Splinter Cell is one of the most prominent games in the entire stealth genre, with the only other major competitor being the renowned Metal Gear Solid series. While the initial few Splinter Cell games embodied stealth in its purest form (players were often penalized for even being spotted by enemies, let alone confronting them) the later games, starting from Double Agent, took a rather unfortunate turn to focus more on combat. Ubisoft had promised that despite this trend, Blacklist would have plenty of options for stealing around enemies rather than just shooting them in the face. In many ways, the latest installment Splinter Cell: Blacklist feels like an apology to the fans who took exception to what they saw as a dumbing-down of the series, but the developers have not abandoned their ambitions to capture a more mainstream audience.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a bold attempt to please everyone, retaining the action focus and blockbuster production values of its predecessor, while reintroducing some of the series’ in-depth stealth mechanics. Blacklist marks the beginning of a new era for Splinter Cell, with actor Eric Johnson replacing series veteran Michael Ironside as the voice of protagonist Sam Fisher, and the superspy taking on a new role as the head of the newly-formed Fourth Echelon.
It draws a line under Splinter Cell: Conviction on a number of fronts, but some reused mechanics and retained plot threads prevent it from being a full-on reboot
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is an action-adventure experience at its core, yet stealth plays an expanded role compared to its forebear, with players always given means of avoiding direct combat situations should they favor the surreptitious approach.
The plot revolves around a terrorist group called “The Engineers”, who intend to attack random American targets until all American forces are removed from other countries in the world. The drama is played high, with a dramatic score underpinning a desperate situation that threatens to destroy the “American way life” at the very least.
Yet Blacklist doesn’t quite get there: your concern regarding the threat of attacks on American soil fizzle out once you realize that, by some magical coincidence, your team manages to decipher intel that you never even knew you had – or that dubiously existed in the first place – to determine exactly when and where the next threat is. Despite the game attempting to constantly bombard you, through dialog and mission briefings, with the thought that The Engineers are always one step ahead of you, it never really comes across feeling that way; at best, it feels like a game of chess with two novice players, where the opponents are reacting to each other, but are barely planning ahead for their next move.
This is most evident when you start moving ahead to the second half of the game, when Fourth Echelon goes on the offensive and starts proactively derailing The Engineers’ plots. In one of the most questionable elements of the story, they know they’re being attacked, yet they never bother planting decoys: Fisher destroys one threat and, rather surprisingly, The Engineers don’t have a second one lined up and ready to go: and on the rare occasion that they do attempt a decoy, it’s only a few hundred miles away from the actual attack location. Why not have a decoy set up in Northeastern Russia, but set the actual attack up under the guise of Iran’s nuclear power program? Maybe they have to hire contractors and pay union wages, and it would get too expensive and complicated?
Still, it’s not as thrilling or engaging as Chaos Theory, where you really felt like the paper-thin wall standing between diplomatic negotiations and World War III. That story – which had you infiltrating North Korean military installations, diverting missiles, and desperately toeing the line between peace and nuclear war – is possibly one of the most exciting espionage stories in literature, and easily the best one told in a video game.
Luckily, there aren’t too many noticeable plot holes in Blacklist – except for a few instances where Fisher decides to make things deliberately complicated. In one instance, some vans carrying chemical bombs are driving down highway I-95 to their destination in Philadelphia. Rather than putting out an APB to divert traffic off of the highway (delaying the attack), organizing local SWAT/Police and other agencies into a counterterrorism team and setting them up around the train yard (which is entirely possible, because 4E knows where they’re headed, as evidenced by the fact that Sam and Briggs arrive before the vans do), and disrupting The Engineers’ plans with a full coordinated attack, Sam decides to wait until 2 hours before the attack starts, land at Philadelphia International Airport, drive in with Briggs, and clear out the entire subway train depot, disarm the three bombs, and capture the attack’s coordinator almost entirely by himself.
After each mission you are returned to your base in the sky, Paladin, similar to the flying base in the Avengers. You can talk to Grimm about upgrading Paladin to give you access to new equipment and perks such as unlocking black market weapons and custom slots to create your own loadout. You can also talk to Charlie about upgrading Sam’s suit, weapons and gadgets. Briggs is the man you talk to when you feel like hitting up Co-Op. Grim and Charlie also have their own mission sets, Grims being a purely ghost playstyle and Charlie sends into the field to survive waves of enemies.
In the middle of the Paladin is the Strategic Mission Interface (SMI). This is your main menu for everything. From here you can pick what missions to undertake as well as searching for wanted associates of The Engineers through a series of puzzles located on a world map. You travel to a number of locations from Iran to Paraguay, England to Cuba and even Ireland gets a mention. The SMI is also where you access multiplayer, leaderboards and stats. Customization is what sets Blacklist apart from any of its predecessors. Before each mission you can edit your gear so it’s optimized for the best results. This could be anything from picking tear instead of sleeping gas to changing your gloves so that your weapon handling is increased.
Upon mission completion you are given your results in 3 forms Ghost (Knocking enemies out), Panther (Silent but deadly) and Assault (All guns blazing). Each is more rewarding than the last giving you bigger points which results in a bigger pay-out leading to even more customization options. You can get an even bigger pay-out by completing secondary objectives such as collecting dead drops, hacking laptops or capturing a High Value Target (HVT). Unfortunately money is thrown at you and after you get the hang of the gameplay you’ll find that you have nearly too much money at your disposal, especially as the money from Co-Op and Multiplayer carries over.
The co-op campaign has one player plays as Sam and the other as his field partner, Briggs. To even step foot in this area you will need a friend which you communicate well with as it’s all about team work, something lacking in co-op games of late. You’ll find yourself screaming at the TV out of frustration at something your partner did and then trying to rush through coming across silly mistakes. The only downside about the co-op missions is that they in no way feature checkpoints, if you take objective A and B and are about to capture B and suddenly get discovered then it’s mission restart and you have to do everything again which can be a major inconvenience, but makes the completion all the more satisfying, although you’’ probably have lowered the difficulty at this stage.
The multiplayer brings into a familiar territory with the much-loved Spies vs. Mercs making a return from Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (2004). It’s similar to Search and Destroy in which the Spies must hack 3 terminals whilst the Mercs have to stop them from stealing the data. The mode is available as Classic (2v2) or as Blacklist (4v4). When playing as a spy it feels very similar to how Assassins Creed multiplayer works, with ledge hanging and running for your life. There is also a Capture the Flag mode called Uplink as well as a standard Team Deathmatch. Unfortunately the multiplayer doesn’t feature a fair matchmaking system, putting low levels in with the very high.
The graphics are slightly better than Conviction, but unfortunately if the character isn’t Sam then they won’t look very good. This could be down to the simplicity of Sam’s character that makes him look good, but even the detail in his clothes is something that is far better than any other character. The area around you is beautiful, especially during the daytime missions when the sunlight creates perfect silhouettes for you to hide in. As with all Splinter Cell games light is your enemy, as good as it looks in Blacklist.
Overall Splinter Cell: Blacklist plays beautifully, looks great and is a fantastic addition to the series as well as a stealthy return to form. Value for money is what you are definitely getting with Blacklist, each mission takes about 45 minutes to an hour giving you a roughly 13 hour game, which is further extended by the amazing co-op and multiplayer modes that thankfully do no longer require a U Play Passport.