Always being known as one of the classic Stealth game franchises, it’s easy to see why some fans and critics were a bit disappointed with Ubisoft’s 2010 offering, ‘Splinter Cell: Conviction’. Despite a positive reception across the board, the game was criticised for trading the traditional gameplay style to one that was more action focussed, and for slimming down the stealth mechanics. Three years later comes the latest title, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, returning more to the stealth-focussed play style of the previous games but retaining what was loved of Conviction, this game is a fantastic piece of stealth-action that sits among Chaos Theory as one of the best instalments to date.
Taking control of long-time series protagonist Sam Fisher, he finds himself caught up with a dangerous terrorist army called ‘The Engineers’ as they launch their ‘Blacklist’ attack on the United States. With American freedom, consumption and fuel being cited as planned attacks, it’s up to Fisher and his Fourth Echelon team to prevent the plans, and bring the leader down. Unlike a lot of previous Splinter Cell games, the narrative is very much at the forefront and most-importantly, very easy to follow. Other games in the series wouldn’t rely too heavily on cutscenes and narrative was very much restricted to pages of text and audio conversation. Blacklist thrives on its gripping narrative, and succeeds on interesting the player. Scenes are well directed, contain lots of visual flair, full of top-notch animation work and are very cinematic.
The only aspect the narrative falls down on is the characters, of which are a mixed bag that span from interesting to dull. Sam has always been a great character throughout the series, and this game continues that trend. Despite long-serving voice actor Michael Ironside missing from the role, the character still shines and is as rough and battle-worn as ever, if not slightly dampened by a couple bits of patchy voice acting. The character of Grim, much like Sam Fisher, is very much a solid character throughout providing some great scenes of tension and consistently well delivered acting. Unfortunately, these well-acted characters majorly contrast with the supporting cast who are very under-developed and boring. Charlie is very uninteresting due to him attempting to provide the laughs and a light-hearted side, but ultimately failing, while Briggs fails to evoke any connection to the player, ending up being very unremarkable and completely forgettable. Aside from these mishaps, the games ensemble cast is great, and the games main bad guy is acted perfectly. It’s just a shame that he isn’t given enough time to shine. That said, he certainly steals all scenes in which he appears.
The gameplay of Blacklist is a lot faster paced than other games in the series, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The stealth side still remains challenging and is a play style that is always a joy, more so because Sam is a lot more capable of manoeuvring around the games many levels with speed and ease. While sneaking around in previous games was never problematic, it did become frustrating because of how much the games pace was slowed down. Blacklist completely rectifies this, and keeps the player enjoying the game no matter how stealthy they want to be. Blacklist contains a cover system in which Sam can stick to the environment and all kinds of objects to hide from the enemy. The player can also move in between different pieces of cover just with a press of a button, providing an easy way to manoeuvre about and evade the enemy. Taking down enemies continues to be fast and efficient, and players still have the option of performing lethal or non-lethal takedowns. Players can drop from heights to take down enemies too, offering plenty of variety when in tight situations. Returning from Conviction is the ‘Mark and Execute’ mechanic in which players are able to select up to three enemies, and providing they are in range, take them out automatically with speed and precision. While it may seem like a very cheap mechanic that can be exploited, it is a nice addition that actually doesn’t take away the challenge of taking down your enemies. This ability has to be earned by eliminating enemies, so you have only limited use of it warranting it as a good tactical option rather than a cheap way of killing your enemies.
Perhaps my only problem with the gameplay is how there is no real urgency to be extremely stealthy. Throughout the entire length of the story I rarely ever felt the need to hide any bodies. This is due in part to the fact that once you leave a contained area, everything within it is finished with. Enemies will not find bodies lying around in areas behind you, and the slate is wiped clean. And if you ever do leave bodies lying around in an area you are currently in, there is a chance that an enemy may never see it. At times you may wish that the enemy pathing was a little more complex so that disposing of bodies is actually a necessity. This isn’t a game breaker, but it does eliminate some of the games threat. Alarms in this game also suffer the same fate in that they aren’t as threatening as they used to be. If you get spotted by a camera/laser, the most that happens is enemies are alerted and a piece of intel is destroyed. In previous titles, the setting off of alarms resulted in tighter security, more powerful enemies, and even mission failure should you set off 3 alarms. Without this threat, you can afford to be a little bit careless and this breaks the need to be as stealthy as possible to succeed.
