Sam Fisher is back – albeit with a new actor providing his voice. While many fans lamented the loss of Michael Ironside – who has portrayed Fisher in every installment in the series so far – Eric Johnson does a good job of taking on such an iconic role and it isn’t long before you forget about Ironside’s absence entirely.
In this latest entry in the long-running Tom Clancy franchise, Fisher and his team of operatives are tasked with preventing a series of terrorist attacks – the titular Blacklist – carried out by a shadowy group calling themselves The Engineers. Fisher’s the leader of the newly-formed 4th Echelon, and alongside fellow team members Anna “Grimm” Grimsdottir, Isaac Briggs, and Charlie Cole, must prevent each attack and work out who’s behind a large conspiracy. Grimm is a returning Splinter Cell character, who was an analyst in 3rd Echelon working alongside Fisher; Briggs is a your typical “by the books” Splinter Cell Initiative Operative, and Charlie is a brilliant, smart-ass hacker.
While this marks Fisher’s seventh outing, if you haven’t played the previous Splinter Cell games it won’t detract from the experience as the story stands on its own, even if the characters sometimes feel like little more than stereotypes.
The story becomes a game of wits, as 4th Echelon attempts to outsmart Majid Sadiq, a former MI6 undercover agent who flipped, and is now the leader of The Engineers. Sadiq proves to be a grounded and formidable villain, effectively increasing the tension as you find your enemy is constantly two steps ahead of you. The story is great, so you won’t find yourself completely ignoring the narrative to skip to the gameplay, and the scenarios you’re in are only heightened by the story’s circumstances. Towards the end of the campaign, the game poses an argument pretty relative to real life: whether it’s right to do whatever it takes to protect the greater good. It’s an idea that’s been explored in countless other forms over the years – such as in 24 – but here, it never really goes anywhere or break any new ground, and it ends up feeling like little more than an excuse for some of the more unpleasant scenes in the game, such as an early scene which sees you torturing a suspect for information.
Blacklist is relatively light in mature material for an M-rated game, outside of some occasional explicit language and blood. The story does tread some pretty dark ground sometimes, such as the aforementioned torture scenes and indulging in some pretty brutal deaths, but it never goes deep enough to make it feel necessary. As a result, many of its darker moments feel superfluous, and Blacklist could have been easily been toned down to reach a wider audience. Moreover, it seems that the moral hypocrisy of combating terrorists by jet-setting all over the world, torturing and kidnapping people, was lost on the developer. However, we can’t deny that there’s a certain degree of satisfaction achieved from splattering a dead Mercenary’s blood across a wall – it just happens so frequently that the novelty soon wears off.
Lasting around 8 hours, the main campaign is relatively short; but a wide selection of side missions, trophies, online multiplayer, and daily challenges means that there’s plenty more to do after the final credits roll, and for those determined to eke out every last drop of content, there’s enough here to keep you occupied for up to 40 hours.
Where the game truly shines is in its gameplay. Structured as a series of compartmentalized missions selected from a main hub, between levels you’re able to purchase and upgrade weapons and gadgets, select whether to play a side mission, or go online via the SMI (Strategic Mission Interface) located in the middle of a plane which acts as your base of operations. From here, you can also customize your goggles (which have night and sonar vision), suit, weapons, and lights (which turn on to indicate when you’re concealed in the shadows). Your gear can be adjusted to fit your playstyle, be it silent and deadly or loud and proud. The Hub system is highly reminiscent of Mass Effect, and just as with the Normandy, the Paladin can be upgraded over time.
If you prefer to play quietly – and, let’s face it, that’s what many series veterans expect from a Splinter Cell game – you can equip gear to allow you to move more quietly. If you prefer a more gung-ho approached, you can stock up on armor, allowing Sam to take more hits in open combat. You also gain different experience depending on your playstyle. There are three ways to go about the game: nonlethal and completely unnoticed as a Ghost, stealthily but lethal as a Panther, or go into full combat as an Assault. This encourages you to replay missions, taking different routes and trying out the different gadgets on offer. Although the game encourages a quiet approach, trying a strictly Assault approach can prove far more difficult when you’re unfamiliar with the level’s layout, and is never really necessary – you can easily play through the entire game without ever once firing your weapon.
