Reviews

Splinter Cell: Blacklist – Review

XT1370

Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Wii U
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes
PEGI: 18+

Ubisoft are revisiting the legendary Splinter Cell franchise, and this time they’re aiming to please absolutely everyone with their efforts. Ubisoft made the mistake of marketing the action side of the game before the stealth during the build to launch, sowing understandable doubt amongst gamers.  Essentially that’s all just an excuse for me to right out this almost absurdly long review, so grab a coffee, kids, this one could take a little while.

Though Blacklist is a sequel to Splinter Cell: Conviction it’s completely standalone in the story that it tells. While certain characters return, such as Grim and Kobin, no prior knowledge of Conviction or any of the Splinter Cell games is required to delve into Blacklist, allowing anyone to pick up and enjoy the game.

As the game begins Guam airbase is attacked by an unknown enemy, giving players the opportunity to step into the black boots of Sam Fisher and learn the basics of sneaking and combat. Unsurprisingly some mean old terrorists are behind the attack on Guam. This time it’s a group called the Engineers, who demand America recall all of the troops that they have stationed within 143 countries around the world. Until America meets this demand the Engineers will unleash a series of attacks known as the Blacklist, each one striking at a fundamental part of America. To combat this threat Sam Fisher is given command of the super-secret 4th Echelon group, comprising a crew, plenty of gear,and  a massive plane brimming with tech that acts as a mobile HQ, And then he’s told to get on with it. The goal is simple: stop the Blacklist attacks and uncover the Engineer’s true goal.

Soon. Soon, my pretties.

Soon. Soon, my pretties.

On paper it sounds like the setup for a solid thriller plot with plenty of room for intrigue, betrayal and interesting character development. However what follows is a good if rather pedestrian action plot in which Sam go on a series globetrotting missions filled with explosions and bombastic moments The narrative follows the standard genre trope of daisy chaining events – one guy gives up this guy who then points you to this guy and so on and so on, until eventually you run of guys, or possibly bullets. Any chance for characters to shine is buried under the very nature of the fast paced action plot that eschews depth for the triple A game mantra of “OMG, did you see that!?”.

What bothers me a bit, and this won’t influence the final score because it’s more of a personal rant, is that Black List is yet another game that presents lots of controversial subjects and then refuses to ever engage with the player about them. The fact that America has troops stationed in so many countries around the world isn’t something Ubisoft made up for the sake of their game, it’s a very real and very controversial topic, because in the vast majority of those countries America has no right to be there. It irks me a touch that I play as a man defending truth, justice and America’s right to stick troops wherever they want, but despite that I’ll let this slide because it’s not me in the game, it’s Sam Fisher, and that’s what he does. But then, wouldn’t it have been such a great opportunity to delve into the mind of Sam as he does these questionable things, as he kills in the name of America and sets foot where he isn’t supposed to be? One level takes place entirely with Guantanamo Bay, and as you sneak through the complex you see some heinous things going on, while other’s are hinted at. It’s almost shocking. Almost. Because pretty much as soon as you’re free to sneak around you realise that Ubisoft aren’t going to have the balls to delve into Guantanamo. They’re not going to do it, and so the levels feels like a cheap means of trying to elicit an emotion from the player by saying, “hey! HEY! Remember this place, yeah?”. If you’re going to set a level inside Guantanamo make sure you’re read and willing to tackle the issue properly.

But that’s the thing, neither Sam nor his band of arguing misfits stop to ever question anything. Alright, they’re professionals and it’s not their job to provide commentary on thorny issues, but in that case then, dear developers, don’t bother putting those things into your game, don’t bother to set a level inside the world’s most controversial prison if you’re not going to do anything with it.

The morning after a 4th Echelon party is a bit distressing.

The morning after a 4th Echelon party is a bit distressing.

