It’s fair to say that Splinter Cell has undergone significant changes in recent years, mostly to its detriment. With Splinter Cell: Blacklist adopting a ‘best of both worlds’ approach to its design, it could easily have petered out into anonymity, particularly with the high profile departure of Michael Ironside as Sam Fisher. Fortunately the vice versa intention is handled with assurance, making Blacklist the best Splinter Cell experience since Chaos Theory, even without the messiah at the helm.
Returning to the role of Sam Fisher, you and good friend Victor Coste are working for a private military corporation known as Paladin 9. As you are ready to depart from Andersen AFB, Guam, the base is entirely destroyed, with you and Victor barely escaping with your lives. As you are rescued by another Paladin 9 operative, a group known as ‘The Engineers’ assume responsibility for the attack, proclaiming that this was only the first in a series of large scale attacks on the USA, under a programme known as ‘The Blacklist’. The Engineers demands? That the USA removes all of its troops stationed abroad. As a result of this new threat, the President assembles the new counter-terrorism unit, Fourth Echelon, comprising of faces both familiar and new.
Within the first 15 minutes you realise that Blacklist is structured very differently to previous games. Upon an upgradeable plane, you can explore different areas, engage in conversation with other characters and undertake side missions separate from the main story arc. It certainly borrows heavily from Mass Effect in this regard but isn’t as expansive or rich. Still, it provides a hub where you can monitor progress and mix up mission priorities.
As you’d expect from a ‘mission is priority’ setup, it’s difficult to sympathise with the cast who by and large characters follow this mantra. A couple of deviations are apparent, but nothing really exposes or builds upon substantial opportunity for moral dilemma; even when given the option to kill or spare important targets feels empty. Generally speaking, the characters lack the necessary humanity evoke emotion and open up connectivity, instead feeling more like necessary agents to progress the narrative. Splinter Cell games have never been heavy on pulling on the player’s heart strings and Blacklist is no different, so this shouldn’t be a surprise to fans. It’s a serviceable delivery from the cast in what is otherwise a well realised, if generic plot.
As a fan of Michael Ironside’s previous work in the series, it would be remiss to not bring to light his absence from Blacklist. I was, quite frankly, devastated to hear he wasn’t going to reprise his role for Blacklist, to the point where I had all written off Splinter Cell. Ironside’s departure is disappointing, but it isn’t as seismic as first anticipated. The replacement actor, Eric Johnson, does a decent enough job with the script but is often ‘by the books’ and actually sounds younger, which is peculiar given that Blacklist is the most recent entry in the Splinter Cell canon. Ultimately Sam Fisher is less personable than before, yet thankfully has just enough not to be chucked on the generic action man pile. Once you overcome this initial obstacle however you’ll learn to appreciate Blacklist for its stellar gameplay, so those on the fence I implore you to be open-minded and lay the Ironside legacy to rest.
Blacklist may be shallow on narrative engagement then, but it excels in the gameplay department. Bringing back more focus on shadow and lighting and gadget utilisation, Blacklist has made strides in resurrecting an old-school feel to the series. Add to these more expansive areas with multiple methods to circumvent an all-out assault, Blacklist harkens back to what is arguably the series magnum opus: Chaos Theory. Blacklist works best when you are placed in the middle of an overwhelming situation in which precision and careful planning are the key to successful evasion. The assured furtive delivery of Blacklist is sure to appease many fans who clamour for the glory days.
When things go pear-shaped however, Blacklist masquerades as a proficient third person shooter. Refining the action oriented mechanics of Conviction such as mark-and-execute, Sam is very capable of engaging head on should you desire. You won’t feel overpowered as such, but you’ll certainly be safe in the knowledge that with the right weapons and using the environment to your advantage, you’re capable of disposing of most imminent dangers. Some mechanics could be improved, particularly sliding round corners in cover or the clustering of too many contextual actions which invariably outputs the wrong initial result, but otherwise Blacklist is enjoyable even in its most frenzied moments. Of course this aspect of the game is least appealing to the majority of Splinter Cell players, but unlike Conviction it is totally optional. Think of it as a safety net for when your surreptitious masterplan goes Pete Tong.
