The Splinter Cell series has been around for a while now, starting all the way back in 2002 under the tag-line “stealth action redefined”. More recent offerings shifted the focus to be more action oriented from its sneaky split jumping roots, but Blacklist brings all the franchise’s gameplay styles, from sneaky bastard to guns blazing, under a single roof. The result is a game that offers a wide variety of approaches to tackle your missions, but the depth of options isn’t as tightly focused as it ought to be, and it’s further saddled with a story that fails to stick. The strength of the multiplayer and co-op does help to balance out these issues.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist picks up at an Air Force base in Guam, which is the first target in a series of coordinated terrorist strikes. The titular Blacklist is a countdown to a weekly attack designed to hit a specific aspect of American culture – American Consumption, for example, with the end goal of forcing the withdrawal of all foreign deployed troops back to the United States. Where the story works best is by relating on some meta-level to security leaks and government agencies with far reaching power that are in our news today. Sam Fisher is all but given a blank check and a blind-eye to right the wrongs, and a few times you’re given the option to execute, quite literally, how these ideals might play out. Do you kill the informant who just fed you info?
The problem becomes that it fails to connect on either a personal level or as a thrill ride. The characters are all one note, with the likes of quirky tech guy and by-the-books soldier lining up for supporting roles, and the more subdued nature of the gameplay keeps it from maintaining just a simple spectacle. Splinter Cell is a game that works better on a more subtle level, sneaking around and uncovering threads of double crosses and espionage. Even injuring Sam’s friend in the opening level still doesn’t given it the forward momentum to sustain the ‘countdown to the next attack’ pace, and missions will vary widely trying to be full of action set pieces, while still supporting the return to stealthily crawling about.
It’s also not possible to talk about the characters without bringing up the loss of Michael Ironside as the voice of Sam Fisher. Newcomer Eric Johnson doesn’t even do a particularly bad job, but he just doesn’t impart the same amount of gravitas that a voice like Ironside’s does. One has a voice and one just is a voice. The other troubling aspect to this is the soft rebooting that occurs with a fresh younger voice behind the character, with Sam suddenly shedding about 20 years from his character design. Sam Fisher is supposed to be pushing 60 years old by now, and the ‘I’m getting too old for this’ undertone was always one of the interesting aspects to the character. This could have been the extra level the story needed.
One of the major selling points this time around is how the entire experience of playing Blacklist in any of its modes is all integrated into a single point of access. In-game the Strategic Mission Interface, or SMI for short, is a big fancy war room table, but it allows for the various multiplayer, co-op, challenge missions and single player campaign to all be placed together on the same map. It’s a nice nod to keeping everything in setting, though it does sometimes strain at the edges when say Sam is suddenly receiving $10,000 for having gunned down his 50th terrorist with a sniper rifle. For the most part, it means that the money you earn across any of the game types can be applied throughout the whole game: upgrading Sam’s weapons and gadgets or your load outs in multiplayer. Want that new fancy set of night-vision goggles before the next story mission? Well, fire up one of the challenge maps and earn yourself a little side money.
The challenge levels perfectly map across Blacklist‘s new gameplay divisions, and the game even further reinforces these by rating you on your successful application of the styles after each mission. As a Ghost, your goal is to slip through the level unseen and without even needing to disturb the guards. On the opposite end, Assault packs all the explosives and firepower necessary to brute force their way through the opposition. Finally, Panther (Was there really not any better suggestion?) is the merging of the two, and is all about the stealthy elimination of threats in your way. Levels are laid out with enough ducts, piping and cover to make any method viable, though not all equally difficult. There are some pretty glaring balance gaps in some of the approaches, a Panther can knife and snipe their way through most missions with ease whereas none of the unsuppressed weapons looked enticing enough to warrant alerting everyone to your Assault-prone presence. It works well enough if your goal is to try and 100% each mission as the various types, but if your only concern is getting through it can feel disjointed.
For missions where a more restrained hand is required, your biggest foe will not be the sniper with a search light but the controller. Standing in a hallway might give you a myriad of context sensitive controls for opening and closing doors, peaking under doors, flipping on and off light switches and jumping up to grab hold of a pipe, all of which are determined by a tiny amount of facing. Let alone if you simply happen to hit the wrong button on the crowded controller layout, which is littered enough to require R3 to reload and the back button to attract guards. You’ll eventually get the hang of it, but it won’t stop the cursing the first few times you fail a stealth challenge mission because you accidentally tossed a grenade into the room. There were a few times when the detection mechanics became really questionable, like hanging in front of someone’s vision in broad daylight. The AI is both really smart and kind of dumb, if discovered they will take alternate paths in order to flank you, but they are also willing to walk right up to a body that just got sniped.
Luckily for Blacklist the multiplayer offering is really strong with some fascinating asynchronous team based modes and co-op that builds on the single-player gameplay. While it can be frustrating when your co-op partner keeps revealing your position to the guards, when you’re flawlessly in sync taking out guards in tandem stealth takedown or distracting a guard while your partner completes the objective the game feels at its best.
Spies vs Mercs, Blacklist’s competitive mutliplayer, makes its return to the franchise after being absent in Splinter Cell: Conviction, and the game is so much better with it back. The major selling point is the asynchronous nature of the two teams. The Spies play Splinter Cell much like you do during the rest of the game, sneaky acrobats. You’ll have access to many of the same tricks and gadgets you’ve grown accustomed to from single-player, though the spy is suited more towards the stealth aspects of Sam. The big change is that the mercs actually play the game in first-person, and they can’t go climbing around like spider monkeys. The trade off is that they can take a lot more damage and dish out more with their heavier assault weapons. Both sides will have to use their gadgets and equipment in order to try and counter the others, while the spies try to be wily and get the drop on the mercs and the mercs depend on solid awareness and trying to cover lines of sight. The whole mode feels so much more unique and fully realized than a simple deathmatch style combat as you nimbly try to avoid the mercs hunting you down while your hacking their objectives.
Trying to make multiple paths and gameplay types is never a bad thing, and in some ways Splinter Cell: Blacklist succeeds in this regard. It’s challenging and rewarding to sneak your way through a whole level, but you’re also free to explore other methods if that’s not your style and invest your money in creating a character that suits it. The problem becomes when you’re stretching yourself thin trying to appease the different styles, and when combined with a story that fails to resonate it holds the experience back as a whole. Spies vs Mercs and the co-operative missions do go a long way to shore up the whole game though.
Bottomline: It’s great to see the return of Spies vs Mercs and the more stealth aspects to the Splinter Cell series, but some unfocused single-player gameplay and a weak story drag the game down.
Recommendation: If you know you’re going to be buying it for the multiplayer and co-op it’s worth it.[rating=3]
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version.