Review: Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Sam Fisher is having an identity crisis. That grizzled, bold old spy with the sultry tones of a brown bear chat-up line never seemed like he would grow unsure of himself: but he has. While previous entry Splinter Cell: Conviction departed from the stealth routes of the series for all ballsy action, Splinter Cell: Blacklist has decided to strike a dangerous balancing act between an audience of blockbuster action and the demands of the hardcore stealth gamers. Dangerous because it risks failing in an attempt to please everyone. Luckily, there is something here for everyone to really love and get excited about (for me, it’s the inclusion of the intense classic multiplayer mode Spies Vs Mercs). Unfortunately, in its effort to include everything but the kitchen sink, that also means there is almost certainly going to be something that everyone hates or even loathes about Blacklist (perhaps the banal, greyish tones of Eric Johnson’s voice acting?).
This is most exemplified in the single-player campaign. Set after the events of Conviction, Sam and his old mate Victor Coste are blindly attacked at a military base by an unknown threat. Barely escaping with their lives, Sam is then drafted into the newly formed ‘Fourth Echelon’ in order to deal with this aggressive enemy revealed as a terrorist organisation known as ‘The Engineers’. The attack on Sam was the first in a series of strikes against the USA called ‘The Blacklist’; which demands that all American troops posted abroad are returned to US soil. Otherwise the attacks will continue and people will die. Each mission is an attempt to unveil more about The Engineers’ plot, and Blacklist allows you to confront them with your own preferred style. Casual gamer with a penchant for blowing stuff up à la COD? Race through the mission loud and violent with grenades and automatic weapons. Miss the stealth origins that gave the series its name? Cruise through the level as a ghost, knocking out enemies from the shadows and disposing of their bodies surreptitiously. Or perhaps you simply liked the nice balance of Conviction’s stealthy predator style? Well that’s an option too; and each play form is rewarded with points from the according category of Ghost, Panther or Assault.
It works seriously well, complimented by the smooth, acrobatic player movement introduced in Conviction, a massive arsenal of weapons, and more gadgets than you could find from a Batman belt left in a massage parlour. Cash rewards earned by challenges, playing in a certain style and getting more points than your friends online allow you to tailor these aspects to your playstyle, but perhaps the greatest achievement of the single-player in Blacklist is the sense of opportunity given to the player. Each situation encountered presents a multitude of strategies to employ to success or failure; and these often have to be spontaneously altered according to the threats that present themselves (such as a heavily armoured guard who can’t be shot, or a wily dog that sniffs you out of the shadows). The player must consider the environment, his abilities and how to manipulate this within the game to their advantage. Unfortunately this is where Ubisoft’s attempt to please all can stumble. While an all-out assault play style can be exciting, it’s clear that the sophistication and appeal of Blacklist is found by taking a more calculated route. And when, due to the bombastic narrative, you are forced into explosive action scenarios with lots of shooting, you are left feeling frustrated that the promise of the game tailoring to your style has failed. Likewise, it presumes that the action gamer is a superficial type and thus delivers a story with as much depth as a puddle.
Replaced with the younger, louder voice actor Eric Johnson, Fisher feels more like a rebellious teenager than an uber smooth splinter cell. Instead of the subtly assertive nature of Sam’s ‘little said, but gets the job done’ wisdom we have someone who looks unnecessarily angry, is given little narrative motivation and churns out a cheesy one-liner Americanism quicker than you can quote a Dwayne Johnson movie. It is unfair to decry a series based on a new casting, but there is definitely a massive Michael Ironside shaped hole in the void where Sam’s character used to be. It’s exacerbated by how poorly the game ties into previous entry Splinter Cell: Conviction. For all the cameos from series regulars, you are constantly questioning the continuity of the plot and its implausibility. Why is Sam, a previous enemy of the state, now placed as the leader of a billion dollar military operation with absolute freedom of power? Didn’t he also despise the people he’s working for? It really made me miss big old Lambert and his no nonsense attitude. I bet he would have sent Sam straight to the naughty step. It treats the action gamer as an idiot and provides nothing for the hardcore, who are probably looking for a story with a little more substance.
