Sam Fisher returns with a new voice actor in tow and a constantly mobile airborne base of operations. With the pre-release buzz being more about the apparent lack of stealth in the game, does Splinter Cell Blacklist melt quietly into the shadows, or stand out in the crowd with all its guns blazing?
Game: Splinter Cell Blacklist
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto, Ubisoft Shanghai
The story behind Blacklist is pretty much your typical espionage thriller. Bad guy wants to destroy the US in novel ways, Fisher and his team need to take them down. Based on the perpetually airborne Paladin aircraft, Fisher, returning character Grim, and two new characters Charlie and Briggs (collectively known as Fourth Echelon) are tasked with bringing down a shadowy terrorist organisation called the Engineers, who plan on hitting the US with a number of attacks they call the Blacklist. The aim of the Engineers is to cripple the United States with these attacks, as they hit key parts of the country’s infrastructure, and wiping out entire cities with a variety of chemical, biological and cyber attacks.
The story is well paced, and well constructed, if not a little familiar. There is a definite sense of urgency to the missions, with your command centre computer (The SMI) continually showing a countdown to the next Blacklist attack (Although the locations are unknown, the times of the attacks are released by the Engineers). I was glad that Ubisoft didn’t feel the need to go down too many of the typical espionage story tropes that they could have done, and it’s to the games credit that the number of clichés is kept to a minimum.
Despite being spoiled with constant images and videos of the impending next-gen consoles, Blacklist still holds its own graphically. It’s not going to challenge the likes of The Last of Us any time soon, but it’s definitely got a lot going for it. The lighting is impressive, weather effects outside are convincing and character models are well detailed, if not a little lacking in variety. There is a great deal of satisfaction in hanging onto a pipe on the ceiling in the darkness before dropping onto an enemy and hauling his unconscious body into a quiet and dark corner.
Blacklist continues the trend set by the previous entry in the series, Conviction, by displaying mission objectives on the scenery in huge letters before you get to them. I really like this touch, and think it’s a very clever way of displaying the objectives without being too intrusive to the overall gameplay.
Performance capture has become a huge part of games in the latter part of this generation, and Blacklist is no different. Sam Fisher’s new voice actor, Eric Johnson, was chosen for the role because of the demands of performance capture work, and he’s done a great job. It would appear that there’s no bad blood on the part of Michael Ironside either, as he featured in one of the developer diaries for the game, stating he was assisting Johnson with the preparation for the role. I should also point out the fantastic performance of Carlo Rota as the game’s antagonist, Majid Sadiq. His likeness is faithfully recreated in the game and is at times a genuinely chilling villain to face.
Carrying on from the graphical prowess of Blacklist, the sound design is what you’d come to expect from a game this far along in a console generation. Areas feel tense and claustrophobic, and distant enemy chatter can throw you off your game at a moment’s notice. You’ve really got to be on top form if you want to achieve the highest honours within the game, and the audio definitely throws another element into the mix. An electronic siren along with an accompanying arrow indicates when you’re about to be spotted, and it was something I’d heard a lot of by the time the final credits rolled! Once you are spotted, the background music changes up to a fast paced thumping beat, adding another air of panic into proceedings as you try and escape an increasingly vigilant set of guards intent on destroying you.
Anyone familiar with third person action games will find themselves instantly familiar with the style of gameplay Splinter Cell has to offer. Of course, if you try and play it like a straight action game from the start, you’ll very quickly find yourself in a body bag. Enemies are quick to spot you, and even quicker to flank and pick you apart in teams as you attempt to escape. The best way to work your way through Blacklist, as with most Splinter Cell titles, is to employ Fisher’s greatest attribute, stealth.
