Stealth super-spy Sam Fisher is back in another instalment of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy inspired Splinter Cell series. Splinter Cell: Blacklist which sort-of reboots the series.
It’s refreshing having Sam returning as a bona-fide US Government operative after a couple of previous games had him running around doing his own thing.
The last game, Splinter Cell: Conviction, tried to revitalise the franchise, opening it up to a wider, more mainstream audience. Whilst it did alienate some hard-core fans, I enjoyed it immensely over its predecessors. It was a bit more forgiving for those of us that like some action with our stealth.
Blacklist follows the same, more accessible, version of Splinter Cell that Ubisoft employed with Conviction. There’s a bit more sophistication this time around, which should make old fans happy, but without it being too anal in the stealth department. The result is a game that is both easy to get into and yet still deep enough for advance players to experiment with more complex strategies.
As you’d expect with any of the Tom Clancy games, the campaign mode is driven by a plausible, yet at the same time slightly fantastical, eye-wateringly patriotic plot whereby the US of A is under threat from an unseen evil. Sam Fisher, now back in government employ, leads Fourth Echelon- a special ops counter-terrorism outfit whose purpose is not only to protect America from new threats, but also to mop up the remnants of Sam’s old outfit, the rogue Third Echelon.
He is not alone in this undertaking. The operations side of things is handled by Anna “Grim” Grímsdóttir, whose relationship with Sam is a bit rocky to begin with due to her actions in the last game. Backing Sam up in the field is ex-CIA operative Isaac Briggs, with hacking and tech support courtesy of the outfit’s resident geek, Charlie Cole.
The titular Blacklist is a terrorist plot by an organisation who call themselves The Engineers. Their solitary demand is the immediate withdrawal of US troops from foreign soil. If the US does not comply, The Engineers will launch a series of attacks against US citizens at predetermined times each week.
It is a very simple setup that does very well to drive an inspired series of hub-based game levels. Blacklist’s game hub is a dirty great transport plane codenamed Paladin which serves as Fourth Echelon’s base of operations. It is to here that Sam and co return after each mission, with Paladin flying around until you decide what you are going to do next. Using the plane’s hi-tech Strategic Mission Interface, players can launch missions from the campaign, special co-op/solo ops and the competitive multiplayer Spys vs Mercs mode.
There’s also the opportunity to converse with the other crew members on-board the plane, some of which can supply ability and equipment enhancing upgrades to aid Sam. Walking about and talking to the crew is OK once, but it does get a bit tedious. You don’t play a Splinter Cell game to hang around having nice little chats. With some of the forlorn conversation rattling on a bit, there were moments when I thought I was playing a Metal Gear game. Thankfully, for us unsociable types, a lot of the upgrades can also be selected from the menu.
As first I found the hub-based mission structure a bit jarring. I enjoyed the way that the levels just flowed in the previous games. But it does make a lot of sense putting all the game types in one place. It is easy, at the end of a campaign level, to just slip into a bit of multiplayer or try that tricky co-op mission once again.
The campaign game follows the team as they hunt The Engineers behind the Blacklist plot. Missions are carried out to gain info on the Blacklist, switching to actually averting the attack as each zero hour approaches. This has given the designers a huge scope with Sam and co travelling from London to Cuba checking leads and following clues.
The campaign missions are audacious and very well designed. Not only do you find yourself disarming WMDs, but there’s also breaking out of Guantanamo Bay and infiltrating the former US Embassy in Tehran to co-ordinate. There’s never a dull moment and at no time does the action or the tension feel forced, it is game design genius.
I’m not a fan of heavy-handed stealth gameplay; I just don’t have the patience. The thing with Blacklist is that the environments are so well designed, giving you countless ways of achieving your goals, that even if you do slip up it is actually fun to try it again another way.
Some of the levels, at first glance, look fiendishly difficult, if not impossible to get through. Things are especially hard if you are up against a wall of guards and snipers with a mission objective that says you mustn’t kill anyone or be detected. This sort of challenge makes for some heart-in-mouth moments and an amazing sense of achievement when you succeed.
The actual gameplay will be very familiar to fans of Conviction, as Blacklist shares many of its predecessor’s mechanics. The mark and execute returns, with Sam’s kills filling a gauge that allows marked opponents to be taken out in one motion. It looks cool and feels good. It’s especially cool if you mark two of the three guards take one down with a melee kill, filling your gauge, allowing you to execute the rest; for a moment you will feel every bit the Special Forces operative that you are.
The whole light and shadows mechanic has been reworked this time. Personally, I loved the way the visuals went all black and white in Conviction to indicate that Sam was in shadow. This time out the only indicator that we have is a lens flare on Sam’s equipment light. It not as stylishly dramatic, but not the end of the world, either.
As with Conviction, if you are spotted, a silhouette appears at the last location the enemy saw you. If you are spotted it is a good idea to move someplace else, but the game mechanic can also be used to draw the enemy into a trap or give you the opportunity to flank them.
Blacklist’s cover system is second to none, with Sam able to run from cover position to cover position with touch of a button. There are also plenty of vents to crawl through and pipes to hang from in order to carry out those rewarding stealth takedowns.
Sam’s gadget collection would have James Bond glowing green with envy. As with previous Splinter Cell games, Sam arsenal is fully stocked with all sorts of lethal toys. We have those fun explosive sticky-cams, noise-makers, knock-out gas, night/thermal/sonar goggles and my personal favourite, the tri-copter.