Outside of this problem the story fairs well enough despite my complaints, mostly serving as a means to explain what you’re doing and where you’re doing it, but little more than that. Your team’s personalities are surface deep only, with Ubisoft relying mostly on  internal conflict to make them interesting. To be fair the briefings before missions where characters begin to argue and yell are sort of entertaining, but only because you’ll probably never give a toss about any of them, except Charlie because his good humour about everything is a welcome contrast to the doom and gloom of everybody else. The writing is solid enough in terms of dialogue, but you’ll see plot twists coming from a mile off and nothing will ever likely surprise you. A lot of the time it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s okay because all you really need to to know is that bad things are happening and you’re the only one that can stop them.  Blacklist’s story  serves its purpose, but don’t expect to be amazed.

In order to pacify the angry mob it’s pretty hard to get through a review without mentioning the change in actor for Sam Fisher that has angered so many gamers. Since the very start Fisher has been voiced by the fantastic Micheal Ironside who did a great job, but for Blacklist, and therefore presumably for future games, Ubisoft have replaced Ironside with a new actor, and there’s no denying that as a long time lover of the series the change was initially jarring, but at the end of the day games are not just a voice, and no matter how much you might dislike the change the fact that there’s a new actor playing Sam will not be influencing this review. However, what I would like to address is that Sam now sounds like a man in his in his mid twenties, rather than a man in his fifties as he is supposed to be. For newcomer’s or for anyone that doesn’t really mind such things it’s not exactly a major issue, but for those like myself who know the continuity it is rather strange.

But while the change in actor may not be a problem, the fact that Sam seems to have lost his personality in the transition is. The character of Sam Fisher has always been of great interest to me. A cynical man in his 50’s Sam has always done morally questionable things in the name of even more morally questionable organizations. For Blacklist Sam seems to have become a stereotypical “badass” soldier sporting plenty of stubble on his chiseled face and a “THE MISSIONS COMES FIRST!” attitude. He’s missing that dark sense of humour that stems from a life in the shadows, a life in which he’s all too aware of the darker side of politics and humanity in general. The new actor barely ever rises above gruff flatness, and there’s actually a moment where Sam fist bumps someone. Sam Fisher. Does not. Fist bump. Anyone who tried such a thing in the past games would have been in a headlock faster than they could cry for their mum.

Splinter-Cell-Blacklist-Screenshot-03

What if Sam is really just a delusional stalker? PLOT TWIST!

Between missions you are free to explore and admire your flying HQ, Paladin, allowing you to chat to your team and customise your gear. In a lovely touch that brings a little humanity to proceedings Sam can even phone his daughter Sarah between missions, and indeed I found these brief conversations to be the highlight of the game whenever I wasn’t actually busy doing the sneaky sneaky stuff. His sadly brief conversations with her bring a small touch of depth and emotion to a storyline that is otherwise devoid of it.  The plane isn’t exactly large so there’s not much to see and do, nor is there any Mass Effect level interaction with your team, but you can upgrade the place, and doing so nets you a variety of bonuses as well as increasing your cash multiplier, although exactly why I have no idea. You can, for example, upgrade Charlie’s workshop to unlock the ability to purchase prototype gear, or you could increase the plane’s radar capabilities, giving you a little more warning of enemies on your mini-map during a mission.

It’s from this flying fortress of stealthy doom which you can also access the fairly extensive weapon and gadget selection in order to gear Sam up for the next bit of sneakiness. There’s a variety of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles and sniper rifles to choose from, and each one of those can then be customised with scopes, extended magazines, internal upgrades and much more. On the gadget front there’s something for everyone, with the likes of sleep gas, proximity shockers, landmines, tri-rotors, breaching explosives, grenades, sticky sound emitters and more providing  tools for the different playstyles that Blacklist supports.  The variety of gear on offer is impressive and allows you to tailor Sam to your chosen playstyle, and with every new item you purchase using the cash you gained by completing missions you feel encouraged to equip it next time out to have some fun. It took me almost half the game to finally get around to purchasing some sleeping gas, and when I used it I was pleasantly surprised to find how much it could chance my playstyle, introducing new ways for me to tackle any given situation.