As was announced at previous gaming conventions, Blacklist makes considerable use of daytime environments. While initially sceptical and fearful for the franchise, these levels turn out to be surprisingly good, but still lack the predatorily feel of missions under the moonlight. Because you rely more heavily on cover, the aforementioned clunky mechanics manifest themselves, leading to some frustrating moments of trial and error. Due to the natural light granted by our good old Sun, enemies are also far more aware and willing to raise the alarm at any sign of suspicion, so you really have to be judicious as to where and how you dispose of your enemies. As the hunted rather than the hunter you feel more vulnerable in the daylight; thus Blacklist loses some of its lustre. Conversely, successfully sneaking your way through an area without the alarm being rose in daylight can also more gratifying due to these obstacles. Consider the daylight a double-edged sword if you will.
Blacklist provides challenge at the default difficulty, though I do recommend ‘realistic’ for those looking for the more typical Splinter Cell experience. With ammunition more scarce, enemies more reactive and mark-and-execute taking longer to charge, realistic is the definitive way to play Blacklist, offering the authenticity, challenge and satisfaction any game in the stealth genre requires in order to be appreciated most.
Overall Splinter Cell: Blacklist is an exceptionally good game regardless of the time of day. More often than not Blacklist finds an almost perfect balance between Chaos Theory and Conviction, with the focus more on the former thankfully. All aspersions cast on the game prior to release can safely be quashed, unless you’re simply a Michael Ironside fanboy who can’t come to terms with his departure!
Through coop missions and spec vs ops, Blacklist provides an outstanding online experience. Coop missions are naturally more fun and rewarding than going solo, as you and a team-mate work together to execute a flawless infiltration exercise undetected. Spies vs Mercs sees equal numbered teams (2v2 or 4v4) go at it in what plays out like cat and mouse. As the Spies you are able to utilise gadgets found the single players to hack 3 terminals within a specific time limit, while Mercs are heavily armoured and have the firepower to eliminate any spy threat in its path. Mercs in particular are an interesting proposition as they play out from a first person perspective. While this initially seems a strange decision, but the reduced peripheral vision it actually lends itself to a sense of claustrophobia; even though you’re packing, you’re in equal measure vulnerable from what lurks in the areas you can’t see.
The online offerings are immediately accessible and most importantly fun. With it being so early at launch I had no issues finding online matches or partners for coop ventures, but I hope the community continues and expands in the future. Even without the online component Blacklist would be worth the money, but the online excellence could see players engaged in espionage for several months to come.
In 2010, it was perplexing as to Ubisoft’s decision to utilise Unreal Engine 2.5 (albeit heavily modified); today the decision is simply asinine. With new technologies next-gen ready such as Cryengine, Frostbite 3 and Unreal Engine 4, the development team should at the very least upgraded to the current ubiquity: Unreal Engine. Not doing so limits development opportunities and capabilities, apparent in the game’s presentation. It’s by no means a bad-looking game, quite the converse in fact. However some stiff animation and flat textures in places tarnish what is otherwise a solid graphical experience. Newer technologies such as DX11 Tessellation have been retrofitted, but they do little to hide the fact that the game looks dated at times and the engine needs to be left behind. To end on a positive note, the PC version is still considerably ahead of the consoles, so don’t assume that just because it isn’t among the elite in the PC space, it is at parity with the Xbox 360 or PS3 releases.
The benefit of using less demanding and ageing technology is the performance you can obtain from graphics cards that you won’t have to re-mortgage your house for in order to afford. Providing you forego any MSAA options, a Radeon 7870 can achieve 60fps at 1080p with relative ease. Entry level GPUs such as the Radeon 7770 or GTX 650 will handle the game fine at the ‘high’ preset. Providing you have something that is decent and within the past couple of years, there is no reason to dismiss the PC version other than for online purposes and your coop/multiplayer preferences.
Much like Sleeping Dogs last year, Splinter Cell: Blacklist totally surprises in its quality and execution. As a fan of the first three outings I was disappointed with Conviction, shamelessly directing the series towards a more action-oriented spectacle. Blacklist retains and even improves the shooting mechanics of Conviction whilst reintroducing the stealth playgrounds fans loved so much in the earlier games. Ubisoft has reigned in the bombastic to a degree and ramped up the suspense to create what essentially feels like ‘Splinter Cell: The Best of’. Whatever your disposition, Splinter Cell: Blacklist provides something for everyone and should be seriously considered. A Jack of all trades? Perhaps, but it isn’t far off being a Master of all trades either.