The tri-copter is an amazingly useful toy, allowing for an unprecedented view of the area ahead. The thing even has a few sticky-shockers on board to take down those hard to reach bad guys. Be careful though, if it is spotted the enemy will take the thing out, removing a rather useful tool from your arsenal.
The bad guys are, for the most part, the usual brainless goons. But they do have a canny knack of flanking you if they suspect something is going on, so hide those bodies! Later on there are a few cheeky armoured types that need to be carefully taken down from behind. There’s no place for gung-ho tactics in the game, the best strategy being to avoid confrontation. That being said, even when it all goes south, collecting yourself and proceeding accordingly will usually recover the situation.
Blacklist shakes things up a bit by occasionally allowing players to take control of a heavily armed UAV drone. This offers an element of gameplay that is very much erring towards being a violently satisfying guilty pleasure; as you blast and bomb the defenceless enemy from the air. Also, there’s a couple of sequences were you get to play as Sam’s colleague, Isaac Briggs, with the game switching to a more action-friendly first-person shooter viewpoint.
The game comes complete with a number of standalone two-player co-op missions, some of which can be attempted solo as well. These tend to be a little more challenging than the campaign missions, requiring a little bit more care, as some of them require the player(s) to remain undetected at all times. Others, when the player is detected, will flood the level with blood-thirsty reinforcements making success almost impossible. As with the main missions they are very well crafted and difficult to put down; even if you’ve been defeated countless times. The co-op missions are easily accessed from the game hub between campaign mission, providing players with a bit of variety.
The competitive multiplayer is provided via the return of Spies vs. Mercenaries, which was absent from the last Splinter Cell game. Spies vs. Mercenaries pits two teams of four players against each other in a series of domination-style game types that involve defending, attacking or hacking. As a spy the emphasis is on stealth, whilst the mercs are armoured and pack more of a punch. I’ll be honest, as with pasts Splinter Cells, I couldn’t really get into it. Personally, I prefer my multiplayer a bit more along the lines of Battlefield than sneaking about. That being said, Splinter Cell’s stealth multiplayer is a lot more fun to play than Assassin’s Creed’s effete attempt at the same.
No matter what game mode you are playing, Blacklist looks the business and is very slickly presented. Ubisoft have really put the current level of graphics technology to full use in creating detail-rich, realistic and open environments. The game is dripping with authenticity, allowing me to take Sam through his missions the way I wanted him to go, and not along some constrained, developer-prescribed route. The result is an incredibly open stealth-combat experience that is getting as close to a combat simulator as you can get without sacrificing fun for the sake of realism.
Over the years the Splinter Cell series has continuously been reinventing itself with Sam Fisher switching allegiances and radically changing his appearance. Throughout all the aesthetic and gameplay tweaks one thing has remained consistent, Sam Fisher has always sounded like the gruff voice of hard-man actor, Michael Ironside.
Well, not this time.
Apparently, due to the game’s development switching to performance capture, at 62, Ironside is just a little long in the tooth to be jumping around like Sam Fisher. Now we have an aging Special Forces agent played by Canadian pretty-boy actor, Eric Johnson, and frankly, he just doesn’t seem to have the gravitas to be Sam Fisher. Sam’s new voice is going to take some getting used to.
Vocal changes aside, the sense of atmosphere that Blacklist provides to players is wonderfully realised. The tension during the night-time incursion into Iran was amazing. As I sneaked around the maze-like facility, the echoing voices in the distance made the experience uncannily real.
For the most part the graphics have been polished up to a next-gen level giving PC players a preview of what the console boys and girls will be looking at come November. The game looks amazing. If I had to pick holes, some of the characters’ facial models were a little basic compared to the rest of the game; Grim, for example, looked like she was the victim of one too many shots of botox.
Whilst my review play-through was primarily on the PC version of the game I did spend an extended amount of time with the Xbox 360 version as well. Both versions of Blacklist are running on the Unreal Engine, which means that Xbox 360 owners are not really missing out at all.
As we approach the end of this console cycle, I’ve found quite a few supposably top shelf Xbox 360 titles very much lacking in the visuals department. Whilst the PC version looks absolutely stunning, the Xbox 360 version is still pleasing on the eye. Yes, the animations are not quite as smooth, there’s some barely-noticeable screen tearing and the loading times are a bit on the long side, but it is still the same great game that PC owners are playing.
Mobile gamers should check out the free Splinter Cell: Blacklist companion game, Splinter Cell: Blacklist – Spider Bot, available for both iOS and Android. It’s worth a punt as it fun to play and will unlock items, and grant you a decent little cash injection, in the main game if you log in with your Uplay account.
It’s a credit to any game whereby the worst criticism that I can give it is the choice of person voicing the lead. Thankfully Sam, as in previous outings, is a man of few words; preferring to communicate via his trademark stern looks and constipated frowns. My quibbles are nothing compared to the fun that I had with the game. As far as I’m concerned this is the best in the series, giving me a decent stealth gaming experience without it ever becoming a chore.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a fantastic game that left me wanting more. As soon as I finished the PC version of the game I started again on the Xbox 360 version. The second time around it was just as much fun, if even more so, as I had the experience that allowed me to be strategically a little more creative.
Sam Fishers latest outing is an easy game to recommend to fans of the series and newcomers, alike.