For those who want to be a little bit reckless, this option is open to you too and is developed enough to be fun and practical. The game actively promotes different play styles for the player in the form of Ghost, Panther and Assault. Ghost players will avoid enemies/take them out in a non-lethal manner, Panther players will play tactically but go in for the kill, while Assault players will go in all guns blazing and not care for being detected. At the end of each level, a score will be assigned of which takes into account your performance in these different styles. The score at the end is then calculated into money, of which can be spent in the mission hub area.
A large array of weaponry is available to the player, as are many customizable options for each, and thrown on top of that are different lethal and non-lethal gadgets that the player can have at their disposal. These weapons and gadgets are not progressively unlocked as you go through the game’s missions, but are purchased using the money earned from missions. The way in which you play effects the money earned, and players are rewarded for being stealthy, hacking laptops, finding dead drops and discovering hidden paths. The currency system works well, and gives a good incentive to play each level to the best of your ability in order to purchase better gear for the missions ahead. Money can also be used to purchase upgrades to your goggles, adding a sonar ability for example, and be used to get better clothing for your ops suit and in turn improving upon the players armour, sneaking ability and weapons handling. It can also be used to buy upgrades for the PALADIN ship (used as the games mission hub), which unlocks even more abilities for Sam such as more loadout slots, an in-mission radar, prototype weaponry etc.
The whole game is built upon this currency system, and as a result, the game becomes very rewarding to play. Players will want to replay many of the games missions and side-missions in order to best themselves and others, adding longevity to the title. This same currency system also makes its way over to the online multiplayer, allowing the customization and upgrading of your spy and mercenary operatives for the classic Spies Vs. Mercenaries multiplayer mode. This multiplayer mode is a tonne of fun and provides an exciting and tense experience that series fans and newcomers should enjoy. Gamers playing as the mercenaries will play matches within an FPS wireframe, while the Spies take on the traditional gameplay style. What plays out are very interesting matches of hide and seek, of which never play out the same. It plays like a blend of both The Hidden and The Last Of Us, and will keep players interested for some time.
The level design found in Blacklist is varied and consistently interesting offering multiple open-ended levels located all around the globe and multiple ways to accomplish your objectives. Levels feel much more complex than previous offerings providing lots of room to explore and more things to climb and interact with. This allows the player to tactically use the environment to their advantage and approach situations carefully. Some levels offer complete changes in gameplay, with one being very much a massive narrative set-piece, and another offering some FPS slices of gameplay, providing more action-based scenarios.
Perhaps the most interesting of levels come in the form of the side-missions set by Charlie. These levels take the form of wave based challenges set in unique settings where upon the player must eliminate the incoming enemies. The more waves you play through, the harder they become with more enemies, enemy types, and more powerful weaponry/armour being pit against you. While fairly small, these levels do offer plenty of depth and can be used very creatively to dispose of the opposing forces. Players here really do have to make full use of their loadout, and most importantly their surroundings to survive. Other side-missions available to the player have rather samey objectives, but these never become boring thanks to the creative level design.
From a production stand point, Blacklist looks, sounds and feels great. The games environments look impressive graphically, and look beautiful when drenched in light and shadow. The animation quality is spectacular too, and Sam manoeuvres around very realistically, interacting well with his surroundings. As always the sound quality is great, offering some great sound effects and a great electronic soundtrack that is a nice mix of electronic ambience and heavy hitting rock. The game also controls really well, and always provides a smooth playing experience for the player with zero frustration. Learning how to play this game is a breeze, but mastering it is a challenge, especially on the harder difficulties where stealth is the only option. For those who may find the game too easy, a perfectionist difficulty is available which maxes the challenge, and removes some new game mechanics.
Blacklist is a great game, and a great entry in the Splinter Cell franchise. While early previews of this game created unease with a seemingly heavy focus on action and linear levels, it’s good to see that the final product is far from this. Unlike the latest Hitman title, Splinter Cell has been able to reinvent itself for the modern market without losing its original identity. This game still feels very much like classic Sam Fisher action, and the new gameplay additions only serve to enhance the game as a whole. Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a fantastic sequel, and could well be my favourite game in the series.
- Interesting plot
- Great level design
- Fun stealth gameplay
- Plenty of replay value
- Currency system adds depth
- Sam Fisher is still a great character…
- …but Michael Ironside is missed.
- You can afford to be a bit messy and careless due to less threat.
- Sometimes the game is a little too easy – sonar goggles and radar.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.