Published on September 20th, 2013 | by Joseph Saulnier0
Splinter Cell: Blacklist
By Joseph Saulnier
Oh my Sam Fisher, how you have changed. It’s been 11 years since Sam has emerged from the shadows with his light and dark-based stealth shenanigans. He has regained his iconic trifocal goggles since the more action oriented Conviction, but he’s gone through a few more evolutionary steps than that in the latest entry to the Splinter Cell franchise.
The Blacklist subtitle in this outing refers to a large scale series of terrorist attacks that pose to obliterate America at the hands of an unknown group of evil doers who call themselves The Engineers. Sam’s back in government work with the newly created Fourth Echelon, and it is up to him and his team to prevent these multiple attacks as the clock ticks down to ultimate annihilation.
Fourth Echelon’s base of operations is a large military aircraft codenamed Paladin. It comes packed with all the amenities, and then some, to get the job done. Populated by your chatty team, the Paladin also has the coolest table top touch screen computer I’ve ever seen known as the Strategic Mission Interface (“SMI”). It’s from this rather well integrated tactical world map that you access everything the game has to throw at you, from a satisfyingly lengthy single player campaign, to the impressive array of side and co-op missions. Also, we see the return of Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer.
Is Blacklist a stealth game, though? It’s the question that should be on the forefront of any self-respecting Splinter Cell fan, especially coming on the heels of the brilliant, but worryingly action focused Conviction. The answer is yes! Though it may not be the stealth game you were looking for, but the one you need right now.
During missions you can earn points and cash for playing to one of three different Sam Fisher styles. If you choose to go the ultimate stealth path, that is complete a level completely silent without killing or interacting any baddies en route to your goal, you’ll walk away with a treasure trove of Ghost Points. This also happens to earn you the biggest financial reward at the end of the mission.
If you are lethal, but still manage finish your mission unseen, then you are considered a Panther. This style rewards you for stalking enemies. You also get Panther if you knock out enemies without killing. Basically any type of interaction will get you Panther. Then there is the Assault style. This pretty much describes itself. Shoot first… and second… and third… and… well, I think you’re beginning to see a pattern.
When you can find a good median between these three play
styles is when Blacklist becomes an absolute joy to play. One particular mission, tasking you with infiltrating the private estate of a target in South America, has Sam carefully planning out routes. You’ll find Assassin’s Creed influence as Sam scales buildings, and James Bond influence spending time determining how best to use the chosen gadget.
The best thing about the game, is the room for improvisation. On most levels, if you’re aiming for playing Ghost style but make a misstep, there is room for you to correct your action without completely failing the mission. One thing that helps with this is the noob-pleasing Mark and Execute system we saw emerge in Conviction. With it can mark up to 3 enemies (sometimes 4) before activating the ability to smoothly execute them all.
The problems with the game emerge when choice of play style is taken out of your hands. There are games that show it is possible to finely balance stealth and improvised violence without forcing players down one particular path (Dishonored and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, minus the boss fights in Deus). So it is a little disappointing when you come to several missions later in the single player campaign, you must follow the developer’s lead by partaking in forced third-person gunfights and insta-fail stealth only bits.
The sound design in Blacklist is excellent. From the dull thud of Sam smacking the back of a guard’s head on the tarmac, to the iconic whir of as your infra-red goggles hum to life, the world sounds believable and exudes coolness. Echoed by this is the soundtrack, which emphasizes gameplay immensely. Some of the greatest between mission moments are when, just before Sam is about to talk, the music cuts out entirely. This emphasizes just how bloody cool Sam Fisher is. This should be tacky. It shouldn’t work at all. But it isn’t, and it does.
Visually, the game also fluctuates, though not quite as pleasantly as the music. Some missions, such as an early stroll through a bustling marketplace in Benghazi, are vivid and full of minute details. Others, like a surprising trip to [SPOILER REMOVED] are filled with muddy textures and invisible walls.
When not losing yourself in the immense single player campaign, which can take anywhere between 10-20 hours depending on your mainstay play style, there are numerous distractions to keep you busy. Grab a buddy for split screen action or online co-op, and you can help Sam’s fellow Fourth Echelon team members with personalized side missions.
Returning to the Splinter Cell universe is everyone’s favorite intel exposition spouter Grim, who has missions focused on stealth. While the one time enemy Kobin has a bunch of Panther style jobs for you to tackle, and the resident hacker, Charlie, wants you to get your guns out for Assault missions. Lastly there is Sam’s field ops partner, Briggs, who is all about the co-op team play.
Most of these, apart from the latter, can be played either solo or co-op, each way taking you on a slightly different path. There’s a sense of satisfaction on offer here that is rarely captured elsewhere. Imagine this situation: your co-op partner is seconds away from being discovered, which will blow your painstakingly earned perfect Ghost scoring, when you emerge from the shadows above him with an acrobatic aerial takedown. It’s certainly fist-bump material, or high-five… whatever creams your Twinkie.
In between missions, you can upgrade Sam’s threads. This does more than offer just offer a cool new look for Sam. The right duds can improve stealth by reducing noise while moving, or improve combat by increasing your overall damage threshold. Gadgets can also be purchased with your post mission savings, as well as upgrades to benefit your chosen play style. Stealthy types will want to pimp out their crossbows with noisemaker and EMP Bolts, just as an example. Also, need some extra cash? There are plenty of optional dead drops to collect, laptops to hack and side challenges to complete to bolster your funds.
Overall, Blacklist is an utter blast to play. I still have doubts about the new voice of Sam Fisher, but the game definitely left me wanting the next installment to come sooner, rather than later. Definitely worth the buy on any platform (available on PC, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3).
4.5 stars out of 5.