Splinter Cell has never been the apex of good storytelling, but Blacklist tries to keep the player intrigued with an otherwise basic terrorism plot. A terrorist group known as ‘The Engineers’ begin orchestrating attacks on U.S assets, with the demand that the government pull all U.S soldiers from foreign lands, otherwise executing the Blacklist, a series of deadly attacks. In continuation of Splinter Cell Conviction and it’s fractured leadership, President Caldwell from the previous installment reinstates Fisher and recurring favorite Grimsdottir to Fourth Echelon, which basically is Third Echelon all over again, with Fisher as the leader.
The story is hardly remarkable, and doesn’t contain a trace of Chaos Theory’s nuanced and subtle style of storytelling (which overtly focused on optional data collections to piece together the whole story rather than Blacklist’s linear progression of the story through cutscenes) but it’s well voiced, the main antagonist Sadiq is very well portrayed and as a vehicle to drive the gameplay forward it does the job fine. When the lines start to blur between Fourth Echelon and the American Government, as we are shown how far the team will go to protect their nation and people, is where Blacklist shines. Some surprising twists abounds, but ultimately the story fizzles out in the end due to a nuanced final encounter and plot points that purposely leave the door open for a sequel. That’s all well and good, but Blacklist suffers for not continuing the story in favour of a probable next-gen outing.
New characters Charlie and Briggs are nothing more than shallow stereotypes (the nerd and the rough and tumble partner) which is a shame; neither holds a flame to the old favorites Lambert or even Redding, and do nothing other than exchange shallow quips and break rules/back up Fisher, respectfully. There’s little emotional connectivity, and even Grimsdottir isn’t up to snuff. Fisher himself has lost the charm of his witty and sarcastic past self. Given the subject matter and Conviction/Double Agent’s foray into playing it straight, this is less of an negative, more of a confirmation that this looks like the road we’ll be going down. Conviction’s Victor Coste and Kobin both make appearances, and it’s actually sort of nice to see Kobin get a role that doesn’t involve him getting beaten up in every encounter.
Despite the outdated character models and wonky cutscenes, Blacklist looks and feels great. The animations (easily the best part of Conviction) looks even better here. The sheer amount of work gone into the takedown varieties, both lethal and non lethal, is impressive. The sheer smoothness of sliding from cover to cover, marking three enemies, taking down one with a hand-to-hand knockout then executing the rest with both skill, stealth and style makes for exhilarating looks, not to mention gameplay.
In terms of voice actors, yes the now iconic Michael Ironside is gone, and also surprising (and subsequently ignored due to the Ironside controversy) is that Grimsdottir is also voiced by a new actress. Eric Johnson as the new Fisher does a good job with what he’s given, but the mere fact that Ironside is gone is already held against him, and the fact that we’re playing a younger, more agile and faster Fisher throws the age discrepancy into a bit of a loop. As far as we know, Fisher is at the very least, in his late 40’s by the time the events of Blacklist have happened. To hear a younger voice is definitely strange, as are his phone calls to his now mid-20’s daughter.
As for the controversy ‘torture’ sequences, I was surprised at how much backlash that ONE scene had received in the E3 demo, and that Ubisoft felt needed to be cut out. Since it was playable, I suppose that’s why it received the full grunt of negative press, but honestly, the entire game is full of torture sequences and very dark subject matter. Fisher and co beat, mutilate and break their way through people in order to extract information from them and not only is it very disturbing, it’s encouraged as the end results get them their information. I feel that the press here may have missed the point, though that can be chalked up to Ubisoft showing only one segment of the game in a tight E3 schedule. Needless to say, the violence is a bit heavy handed.
Thankfully, the gameplay makes up for whatever mishandled messages of violence Blacklist comes with in fantastic ways. While elements of Conviction remains (the superb cover system and the less superb Mark and Execute), this truly is a Splinter Cell game for both young and old. What’s remarkable about Blacklist is that not only non-lethal stealth part of the game, it’s actively encouraged. Not only that, the lethal route is equally fun. The absolutely spellbinding balance between the 3 core gameplay styles (aptly called Ghost, Panther and Assault) is truly impressive, and you’ll be replaying this game well into the end of 2013 just figuring out the amount of routes you’re given. Some of the levels can easily match the amount of creativity shown in past installments, like the Estate level, which is as glorious as Chaos Theory’s Teahouse level, or Double Agent’s Shanghai one.
To break it down, gameplay consists of 3 styles that are both intertwining and flexible. The Ghost style is for the hardcore fans of Splinter Cell, remaining in the shadows and bypassing all enemies through levels (or taking them out non-lethally), possibly being the favorite route for players, rewarding you the most and being the most satisfying way to tackle objectives. The Panther route is more of an aggressive stealth, much like Conviction, where you make your way through levels taking out enemies without prejudice and without…conviction. Assault means taking out enemies loudly and quickly, probably making liberal use of both the Last Known Position feature and the Mark and Execute feature.
Yes, the dreaded M&E feature is back, but fortunately it has been severely nerfed this time. For starters the maximum amount of marks is three, and the infamous ‘shoot through any surface’ from Conviction has been fixed. Not only that, many enemies start wearing helmets or carrying shields that make them impervious from instant headshots, and a mark simply knocks the helmet off, encouraging you to get up close and personal to take them out. Yes, M&E had to come back. And yes, it actually works in Blacklist. And probably best for old fans, the hardest difficulty (Perfectionist) gets rid of Mark and Execute entirely. It’s a nice touch and a respectful nod to the old fanbase, who may have been alienated after Conviction’s streamlined features. That and the fact you can move and hide bodies, a feature sorely missed in Conviction. The Last Known Position (LKP) is actually a feature I loved in Conviction, and it’s been again tweaked to make things slightly more challenging in Blacklist. Having the ability to make your position known to enemies, then circling them to take them out from behind makes for some extremely fun situations and tactical gameplay.
Gameplay for the most part sticks to tried and true Splinter Cell formula. Stick to shadows, knock out, kill or avoid your enemies, and get to your objective. Each style awards you points, which converts into cash, which you can then use to upgrade Fisher’s arsenal. It’s definitely a great touch and gives a nice sense of progression for your character (this includes your online character) but unfortunately it’s a little TOO easy. Playing on the Realistic difficulty, I quickly racked up enough money to buy all my gadgets, upgrade a decent pistol and rifle, and pack my suit with all the stealth upgrades it had. By endgame I had pretty much bought all the gadgets and optional colour schemes, and had 200 grand just lying there.
Yes, it’s a lot more fast paced than the first four games, and yes there are some annoying scenarios that force you into open combat, but for the most part Blacklist is a perfect mix of Chaos Theory old school stealth and Conviction’s aggressive stealth. However, the sensitivity of Fisher’s speed can be called into question. He’s simply TOO fast, to put it simply. Pushing the thumbstick softly has him break out in a stride, and pushing it a tiny effort more results in his full speed stealth run/assault run. This normally wouldn’t be a problem, but enemies can hear you creeping up to them, and the lack of sound bar means you’ll really be struggling to discern whether you’re moving slow enough to not be spotted. While this isn’t much of an annoyance, I definitely recommend precaution to play it softly.
Side missions courtesy of Grim, Briggs, Charlie and Kobin are both a nice touch and slightly frustrating, at least on the harder difficulties. Charlie’s ‘Horde’ mode is a nightmare on Realistic, as it requires you holding out against legions of enemies for 20 waves (with optional exits with every 5 rounds), but it’s a nice way to stretch out your assault talents and the huge amounts of enemies allows for creative and flexible ways to tackle combat situations. Grim’s missions are possibly the hardest and most frustrating, having a strict ‘no alarm’ stealth run for each of her situations. It quickly escalates into madness, as you’re silently taking out guards, whilst dodging security cameras, laser systems and drones that routinely patrol security areas.
This normally would make for a nice challenge, but one slip up and you’re sent back to the very start. This, and the campaign missions that restrict you to a no kill, no alarm policy, quickly end up as a frustrating trial and error system until you absolutely perfect a route, something that hasn’t been seen since the hey-day of Pandora Tomorrow. Briggs’ missions are co-op only, and it’s nice to see the co-op get a fully fledged mode, since every one of those side missions can be accomplished co-op. It’s even encouraged, with certain routes in levels locked out unless you have a partner. Finally, Kobin’s missions can be described as a ‘flexible Grim’, encouraging you to go stealth, but getting caught and raising an alarm means reinforcements. They are all a solid bunch of missions, and completely optional.
Despite some strictly linear missions and the surprising speed of Fisher (who’s meant to be 40-something by now), the gameplay in Blacklist is pretty much perfect. Playing it on Perfectionist is a must, and there’s even a trophy/achievement for doing a no-kill run throughout the course of the entire game.
Fan favourite multiplayer mode Spies versus Mercs has also been reworked. The mode now sees two teams of four working together to complete objectives and eliminate the opposition. If you’re a spy you will play in the third person whilst the Mercs will play in the first-person perspective.
The mode is split into two rounds. One in which your team will take the role of the Mercs and the other where you will take the role as the Spies. Your job whilst being the Spy is to hack one of 3 terminals without getting killed by the Mercs. The team who can hack the most terminals for the longest period of time after both rounds are complete win the game.
This is one of the most fascinating multiplayer modes that i’ve had the joy of playing in a long time. Each game was exciting until the last second and it was really about combining the right classes in order to make sure that your team is a success. A huge amount of team work and strategy is needed which made it so enjoyable.
Conviction may have lost the fans, but Blacklist will bring them back. While the franchise is firmly speeding past Chaos Theory’s style of stealth (and never coming back), you couldn’t ask for a better playing sequel. The cover system, the focus on stealth, and most of all, the ability to ghost your way through shows that Ubisoft really put effort into bringing back the stealth fans of old, and keeping the new ones as well. This is simply a must buy for Splinter Cell fans, and I cannot wait for the next-gen movement.