There are three distinct categories that your actions during missions will fall into. “Ghost” is for the type of player who doesn’t want to be seen at all, doesn’t want to harm enemies and essentially leave no trace of their involvement. “Panther” is for those who want to be stealthy but aren’t afraid of permanently dispatching some folks in the process, and “Assault” is for those who want to play it as an all out action game, firing off round after round into overwhelming numbers of enemies. Your actions will total up into an overall score for each style at the end of a mission, and you are rewarded accordingly. I found myself alternating between Ghost and Panther, but only once “mastering” any of the styles (Mastering a style gives you a huge reward and contributes to unlockables in the game). It’s a neat system that offers instant feedback for those who want to switch up their gameplay on the fly, although the punishment facing those who decide to go for the Assault style is somewhat brutal. I can only imagine playing through on “Perfectionist” difficulty! Some missions have the caveat of leaving no trace of your involvement, or ensuring any takedowns are non-lethal, which adds a further element of stealth into the game.
Overall, Splinter Cell Blacklist’s gameplay is deeply satisfying and thoroughly engaging. If you’re prepared to overlook the ever-present issue of “But surely they can see Sam’s trademark green goggles in the dark!” then the stealth is some of the most rewarding you’re likely to play in a game. The sense of accomplishment when you reach the end of a level without disturbing a single enemy is huge, as is the feeling of defending yourself against packs of heavily armed response units with a fully automatic rifle.
There are a couple of moments in the gameplay where it switches up to First Person. Whilst a novel inclusion, it did feel slightly jarring, and definitely seemed like the game was trying to funnel me down an action path for those sections. Fortunately, they’re not too common, and they’re also relatively short.
The campaign was a bit longer than I anticipated it to be, but it’s not going to challenge your average RPG for playtime. There are a great deal of unlockables to assist Sam and Fourth Echelon in their missions, including a wealth of customisation options for Sam’s suit and weaponry. There are a number of side missions as well, which are laid out in such a way that even after the main story has finished, they still make sense in the context of the game, which is a gripe I’ve had with a few other games. They’re certainly well constructed, and each member of your crew has a few missions, each with specific bonus criteria. It could take you a while to finish everything, and as usual, if you’re a trophy/achievement hunter, this game will take you absolutely ages to get everything in.
The “Mark and Execute” feature from Conviction returns, which has split some fans down the middle, but it’s a nice feature to have. If you build up enough stealth knockouts/kills, you are allowed a “free pass” of up to three instant kills on nearby enemies by tagging them with R2 and hitting Triangle. If you want to remain stealthy, you can use a non-lethal option, but it doesn’t feel too overpowered, as there are rarely situations with only three guards around.
The real bonus for Blacklist comes with the return of the excellent “Spies vs Mercs” multiplayer mode. Initially brought in for Pandora Tomorrow back in the PS2/Xbox days, but was sorely missing from Conviction. Ubisoft have brought back the traditional gameplay, as well as “Spies vs Mercs Blacklist”, which requires the spies to hack a terminal and stay in the vicinity until the data is transferred, and the Mercs to hunt the spies down and make sure the data is not breached. It’s a welcome return for a fantastic multiplayer mode. The spies have the third person view featured from the game, and the Mercs use a first person view. As ever, it’s an interesting mix that allows the spies to evade and use cover in novel ways, whilst the heavily armed mercs can easily overpower a spy in open combat. It’s a mode that I can see lasting a long time for those who want to get into it, and with no need for an online pass, should stay alive for a long time indeed.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist takes everything that’s been good about the series so far and adds some brilliant new elements into the mix. It caters to the hardcore who want to remain hidden in the shadows and fulfill every mission criteria without so much of a hint of their presence, but also allows those who want to cause chaos to do so. You’re rarely forced down any one of these paths, and as a result it makes for a truly engaging and exciting experience. Whilst the story could be deemed a little “typical”, there’s enough in the game to keep you on the edge of your seat and attempt to stop the Blacklist attacks. A huge pit of extras and side missions keep the game feeling fresh, even after completion, and Spies vs Mercs makes a triumphant return to the franchise as well. Perfectionist mode would challenge even the most hardened of veterans, as ammo refills and “mark and execute” are disabled. Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a great addition to the franchise, and should satisfy anyone who wants to dip into the world of high-tech espionage.