It’s not just the weapons and gadgets that can be upgraded, either, with Sam’s ops suit also being a feasible method of getting rid of that pesky cash. For stealth players the suit can be upgraded materials to make moving around quieter, which also in turn usually gives you a bit more space to store ammo and gizmos. Upgrading your gloves also increases your weapon handling stats. Of course those that favor a slightly more aggressive playstyle can upgrade their suit with heavier armor for when they start taking a few more bullets than originally planned. Even Sam’s trademark goggles can also be improved with a variety of upgrades, adding in sonar and the ability to detect footprints to the usual night vision.

Just because you're getting on a bit doesn't mean you can't assault people from ziplines.

Just because you’re getting on a bit doesn’t mean you can’t assault people from ziplines. You’ve got to stay active.

The upgrade system really is quite extensive, but it does have some problems, namely in its insistence that you must buy proceedings item to unlock certain things. Why the hell can’t I buy that assault rifle over there, without first having to buy this other one which I don’t even want? Especially since the one I’m being forced to buy doesn’t have a bloody silencer available and I like to keep things quiet. Thankfully for the most part the gadgets aren’t restricted so much, with a few exceptions such as having to purchase tear gas before the game will allow you to buy the sleeping gas. The rate at which you earn cash is also rather excessive, so you’ll have probably purchased the best upgrades for Paladin and all of the gear for your favored playstyles far too quickly.

Much was made in the trailers and interviews before the game’s launch of how Ubisoft wanted you to be able to play Blacklist in the manner you saw fit, even so far as going to label the different playstlyles. Ghost is the name given to players that like to get through levels without ever being seen or by using non-lethal means to incapacitate enemies. Assault is the self-explanatory name applied to people who want to simply shoot stuff and ignore the tedium and skill of sneaking around. Meanwhile Panther is essentially the Conviction method of playing, and is my preferred way of tackling missions, in which you quietly and viciously kill guards without being seen. At the end of each mission your score is tallied up with points being awarded for actions pertaining to each method of playing, with the total amount determining how much cash you’ll be awarded. While it’s unlikely that anyone intends on playing Blacklist as a straight shooter the fact that you can is impressive, even if the mechanics aren’t really up to par in this department. The game does indeed succeed  in catering to any method of playing, something which I’ll get into later, but really the names assigned to each style  are meaningless tags that don’t impact the game in any other way than confirming what you already knew, that you play in a certain way, although it is rather interesting to see a breakdown of how you tackled the level, and competing with friends on the leaderboards is rather entertaining.

While you’re free to play using whatever method you desire, Ubisoft haven’t entirely forgotten that Splinter Cell began life as a purely stealth title, and as such you’re gently encouraged to bypass guards and do no harm by the points system, with actions that fall under the Ghost category awarding the most score, and therefore the most cash. Because of this it’s the Ghost players that you’ll find sitting at the top of the leaderboards, not the Panther and Assault connoisseusr, not the men and women who prefer death and explosions over pacifism and silence. And that’s fitting because as one would expect playing as a Ghost is the toughest way of playing Blacklist, and the most rewarding. Interestingly it’s the Panther method if playing which is the easier rather than Assault as you might expect, because if you go in shooting it’s incredibly easy to be swarmed, while the speed and grace with which Sam moves makes aggressive stealth far more viable.

ku-xlarge

There were a few moments when the line of sight seemed wonky, and enemies spotted me when they shouldn’t, and vice versa.

