“Sam Fisher is back, and brings along good old Splinter Cell, in his greatest appearance of this generation.”
I never liked the stealth-action approach Splinter Cell took in the most recent games leading to Blacklist. I thought it couldn’t work. Stealth is one thing, action is another. But boy, am I wrong. Blacklist blends the two so delicately that you’re itching for more when its standard-length campaign ends (around 10 hours on Normal, not started my Perfectionist playthrough yet).
Sam is back, indeed, though his iconic voice isn’t. The biggest thing franchise fans will notice isn’t how the game is the best thing to happen since Chaos Theory; it will be that Michael Ironside is missing. Eric Johnson replaces the man, because, as Ubisoft explained, it took three men to have Sam Fisher in the past (voice, facial animations capture, and motion capture), but Johnson combines all three. I don’t really know if that’s the issue, though it sounds like it cut costs, but still, the exact number of money saved from this move is not public. Fans are raging about Johnson replacing Ironside; was it worth the savings? To me, it doesn’t really matter. Not because I’m not a fan of Splinter Cell, but the polar opposite. I care for the franchise and want to see it move forward, tread new grounds. Double Agent sure did disappoint, showing Fisher move away from what he did for the past three games, and into Conviction, the absolute action-oriented, hand-holding Splinter Cell. Ubisoft knew they had to make the franchise relevant in the stealth genre, where it was born and thrived, once again. And thus we were graced with Blacklist.
Let me give you a typical Blacklist scenario I liked pulling off, because it filled me so much, reminding me of the golden Splinter Cell days. I slowly make my way towards an exit point. I scan the area and see 5 enemies spread out, all on the outside of buildings, so I think my best bet would be to use the buildings to my advantage. Going through silently, (which doesn’t necessarily means “slowly” or “walking”) I kept my Sonar goggles on to track enemy movements, making my plans on the go. Then, I reached a point where I was hanging above two enemies talking at arm’s range from each other. The other three were left unharmed, as I was going for a Ghost playstyle, but these two were blocking my exit. It was essential that they were put to sleep, but how? Sleeping gas? Proximity Shocker? Quickly shoot both? Nah, that last one would ruin my Ghost style. I traversed the ledges, reaching a point where I was roughly 2 meters above them. I pulled out my crossbow, shot a sleeping dart at the right one, and I instantly pressed Square to execute an Aerial Knockout. Timing had to be almost flawless, otherwise, a checkpoint restart would be needed. My plan worked, and it was glorious! You know what’s better than what I described above? The fact that the whole game invites you to plot such events, filling you with satisfaction each time you pull them off successfully.
You’ll die a lot, and you’ll fail a lot. Even if you don’t die and make it past a point you were stuck at, leaving a single body exposed in the tiniest will make enemies actively search for you, or even call in reinforcements. K-9 dogs are going to give you a bad time too, sniffing you out, constantly making you change cover. Maybe you want to take that route on the left? Sure, just shoot the lamp to create darkness! Oh, the lamp breaking or your pistol firing were heard, and now people are cautious and looking around for you. That heavy can’t get one-shot, and the dogs are searching for you. Wouldn’t everything be better if you just used a Sticky EMP? Yes, that’s it! Let’s try again, and get it right this time! See where this is going? Blacklist’s gameplay offers so much freedom, you can safely call it the best thing Fisher has seen since Chaos Theory. Movements are pretty tight, buttons are responsive, AI is dynamically changing whenever something occurs and you have to try hard to replicate scenes. Fisher is more fluid than ever, and that’s evident from the first few minutes. You know that, when something goes wrong, it’s your fault, leaving a tiny percentage of fault on the game’s shoulders.
Sadly, the same can’t be told about one of the two weakest points of the game; its story. It’s the standard-fare, terrorist attack with a twist not good enough to justify the whole thing. Though grounded on reality and mixing and matching aspects of previous Splinter Cell games, it doesn’t shine, but it’s at least a step up from what I expected (= something similar to Conviction). Apart from Grim, the recurring female teammate, there’s two new guys on the block: Briggs, an African/American field operative and Charlie, the team’s computer genius and general comical relief. You won’t get attached to them, mostly because of the time you spend with them, which is very short. You only get to interact with them in a substantial manner between missions, and even then, it’s just not adding much to the pot. Without spoiling anything, you might like Briggs a bit more than the others because of how he’s treated, his choices, and how he makes up for them. Generally, the atmosphere inside the Paladin, the super-plane that the team is housed in, is not the best around, but it’s got to work for the mission to see completion. Speaking of it, the Paladin reminds me of Mass Effect, in that it serves as a hub to discuss with your crew members, take up missions, call your daughter Sarah, or just interact with the SMI and pick your next mission.
