while the other is stuck with simple night-vision and no map to speak of.
It would be helpful to all a less-advanced player to borrow their richer friend's equipment for the duration of the mission, but that doesn't keep it from being a blast to play.
Despite the great strides forward in gameplay, I found my playthrough of Splinter Cell marred by a few technical issues and design flaws. Cutscenes often had lip-sync issues, and one of the ending cutscenes felt like it ended very abruptly because of it. Menus are a mess; it's hard to find multiplayer, and there's no way to get into multiplayer without playing through the opening story mission first.
Finally, the game is meant to be an open world, but the multiplayer and some of the side missions are on the first disc while a good part of the story is on the second. Accidentally hitting the multiplayer button in the later half of the game will force you to switch discs—there's no way to back out—only to switch back. Obviously, PlayStation 3 and PC players won't encounter this particular difficulty, but it's worth mentioning as an irritation.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a must-play for any Splinter Cell fan.
Disclaimer: We purchased Splinter Cell: Blacklist for Xbox 360 with company funds. We completed the single player campaign as well as the single-player side missions, as well as playing both cooperative and versus multiplayer before starting this review.
Even with those complaints though, this is one of the best Splinter Cell games out there. It takes the puzzle-like elements of the previous games and the improvisational parts of more recent ones to make a Splinter Cell game that can be picked up by any fan of the series regardless of whether they picked up during Conviction or back on the original Xbox. The multiplayer is rewarding despite its unforgiving learning curve and I hope it'll have the long tail it really deserves.
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