Where the genius of Black List likes is in its beautifully crafted levels which offer numerous routes and methods for whatever playstyle you’ve decided to go along with. Conviction was guilty of having claustrophobic levels with only a few basic routes to choose from, removing he element of choice from the gamer and usually encouraging players to take down every enemy in the area. While Blacklist’s levels are not vast and sprawling, they are usually dense, with a myriad of ways to progress through each one and opportunities to exploit the environment through traversal or gadgets.  Different routes offer advantages and disadvantages, while hidden routes reward exploration by adding 100 points to your final score. Levels are a sandbox for the creative to frolic in, and the gear that Sam carries around and the different moves at his disposal are your tools, the three elements combining to create something brilliant with plenty of replay value. In this sense player choice Blacklist matches, and even supercedes,  my love of Dishonored. While carefully cocking everything up I often found myself planning out the routes I could take in my second playthrough of the game, deciding that perhaps climbing up that pipe that leads to a ceiling route may have been a better option than the shadowed route I took to the left, or that scouting with the tri-rotor and using it’s disabling darts to remove a few guards may have made my life a bit easier.

These packed levels do come with a problem, however, one that stems from the contextual buttons that developers love so much these days. With so many options mapped to each button inevitably things start to go wrong, like finding yourself opening a door when you actually meant to peer under it, leaping over a railing when you wanted to climb a pipe or grabbing an AK-47 when you intended to pick up the corpse in front of you so that you could hide from the prying eyes of the guards. These sometimes unreliable commands can cause awkward moments, especially when you’re in a high-pressure situation where every second counts and you find yourself doing something completely unintended. resulting in a shotgun to the face and a mild case of the angry.

More often than I would like the game’s level designs slip back into Conviction territory with environments lacking options other than the very obvious ones, such as the overhead pipe that is clearly the most effective method of evading the guards. It’s during these sections that Blacklist is at its worst. Not bad, but not as good as the more dense and creative level designs. And yet Blacklists level designs do at least feel completely natural. Every environment feels like a natural, real place rather than an artificially created construct that was designed solely for a man wearing black to stealth his way through. These places feel like they were designed for normal usage, and just so happen to also provide plenty of opportunities for someone like Sam Fisher. Because of this I find it easier to forgive the more Conviction like levels because they at least feel natural and fit within the context of narrative, which the previous games level often did not. They belong here, and when mixed with the gadgets on offer still provide a decent amount to work with.

This is sort of how I imagine a sober guy at a bar with drunk women,

This is sort of how I imagine a sober guy at a bar with drunk women,

Blacklist also contains missions that take place entirely in daylight, forcing you to rely on cover more than shadows in order to remain hidden. While series purists might feel outraged, to me the daylight missions presented a welcome change to the gameplay, adding in a new element that must be overcome. However, these missions do highlight a slight problem within the cover mechanics, which is that they’re almost too slick. The controls for the most part are smooth, but it’s remarkably easy to shift Sam out of cover and straight into an enemy’s line of sight by accident. Having said that this is something you’ll become used to, and thus will adjust your method of playing to ensure it won’t happen again, although it likely will at some point.

I’ve often cited Rocksteady’s glorious Batman games as being the pinnacle of predator gameplay, of making you feel powerful without ever taking away your very human vulnerability. I gleefully took  pleasure in Batman from toying with rooms full of enemy, using different gadgets and moves to instill fear. In this Blacklist surpasses the Batman games. With the brilliant level design and the gadgets and toys on offer I took a sadistic pleasure in being the predator, of trying out my newly acquired toys on unsuspecting fools. I enjoyed electrocuting someone using a special dart fired from my Tri-rotor. I enjoyed leaping on them from a pipe I was clinging to on the ceiling, or ambushing them when they came around the corner. I felt like the ultimate predator. Yet Blacklist maintains a higher sense of tension that Batman when it comes to stealth, because in Batman you could slip away from enemies by grappling up to the rafters and swinging around a bit, while in Blacklist escaping your aggressors is far trickier, which makes it even more incredibly satisfying to do so. There’s nothing quite like planting a few traps, unleashing a smoke grenade and then skillfully vanishing to a high point to watch the enemy bumble around in search of you, inevitably wandering into your traps. Unless you’ve gone in all guns blazing there’s always the fear of being seen or of screwing up because the enemy are smart and you can’t take much punishment. It really is gloriously good fun.

It’s almost too good in its portraying the player as a predator, though. While the scoring system might gently prod you toward the noble profession of stealth, the speed at which Sam moves, the arsenal at your disposal and the amount of enemies that tend to occupy each area feels a lot like you’re being encouraged to be fast and aggressive, to play the game more like Conviction by quickly and brutally taking everyone out rather than evading them altogether. In fact the speed and grace with which Sam traverse his environment, something only bolstered by the generally slick controls, mean that the average rhythm of the game is far closer to Conviction than that of the older Splinter Cell games, something which may not please those long time fans that couldn’t get into the faster pace of Sam’s last outing. But while Sam may get around the environment far faster than his age would suggest I do urge even those that hated Conviction to watch some footage of Blacklist in action. Sure it has a fast pace, but with everything at your disposal Blacklist feels like a blending of Conviction and the older games.

interrogations are now strictly non-interactive, which is a shame.

interrogations are now strictly non-interactive, which is a shame.

This is another point to perhaps raise: Blacklist feels a lot like it’s trying to be something for everyone, attempting to blend the faster speed of Conviction with the wider array of options from the previous games, while also trying to inject the bombastic and frankly generic tripe-A game feeling in the form of the altered Sam Fisher and terrorist plot. For the most part, though, Blacklist does surprisingly well at blending these elements together into something coherent.

All would be for nought if the artificial intelligence was incapable of portraying a convincing adversary. While stealth games have a number of important pieces that must click into place for them to work  perhaps the single most important is the AI, because without a solid intelligence behind the foes hunting you down it’s hard to take any satisfaction from sneaking past them or outwitting them. Although they may bow down to certain genre tropes that can somewhat shatter the illusion of them being real people, such as a guard investigating the same thing over and over on his route, the enemies with Blacklist are a compelling smart bunch that react in fairly convincing ways. Should they get suspicious they might either tell a buddy they’re going to investigate, or they may even call them over to help out. When hunting you down they’ll stick together, but when they start to get complacent they’ll start splitting up to cover more ground. The only thing they don’t do is look up, but hey, some times you do need to suspend your belief a little for this stuff to work as a game, sort of like how you choose to ignore that most sensible people would have noticed the grown man dangling off a wall in their peripheral vision.

Difficulty should also be touched upon. On the lower levels you’re given a meter which fills up when you move within visual range of an enemy, and you’ve got until that meter is full to get out of sight or be discovered. Even on the standard settings Blacklist can be a challenging game for those wanting to Ghost levels, but for the more authentic experience you can stick the game on  perfectionist difficulty, at which point the visual bar is removed so that as soon as an enemy glimpses you he knows you’re there, while no mid-level equipment and ammo restocks force you to be a bit more thoughtful in how to apply your tech. Perhaps the most interesting change in Perfectionist mode is that enemies will deny frontal attacks, stopping you from using the corner takedown. Instead you must come at them from the side or behind, which is no easy task when they’re more lethal and alert.

Sam does not handle dates well. He gets nervous.

Sam does not handle dates well. He gets nervous.

The Mark and Execute system from Conviction has also returned. Using this you can mark up to three enemies and at a tap of a button execute perfect headshots to eliminate them. This time around, however, it’s an entirely optional feature, and thus feels like one more tool in your massive box to be used whenever you feel like it, usually as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Enemies that wear helmets are a trickier proposition as you must first shoot their head-wear off before you can pull off a instant kill headshot.