However, I have to give credit to the writers, for the sole fact that it takes you on a globe-trotting adventure. You’ll be assigned to many different missions, from data and hostage retrieval to grand escapes, in places like super-secret HQ’s, expensive villas and desert installations in broad daylight. Don’t let that last word scare you; it pulls no Conviction. You are not obliged to go all out on anyone, in fact, you have three different playstyle rankings integrated in the core experience. You earn Ghost points for taking out people silently and non-lethally, or by not taking them out at all! Simply passing through to your objective without touching anyone is the most rewarding action in the game, which encourages stealth play. However, you are not limited to that. Panther points are awarded for stealthy but lethal encounters, giving you the freedom to shoot people dead from the shadows and march to victory atop their bodies. Assault, on the other hand, rewards you for open conflict. Killing enemies while engaged in loud firefights, or using lethal gadgets (like Proximity Mine, which isn’t the most subtle killer around), rewards you with Assault points.
A unified money pool is used for both the game’s campaign and multiplayer (co-op or Spies vs Mercs). That means, money you amass from campaign missions can be used to upgrade your agent in multiplayer, or build the best Fisher around. Your campaign character can transfer over to co-op, which means you get to use the same pistols, “big guns” (sniper rifles, assault rifles, SMG’s, shotguns), and tactical equipment (various types of grenades, mines, the tri-rotor drone, sticky cameras and EMPs, etc) you used in the singleplayer part. There, you tackle on missions given by the other crew members, again, spanning the globe. Apart from Briggs’ 4 missions, the 14-mission co-op campaign can also be tackled alone, if you don’t want others in your game, which is something the game doesn’t really want you to do. Apart from interactions that absolutely need two players to work (like step-jumping to ledges), you can play co-op and do it as if you’re alone; you won’t see a lot of changes, but the game does feel better and more fluid when the partners cooperate. Co-op, online and offline, is a much wanted and appreciated feature in a lot of today’s games, provided they do it correctly. And Blacklist, once again, hits the target, though it’s not a headshot.
A target it also hits with the competitive multiplayer part, the Chaos Theory-introduced “Spies vs Mercs” mode. The premise is simple; teams of 4 duke it out on various maps, with the Spies played in 3rd person and the Mercs in 1st person. Game modes are hit or miss, though: Team Deathmatch mixes the two factions and allows them on the same team, but it’s chaos in a bad way. Uplink does the same, though it’s much more dependent on class cooperation. Classic Mode is my absolute favorite, though: the squishy, fast-moving and agile Spies have to hack 3 points on the map, while the juggernaut Mercs have to stop them from doing it. It’s refreshing, it’s tense, it’s strategic, and it’s an absolute blast to play. First-person gunplay is great, if a bit reminiscent of Far Cry 3, so the Mercs are not in a disadvantage on that aspect. The excellent controls of the campaign have translated well into 1st person. Ubisoft listened, and the mode that was absent for two games is back in full force. If you’re a Chaos Theory purist, fear not; 2vs2 is back, where partner cooperation is do or die.
Let’s cross over to the game’s second weak point: the graphics. They’re not atrocious per se, but they’re not what you’d expect to see in a game that late into this generation. Textures are generally washed out or plain ugly if it’s not Sam, so thank the lord you play as him in the campaign. I can forgive backgrounds that don’t fulfill their potential. I can forgive pistols looking like toy guns. But I can’t forgive the treatment you gave to the goggles, a piece of equipment synonymous with Splinter Cell. Seriously, the lights look like painted cardboard stuck on the goggles, and I’m not even trying to joke. Shame on you, Ubisoft.
Wii U details: Out of all three console versions, the game looks and runs better on Nintendo’s next-gen console. LensOfTruth.com posted a highly detailed comparison of the three console versions, which you can watch here. Atop that, the GamePad offers off-screen play and quicker inventory interactions, which makes your life easier. If you’re aiming for a Perfectionist playthrough, switching through gadgets at the touch of their icons will come in handy. If you want the best version of the game, you should pick the Wii U one, although it’s very probable that online lobbies will be emptier than the other platforms’.
The 5th Freedom Edition: Being the collector I am, I couldn’t resist another statue. The 5th Freedom Edition is the biggest one you can get for Blacklist, and I can say, it’s worth the 99$ price. It includes a very detailed, 24cm statue of Fisher, a steelbok, a 96-page graphic novel based on the game, and tons of DLC; most notable inclusions are Fisher’s Chaos Theory suit and a great co-op (also singleplayer) mission.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is hands down the best Splinter Cell to grace our platforms in this generation, and for me, it lags behind Chaos Theory just a tiny bit. If this is the direction Ubisoft takes the franchise to, I’m in.