Having inched his way up and across many pipes while lurking within an unprecedented amount of shadows during his years of digitized service, Sam Fisher has established himself as the king of stealth gaming. His never say never attitude and lack of inherent fear has allowed him to remain calm when he’s needed to most, presenting two major reasons as to why he’s stayed in the (fictional) land of the living for so long. After all, being a one-man army, who just so happens to be in charge of protecting the United States from terrible danger at the hands of advanced terrorist cells is a demanding job, not only physically but also mentally.
Since his debut mission in 2002′s Splinter Cell, Ubisoft’s stealth-focused super-soldier slash ghost has turned meticulously thought out plans into nightmares for countless terrorists. Now, he’s up to his old tricks again in a brand new campaign entitled Splinter Cell: Blacklist. A lengthy stealth-action adventure, which offers a lot of content for its price tag, the series’ latest release ups its stakes dramatically and marks the debut release from Jade Raymond’s Ubisoft Toronto studio.
By designing its first game as a collective, the aforementioned development team had a lot to prove. However, deciding to make a Splinter Cell game their first project must’ve been a bit of a daunting task, since the series’ shift to a more action-oriented approach with 2010′s Splinter Cell: Conviction didn’t sit well with a lot of its longtime fans. Thankfully for those folks, Blacklist returns the previous titles’ focus on stealth, but does so while presenting a game that can be played quietly or with lots of gunfire and explosions. Granted, it usually works out better when the player takes the quiet route – something I learned and took to heart while playing.
Before we continue, I must admit that I’m a big fan of Conviction, and actually enjoyed it more than its predecessors. It was simply more entertaining to play, offering a good dose of action, combined with some quality stealth mechanics. That may put me in the minority, but it’s the truth. On top of that, I’ve always been more of a Metal Gear Solid fan, but I’ve respected Ubisoft’s take on stealth.
Although it does harken back to its slower-paced roots more than a bit, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is still a very action-packed game, which is something that I appreciated. Its standard difficulty isn’t crushing, and bodies don’t need to be hidden in order to succeed, but those who want to try for realism can do so via its perfectionist difficulty setting. Still, despite this mixing pot approach, the game contains many of the elements that made its predecessor a hit almost eleven years ago.
The start menu free experience centres upon an ominous group of terrorists known as the Engineers. Wanting America to remove all of its troops from foreign soil, the faction’s members have resorted to doing anything they can to get their point across. Nothing is out of the question, and killing innocent civilians never seems to faze them. It’s all about getting a point across, and getting to the end goal, while hurting America as much as possible.
Acting as more than just a foreboding subtitle, the term Blacklist pertains to the Engineers’ planned attacks on American soil. They carry names like American Greed and American Fuel, but little else is known about them, forcing Mr. Fisher and those he leads under the government’s super-secretive Fourth Echelon banner to investigate. That means lots of hacking, tapping, analyzing and general stealth espionage – a lot of which takes place on foreign soil or in the air, via an upgradeable flying command centre called the Paladin.
In order to learn more about the Engineers and their attacks, players must infiltrate various locations and steal data, disable explosives, deal with targets and/or put an end to sinister plans. It’s all in a day’s work for Sam Fisher, who can go about his business in any way that the player deems necessary, thanks to a system that promotes individuality. If you’d like to complete your objectives without raising alarms or killing any baddies, you can, and will receive points relating to the Ghost play style. Conversely, those who prefer to enter into bullet-filled combat as much as possible will find themselves mastering the Assault play style. In-between, there’s the Panther style, which is essentially the quiet assassin option, and makes good use of Conviction‘s returning Mark & Execute ability.
Aiding with each approach is a well-stocked gadget closet, which grows throughout the game. More traditional items like flashbangs, noisemakers and stun guns are always available for use, but you’ll also find louder options like mines, incendiary grenades and electric-emitting drones. Speaking of drones, though, it’s worth mentioning that those who enlist in this challenging assignment won’t always be playing as their favourite solider. At times, interactive drone attacks must be levied against enemies, and there are also moments where Sam’s pal Briggs becomes playable in a first-person shooter (mercenary) way. Those segments are few and far between, but they break things up and add in some welcomed variety.
From start to finish, the central campaign, of which those divergences are a part, is approximately eight to twelve hours long. It all depends on your play style, though, as well as your skill. If you’re the type of person who can spend hours trying to perfect a mission, then have at it, but most stages should take you about thirty to forty minutes to complete. They’re all pretty solid, too, though they don’t stand out as much as they could’ve. In fact, that’s a bit of an issue throughout the game, as though it’s quite well made and very solid overall, it’s not exactly the most memorable experience out there. With that being said, it is Ubisoft Toronto’s first effort, and is a good one.
As an evil entity, the Engineers are relatively interesting, but it’s their ominous attack schedule that provides most of the intrigue and tension found within Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Nonetheless, even though what the writers have crafted is pretty strong, it’s not revolutionary or masterful stuff, losing some of its promise to familiar terrorism fiction tropes. The gameplay is similar: It’s strong, and tough to really complain about, but it won’t blow you away. There’s simply something missing, and that keeps the experience from ever becoming great.
The best thing about this package, though, is its wealth of content. On top of the lengthy and above-average campaign, one will find a full multiplayer mode and an assortment of side missions. That latter list item consists of quests given out by the game’s supporting cast, which help to flesh it out a bit. Some are co-op only, giving Sam and Briggs a chance to bond over dual breaches, buddy boosts and sneak attacks, while the others can be played solo. However, it’s recommended that you play all of them in co-op, especially the missions that step outside of the norm by presenting wave-based survival challenges. The co-op is pretty good here, and Horde-like modes are always more fun with friends.
Longtime Splinter Cell fans will surely appreciate the co-op scenarios, but will be most interested in the return of the series’ beloved Spies versus Mercenaries multiplayer mode. After being absent from Conviction, it has made an impressive return, offering players a lot to sink their competitive teeth into. The list includes new gameplay options, like four versus four and team deathmatch, though most will probably choose to stick with the classic, two versus two design. Still, that’s not to say that having four spies trying to hack control points, while four mercenaries try to gun them down in first-person shooter mode isn’t fun. In fact, it’s just as fun as its counterpart.
The aforementioned content is split over two discs on the Xbox 360, meaning that one must switch part-way through, then switch back in order to clean up or play multiplayer. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s a bit cumbersome, especially since an important (3 gigabyte) HD texture pack file is located on disc 2, and must be installed before playing for optimal gaming. That’s nitpicking, though, and is something I won’t hold against the game. I have, however, docked it a bit for the glitches that I encountered. Although some were minor, others had Sam moving sporadically through the environment, from one close cover item to a far away one, and one even caused him to float through a door and end up on a pipe when I tried to turn its handle.
Blacklist‘s presentation isn’t great, but it’s also far from bad.
Graphically, the game is a bit on the dated side, and happens to be somewhat muddy looking during its darker segments. Additionally, framerate issues pop up on occasion, and lengthy loading times also mar the experience whenever the game isn’t installed. However, its audio is noticeably better, thanks to a complementary score and some impressive voice acting. Fans may be disappointed to hear that Michael Ironside was let go in favour of Canadian actor and Rookie Blue vet, Eric Johnson, but the Edmontonian does a fantastic job. His optional phone calls to Sam’s daughter Sarah end up adding a lot of important humanity to not only the protagonist, but also the game itself.
Overall, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a commendable first release from Ubisoft Toronto. Although it’s lacking some polish and could’ve been more memorable, it’s well worth checking out, especially if you’re a big fan of the series.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which we were provided with.