Still, the wealth of content on offer is remarkable and you have to admire the effort to please. Sam’s Fourth Echelon super team is placed on board ‘The Paladin’: a very fancy military aeroplane which acts as a hub for all missions: including the varied co-op campaign. Here, you can chat to the crew: such as the bromance figure Briggs, the classic draconian stalwart Grimm, or new chap Charlie, who acts, much in the vein of Skyfall, as the young geek-chic Q to Sam’s James Bond. Or you can upgrade the plane’s décor for game bonuses, tailor your weapons and gadgets for the next mission or simply ditch the panicking screams of the worlds’ nations for an adrenaline filled game of fan favourite multiplayer Spies Vs Mercs. This new take on the classic experience is where Blacklist truly feels inventive and provides the biggest reason to keep your faith in the franchise. For the uninitiated, ‘Spies Vs Mercs’, as it is affectionately known, pits two very different game experiences against each other in tense and adrenaline filled matches. The spies are played in the third-person, shadow is their friend and the ability to climb across maps allows for a more agile and acrobatic approach to combat (in which the most sure fire and effective method of attack is a quick melee knife kill). The Mercs, on the other hand, are played via first-person and offer a far better equipped and more aggressive approach . Grenades, massive guns and thick armor make them cumbersome but deadly in a close-quarters fire-fight.
Unlike the divide between Stealth and Assault in the single-player, the brutality of the Mercs feels as intelligent and integral to the experience as the agile Spies. They’ve got some nifty gadgets, but the constant threat from the shadows of the spies provides the same terrifying thrill that the Spies get when trapped in a tight corner by a deadly Merc. This is also due to the unique design of the game modes. While you still have your standard deathmatch (I wouldn’t bother, it’s a bit pants), the central focus is on your standard hacking game found in the ‘Classic’ and ‘Blacklist’ matchmaking. In this, Spies have to hack three terminals and the Mercs have to stop them; and so it becomes as much about killing each other as it is about defending, going on the offensive and plotting your approach. It encourages you to be creative, as it’s not necessarily about making kills, and the wealth of customisation options available offer ways to adapt your approach in a meaningful way. If you fancy getting kills with your spy, then silencing your footsteps and adding a Merc tracker can aid the hunt, or if you need help hacking, then certain perks and equipment can be added to hide yourself more effectively. For the Mercs, you might be fed up with flashbangs, so a gas mask is in order; or aerial recon drones can help identify better hiding, hacking spies. It’s a more modern update that clearly borrows from contemporary titles, but feels more original due to the fact it retains that core light vs dark and aerial vs ground dynamic. Or alternatively for veterans of the franchise, the classic mode returns everything back to basics (including the small 2v2 player count) and turns off a few more lights for that quintessential Spies Vs Mercs feeling.
To sum up
At a glance, it might seem that Ubisoft has rather timidly offered us a compromise between superficial accessibility and the complexity of the hardcore, rather than taking a strong stance at either pole. But really, judging by my own strong feelings towards the more negative aspects of the game, it’s more like they’ve gone all the way with both angles with the full knowing intention that some parts won’t please others. The single-player is a great experience if played in a certain way, while Co-op, which can suffer from similar problems, still emphasises communication and thinking in order to succeed. As for Spies Vs Mercs, it’s an absolute joy to see it make a return to the series; and for all the tweaks it’s still as jumpy and exciting as ever. Ultimately, while previous entries into the series may have had interesting stories, Splinter Cell is not renowned for its contribution to grand narrative. It’s known for slick espionage experiences which can be found in full in Blacklist. My advice then, is ignore the bland story and try to forgive Ubisoft for turning Sam Fisher into an absolute arse. Take a good, hearty portion of what you love from the game and gobble it down, there’s plenty of it to go around. As to the rest, leave that for the dog.