Outside of the main Blacklist campaign there’s a bit more content for you to dig into, all accessed from the SMI onboard Paladin. You see there’s no main menu everything in Blacklist, instead loading up your game automatically places in Paladin, and from the SMI computer you can access all of the games content. Each of your four main team members offers a short series of missions, with each person’s offerings suiting a different style of play. Charlie offers up a basic horde type mode in which you’ve got to defend against enemies intent on introducing your face to bullets, and frankly isn’t very enjoyable because as a straight shooter Blacklist is poor. Grim, on the other hand, presents you with a series of missions in which you’ve got to interact with three objectives without ever being seen, obviously suiting Ghost players more than anyone else.  Kobin’s missions are all about taking down enemies using stealth, because if you get spotted then reinforcements are called and shit gets a lot harder. All of these missions can be done in co-op as well. Meanwhile Briggs’ missions are co-operative only, tasking you and a mate with running through some rather well designed missions, although I highly recommend choosing a partner well because having twice the people means doubling the chances of getting spotted. The co-op plays exactly the same as the normal singleplayer stuff with the exception being that you can reach certain new places within the level that you couldn’t on your own, and that there is course a high degree of satisfaction to be taken from timing attacks and working in tandem to complete your goals. Completing all of these optional missions adds another solid couple of hours to the overall game, and while there are rewards for finishing up a character’s set of missions the main reason for playing them is to get more money to spend on upgrading your gear, thus giving you extra tools for stopping the Blacklist attacks.

Finish up the campaign and the side-missions and you’ve still got the mutliplayer to tackle with the almost legendary Spies vs Mercs making a most welcome return. For those that haven’t heard of the mode before Spies vs Mercs is unique, pitting one team of Spies playing in third-person against a team of heavily armed mercs that must play from a first-person perspective. The spies are lightly armed but are fast and agile, allowing them to clamber around the environment and hide in the shadows. The mercs may not be fast but they’ve got firepower and torches to help them find those sneaky bastards.

Let's face it, if your friends cocks up now you're going to have to kill him. Can't have a liability.

Let’s face it, if your friends cocks up now you’re going to have to kill him. Can’t have a liability.

Classic Mode does exactly what it does on the tin, with a team of two spies going up against two mercs in a paranoia fuelled battle of wits and guns. Blacklist Mode updates things, adding two more players to each team for larger battles across a variety of different modes, including a straight up Deathmatch which mixes up teams with spies and mercs on each side that works far better than you might initially expect. In the Blacklist mode ideas from the singleplayer carry over with players allowed to use cash they’ve earned, including that of the singleplayer, to build custom loadouts for their spies and mercs. Most of the tools that you can purchase are designed to counter the other team’s gear, such as a gas mask for the spies that nullifies the Mercs gas grenades.

At this point it’s too early to tell how balanced things are, but Spies vs Mercs is quite truly brilliant. Oddly enough playing as a Merc is like the best Aliens experience in a game, a cold sense of dread creeping in as you carefully scan the environment for the far nimbler predators just waiting for their opportunity. It’s a most welcome change from the frantic pace of something like Call of Duty, and while it is indeed far quicker paced than the Spies vs Mercs of old it has lost none of the tension and brilliance that set it apart in the first place. Though I indeed enjoyed the singleplayer side of the game immensely, it pales in comparison to my delight of playing even a few rounds of Spies vs Mercs, despite my own initial trepidation of whether I’d actually be any good at it any more.

Though at times Blacklist feels like it’s trying too hard to fit in with modern Call of Duty crowd and please everyone, it manages to come together to form a well-rounded and thoroughly fun package. The story is lacking, but the gameplay makes up for this by allowing the player to create their own little narratives within the level, formed by how they choose to play, and Spies vs Mercs provides a welcome counterpoint to the generic multiplayer offerings of some many of todays games.

The Good:
+ Fluid gameplay with plenty of player choice.
+ Spies vs  Mercs is awesome.
+ Co-op is a blast, too.

The Bad:
– Story is poor.
–  Contextual controls can be unreliable.

The Verdict:  4/5 – Great
Blacklist may not be the return to old that many fans wished, but it’s still a great stealth with plenty of replay value in the form of fluid gameplay, fine level design and brilliant multiplayer.

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