Splinter Cell’s Sam Fisher is back, and he’s more lethal than ever. It’s a good thing, too, because a group of terrorists calling themselves The Engineers have had enough of the omnipresent US military and have launched a terror ultimatum called The Blacklist—a deadly series of escalating attacks on U.S. interests.
As we’ve grown to expect from the franchise, the story was gripping the moment I started playing Splinter Cell Blacklist. Hell, I was hooked the minute they handed me the razor-sharp curved assassin’s blade known as the Karambit. The first series of cut scenes and the “introduction” level (which can be skipped) grabbed my attention and set my expectations pretty high. I experienced mystery, intrigue, surprise, and terror within the first few minutes of playing.
I think the highest praise that could be paid to Ubisoft was the reaction of my twenty-one-year-old roommate (an NYU senior and history major) to the subject matter and the game play. I hadn’t even finished the tutorial when she climbed up on her soapbox and railed against “games like this that teach Americans that it is OK to bomb Syria.” Anytime that a single game can be indicted for “eroding the moral values” of an entire society caused by “the glorification of violence, torture and murder,” then the developers need to give themselves a massive pat on the back. When a game gets under someone’s skin that deeply then you know you’ve done something right.
Ghost or Panther? legacy
The Splinter Cell franchise has always been about stealth. This changed somewhat with “Conviction” which introduced some heavy straight-on combat elements. “Blacklist” builds on the stealth and combat aspects to let players use their own style to attack the different objectives. Players are scored on their ability to get through a level using “ghost,” “assault,” or “panther” tactics. Ghost points are earned by playing in full-on stealth mode and making it through a level without alerting enemies. This is the most difficult set of tactics and also the most rewarding in terms of points. Panther style matches my personal style the closest and involves stealth, distraction, using cover, and ultimately disabling enemies to move through the level. And finally, assault style is exactly that – rush in headlong with guns blazing, hurling grenades, and throat slashing.
Customization goes beyond how the levels are played to how you equip your Sam Fisher. You can select your build-out to include upgrades to Sam himself, his suit, goggles, weapons, transportation, and more. These upgrades cost money, and money is earned by accomplishing objectives within levels and by beating the levels themselves. Each level can be played umpteen times and different challenges (elimination, wave-based, and stealth-only) await you, so there is no end to the amount of money that you can bring in to customize your Sam Fisher. The only downside is that after a while working towards the perfect build-out per level seemed to be a waste of time; I found myself choosing the same weapons and gadgets over and over again because I liked them, regardless of the situation.
Sam and his team – Anna “Grim” Grismdottier the technical operations manager, CIA operative Isaac Briggs, and computer specialist Charlie Cole – comprise the Fourth Echelon, a fully mobile ops unit with unlimited resources. Your main hub of operations is the Paladin, a specially outfitted stealth airliner that flies you from mission to mission around the world. The Paladin houses the Strategic Mission Interface (SMI), which is basically a tactical map of the world. Navigating the SMI is how you choose which mission to play, receive mission briefings, and check the status of mission objectives. The SMI is also where you choose between story, co-op, challenges, and competitive multiplayer modes.
Multiplayer modes are where Blacklist really shines. I’ve always enjoyed the co-op missions and this continues in Blacklist. In particular, online multiplayer “Spies vs. Mercs” pit two teams against each other as either the fast and stealthy spies or the slower and more lethal mercs. Spies try to sneak around and accomplish various objectives while mercs hunt them. The “Classic” mode brings back the same dynamics as the original Spies and Mercs.
A new “Blacklist” mode lets you push the limits of customization and use the money you’ve earned in other parts of the game to make custom build-outs of weapons and gadgets. A lot of the gear is designed to counter the opposing team which makes for an interesting mini-arms race. For example, the Spy can carry a gas mask that nullifies the Merc’s gas grenade. Spies vs. Mercs is good enough to be a game by itself.
More of the Same
My criticism of Blacklist is the same that it has been since the beginning of the franchise. Missions can be repetitive, frustrating, and tedious. Many times I find myself repeating the same actions over and over again with slight variations until I get it right and can move through the level. I found this to be more and more likely to happen as I increased difficulty and progressed through the game. I have thrown many a controller down in disgust over the years. Finicky controls (but I wanted to turn left while in cover, not step out of cover to my left) and variable stealth mechanics (I was hidden there a second ago but now the enemy can magically see me although nothing changed) really get on my nerves. If not for a very flexible game-saving system I would not have been able to tolerate my frustration long enough to review Blacklist.
I’m also a little disappointed by Blacklist’s audio and video quality. There are some quality issues during cut scenes that make them jump and blur somewhat. Load times are excessive which further detracted from my enjoyment. In-game graphics are good, but nothing stellar, and sometimes animations looked really awkward and bodies sort of fell and twitched on the ground needlessly. Within minutes the soundtrack distinguished itself as unremarkable. Lighting, a critical aspect given the heavy stealth gameplay, looks like it hasn’t improved since the original Splinter Cell.
And that may be the strongest statement that can be made about Blacklist: in many ways this is simply more Splinter Cell. If you loved the earlier games then you’ll love this one. If you hated the earlier games then you’ll find the same frustrations and shortcomings here. The major enhancements are to multiplayer gameplay, competitive and cooperative, and serve to increase variety and replayability. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist doesn’t break enough new ground to achieve greatness; perhaps the next iteration will up this game’s game a bit more.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc