Review: Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Now you see me, now you still don’t see me.

The sixth installment in the popular Splinter Cell stealth series, Blacklist was created in an attempt to appeal to audiences of all skill levels and gameplay preferences.  The game was fighting an uphill battle before it even entered production. Diehard fans of the series have criticized more recent titles due to their shift towards the more widely loved guns-a-blazing game style (Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty), when all they really wanted was to sneak around like a spy, undisturbed and invisible to the enemy as they infiltrate deep into secret hideouts.

Ubisoft thought that catering to audiences of more popular games would be a surefire way to build its own fan base, but failed to recognize that much of its community loves the series for what it was, and not for what shoes other first-person shooters on the market are already filling.  Blacklist is also the first game of the series without Michael Ironside, longtime voice actor of protagonist Sam Fisher.  Instead, Fisher is voiced and, thanks to motion-capture technology, animated by Eric Johnson.  Many fans feared that Fisher would never be the same again, and in many respects, they’re right.

In game previews and trailers, stealth fans let out a defeated sigh as they watched Sam Fisher shoot his way through campaign levels.  But Ubisoft was smarter this time around.  The French video game developer said “why not both?” and opted to include both the action-assault style of gameplay and a stealth option, named “ghost,” in addition to “panther,” a mix of the two.  The best part? As the player, you have the option to complete a level any way you want, and there are multiple paths to promote each style of gameplay.  Diehard fans still point to Chaos Theory as the golden standard for the series, when only stealth actions were rewarded and assault tactics were universally condemned.

 

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Console: PC, Playstation 3, Wii U, Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developer(s): Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Toronto, Ubisoft Shanghai
Publisher: Ubisoft
Released: August 20, 2013
MSRP: $39.99

A terrorist organization by the name of “The Engineers” has taken the United States hostage, and threatens the country with a countdown of devastating attacks, codenamed “Blacklist,” should its demands not be met.  Namely, the group, led by terrorist and former MI6 agent Majid Sadiq, wants the U.S. to pull its military presence out of various countries abroad.

To combat the attacks and end the Blacklist, U.S. President Patricia Caldwell creates Fourth Echelon and enlists the help of a small team, including Sam Fisher and series regular Anna Grímsdóttir, who operate out of a large aircraft called Paladin.

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The graphics in the game are beautiful, yet at this point a little outdated.  Install the HD texture pack on disc 2, weighing more than 3 GB, to make realistic scenes come even more to life.  One stylistic element that I loved about Conviction (the fifth Splinter Cell game) was the usage of color to display stealth.  The world turns back and white, with selective use of color, when Fisher is invisible to the enemy.  When he’s spotted, the colors erupt and the player is jolted into the real world.  This element is sadly absent from Blacklist, although many were happy to see it go.

The gameplay mechanics in Blacklist are smooth and elegant, although it’s unrealistic to assume that Fisher, who must be nearing 60 at this point, can perform some of the extreme acrobatics with the ease that he does.  Dangling from cliffs by his fingers, Fisher moves swiftly from ledges and pipes, and through vents to go undetected by guards.  Of course, the new Fisher is voiced and acted by Eric Johnson, born in 1979 compared to Ironside, who is now over 60.

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From Paladin, which functions as a hub, the player can take time between each mission to talk to members of the crew, purchase upgrades to the plane or equipment, and phone Fisher’s daughter, Sarah.  This new space grants players an in-between time to recap and refuel before the next mission, and adds an element of non-linearity to the game as one can choose to drop into a co-op or side mission at any point.

In addition to the gratuitous sneaking, climbing, crouching, and sidling, Fisher can perform his usual lethal and nonlethal attacks, whether doing so while hanging upside-down from a pipe, or crouched in a dark corner waiting for an enemy to pass.  However you go about it, new cinematic scenes lend a certain oomph of satisfaction to each takeout.  Blacklist borrowed a number of other combat elements from Conviction, including cover-to-cover maneuvers, last seen position, sonar goggles, and mark and execute, which fit right in.  In most instances, it’s possible to sneak through a level without taking out any enemies, achieving the maximum amount of “ghost” points for leaving enemies undisturbed.

As a stealth enthusiast and Splinter Cell fanatic, I opted to play through the game on “perfectionist” difficulty, striving to ghost through the missions.  A slew of new gadgets and guns, as well as plenty old and familiar ones, are at Fisher’s disposal for purchasing and upgrading.  Before a mission begins, the player is given a chance to optimize his gear and and customize loadout options to head into combat prepared for his preferred style of gameplay.

“I was instantly absorbed by the storyline and ready to be a ghost.”

When I finally made it through the tutorial level, I was instantly absorbed by the storyline and ready to be a ghost.  The first two missions, unlike the rest, were unfortunately outdoors in the daytime.  Nevertheless, I persevered and can happily report that there were more than enough opportunities to use new gadgets (such as the tri-rotor – a handheld drone that can scout out areas, mark enemies, and even sticky-shock them) and become one with the shadows.

Points and money are awarded at the end of each mission.  Hacking the Blacklist laptop in each level, finding an intel-laden dead drop, and securing a high-value target in each level will earn Fisher extra dollars, which he can then use to purchase upgrades.  Everything from exploring a new route to hiding a body will also rack up points for the player.

Locally or over Xbox Live, Fisher can team up various members of the team to complete side missions.  The majority of the missions can also be completed solo.  Spies Versus Mercenaries is also back in Blacklist, although it seems to have been more heavily influenced by the action-assault gameplay style and isn’t quite comparable to Chaos Theory’s version.

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Score: 8/10 – Review Scale

Blacklist is replete with content.  While the campaign may appear deceptively short at ten full-length missions, a number of side missions–including co-op levels and multiplayer, as well as in-game achievements–heap on the hours of play time and make Blacklist the most extensive title of the series.  Don’t worry, stealth junkies; while Blacklist is riddled with shoot-em-up opportunities, just as many under-the-radar routes are also available to satisfy your inner spy.

Ubisoft successfully melded the old with the new, incorporating elements from all previous titles (including the abhorrent dogs not seen since Pandora Tomorrow) and introducing a number of new ones, such as the ability to play through the game with a personalized experience.

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