However, play stealthily and the events of the story often sit uncomfortably with your chosen playstyle – with cutscenes depicting fierce shootouts, or levels allowing you to approach your objective silently before then forcing you into an extended escape sequence under heavy fire. It’s an inconsistency that brings to mind the ill-judged boss battles in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where players found themselves forced into engaging with enemies and killing them, instead of respecting their chosen modus operandi. It’s as though the developers wanted to give players the choice of stealth – perhaps to avoid accusations that Blacklist moves too far away from its heritage – only to then change their mind in the interests of being able to rigidly adhere to the story they wanted to tell.
If a non-lethal playstyle is where the game is most disappointing though, the game is at its most satisfying when you mix Assault gadgets in with Panther and Ghost toys. The right mix of tools lets you provid noisy distractions to lure enemies into a certain area, before picking them off silently from a safe distance. The Mark and Execute system first introduced in Splinter Cell: Conviction returns, and introduces a new feature called Killing in Motion. If you’re unfamiliar with the last game, Mark and Execute allows you to mark up to three targets, and take them all out at once with a single button press.
Killing in Motion works much as it sounds: you can quickly kill an enemy and keep on moving, but is most effective when combining it with Mark and Execute. This can be a little hard to pull off undetected sometimes, but with practice it can become very satisfying. However even on Normal difficulty, most enemies have helmets – making them immune to a one-shot kill, and on higher difficulty settings the feature may as well not exist.
In fact, the difficulty remains high regardless of how you play. Normal difficulty can be intimidating, particularly if you’re new to the stealth genre, and the challenge only increases from there, leading to some sections where frustration quickly sets in. Approach the game expecting an easy ride, and you’re in for something of a rude awakening.
If you find the game too difficult to play on your own, other than the main story missions there’s a number of dedicated Co-op levels, and playing with another adds more options to the gameplay, such as synchronizing your executions and accessing Co-op only routes. Co-op can either be a blessing or a curse; just as a player can help thin enemy ranks faster, they can just as easily blow your cover and lead you into an early death. Playing with a friend maximizes the fun as you can coordinate your gadgets and kills, making for a very dynamic experience. Overall the co-operative game is solid and plays the way it was intended to. We experienced little to no bugs throughout our entire playthrough, which makes the solidity of the game that much more notable.
Then there’s the multiplayer. While it can be a little difficult to find a game these days, once you manage to get into a match it can be highly enjoyable. There’s a conventional deathmatch that feels pretty tacked on and unbalanced, but what stands out the most is Spies Vs Mercs, which thankfully returns following its bizarre absence in Convcition. In Spies v Mercs, you play as either a spy or a mercenary, with players separated into teams of varying sizes depending on the chosen variant. If you’re a spy you play with the conventional 3rd-person mechanics of the campaign. But as a Mercenary, you play in 1st person, are less agile, but have faster reflexes and more firepower. Combining 1st and 3rd person perspectives in a game is rare, and rarely works the way it intends to, so seeing it integrated so seamlessly into Spies Vs Mercs makes for some enjoyable asymmetrical match-ups.
Splinter Cell Blacklist can be gorgeous at times, with some lovely lighting effects, but they can be best described as okay. The textures of Sam are spot on, and the facial expressions on the characters sold the story, but outside of that the environments often feel low on detail, and there are plenty of instances of low-resolution textures in your surroundings.
Sound work meanwhile is solid, if unspectacular. Weapons sound as you’d expect them to, the music is a familiar blend of electronica and rock, and voice acting can veer between good and sounding as though the actors phoned in their performances. It’s good, without ever managing to particularly impress, and it’s unlikely you’ll remember many of the game’s compositions long after putting down your controller.
If you ever wanted to play a stealth game, but didn’t know where to start, your search ends at Splinter Cell Blacklist. While the story sometimes feels a little generic, its at least earnest in its deliver, and while the high level of difficulty can often frustrate, a myriad of gameplay options means that if you hit a roadblock there’s always something else to go off and try. When all of its elements manage to converge successfully, Blacklist succeeds in making you feel like an unstoppable spy moving swiftly and efficiently from one target to the next. The Co-op is well integrated to make you want to spend time with a friend, and the Spies vs Merc mode continues to provide plenty of fun once you’ve rinsed the single-player.
Whether you’re a recurring Splinter Cell player or a stealth game fan new to the franchise, Blacklist effectively delivers an experience that will satiate your needs – there’s just a few flaws that can sometimes threaten to hamper your enjoyment. It’s not quite the same Splinter Cell that fans have grown to know and love, but taken in isolation it’s a solid offering with plenty of content to keep you going for a while.