Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review – Putting the stealth back into Splinter Cell

Full disclosure: I am a huge mark for the Splinter Cell series. The first game is the reason why I bought an Xbox and I’ve remained a devoted fan ever since. After the series peaked with Chaos Theory, I still managed to get enjoyment out of the following titles in the series, even the seemingly maligned Conviction. A common criticism leveled at Conviction is that the series moved away from stealth and focused on action which isn’t what the series is known for. A valid criticism for sure, but I still managed to enjoy the game quite a bit, albeit not nearly as much as the previous generation’s more hardcore stealth titles in the series.

It’s with great pleasure that I say that Splinter Cell: Blacklist is not only a return to form for the stealth series but also improves on both mechanics and gameplay. While the game lacks any truly memorable levels like Panamanian Bank from Chaos Theory, the game still manages to be both immensely satisfying in regards to stealth, and offers an almost embarrassment of riches in terms of options, variety and game modes.

Paladin is Fourth Echelon's flying HQ. It serves as not only the base of operations but also where Sam can get to know the new team.
Paladin is Fourth Echelon’s flying HQ. It serves as not only the base of operations but also where Sam can get to know the new team.

Something happens and then something else happens in response

Depending on how you feel about the series in terms of storytelling, the story is par for the course. For me the series has never told incredibly interesting stories. They always seem to deal with government conspiracies that I always felt got bogged down with techno-babble and overly convoluted plot twists. The problem is that most of the characters weren’t all that engaging so I never truly cared what the events turned out to be. For better or worse, this is something that has continued with Splinter Cell: Blacklist.

The plot, such as it is, involves a terrorist group called “The Engineers” who have initiated a series of attacks on United States assets called “The Blacklist.” Its up to Sam Fisher and the newly formed Fourth Echelon to track them down and stop them. It’s pretty standard stuff and its all incredibly technical in terms of the wheres, whys and hows and at the risk of sounding like an idiot, it either went over my head or again, it wasn’t very engaging. I’m going to err on the side of caution and say it’s probably a bit of both.

What makes the story work at all is the interaction between the new (and old) members of the newly minted Fourth Echelon. Of course there is Sam Fisher, grizzled veteran and stalwart from Third Echelon who has now been appointed leader by the President of the United States, Patricia Caldwell. Joining him are Sam’s old ally Anna “Grim” Grimsdottir, tech geek Charlie Cole and fellow field agent Isaac Briggs. Charlie Cole is the true standout here as he’s amusing and the least “tough” out of the crew which, in turn, makes him the most relatable.

Throughout the story, the touch calls made in the field play out as Sam deals with the repercussions through dialogue with the members of the team. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t like Mass Effect where the player has choices as to what they say and how conversations play out. All of the dialogue is relatively optional because while Sam needs to talk to each of the members for either upgrades to their gear, to Paladin (the airplane cum command center), to check their status and to receive optional missions, it is possible for a player to play through the entire game without ever having these conversations. They will, however, have an incredibly tough go of completing the game without said upgrades.

In the end, the story really just serves as means to an end as the player trots the globe from one location to the next on a per mission basis. Had it not been for the mostly well-voice acted and visually realized characters, the story would have been a complete wash. Especially in a year with games like The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite and their incredibly rich narratives and characterizations. The story in Splinter Cell: Blacklist isn’t bad, but it’s merely serviceable, which we all know isn’t high praise.

Unless they’re OCD about getting spotted like me, players have a wide variety of options to get out of any situation. Including taking enemies hostage.

It’s in the way that you use it

That said, I never come to the Splinter Cell games for their story. I come for the stealth gameplay and boy, does Splinter Cell: Blacklist deliver in spades. Each level is fairly huge and as the game goes on, each one provides multiple options for not just navigation but also how you approach each area and situation.

The game rewards players for completing challenges in three playstyles: Ghost, Panther and Assault. Ghost refers to complete stealth–remaining undetected, minimal confrontation and use of non-lethal takedowns. Panther lies in the middle of the road as players are rewarded for remaining undetected, but silently killing your enemies is the preferred method of dealing with them. And last but not least, there is Assault which is full on action mode. Enemies see you coming but none live to tell the tale.

Performing challenges in each of these playstyles offer rewards in the form of cash paid out at the end of every level. How much cash the player receives is based on a scoring system. The more you complete, the higher the score and the payout. This in game currency is used to purchase the aforementioned upgrades which provide better gear like quieter footwear, gloves which provide better weapons handling, sonar capable goggles and should you choose to use them, better guns. You can also upgrade Paladin with better tech to provide Sam with greater radar range or to show secondary objectives. You can also upgrade the medical bay on board which enables Sam to withstand more gunshots and regenerate health faster (though I’m sure the absence of health kits will surely annoy the most die hard Splinter Cell fans).

For long time fans, Ghost and Panther will be the method de jure for tackling each consecutive environment and challenge and will most likely be the most satisfying. Generally I use non-lethal methods when playing these games and in Splinter Cell: Blacklist it was no different. There is nothing quite like sneaking into a heavily patrolled area and either knocking fools out with a plethora of methods that run the gamut of sleeping gas or sticky shock darts, sleeping gas grenades, proximity shockers or up close and personal stealth knockouts. When employing the Ghost playstyle, the player is encouraged to completely avoid conflict whenever possible, giving huge payouts for sleeking through areas leaving enemies completely oblivious to your presence.

Splinter Cell: Conviction‘s “Mark and Execute” feature is back allowing players to quickly dispatch of enemies in short order by filling up their Mark and Execute meter, marking up to three enemies in the room and then pressing “Y” to fire three headshots taking each of them down. I performed this move exactly once, reset my last save and proceeded to play the rest of the game non-lethal. I will say that it was as satisfying as ever, but I opted to use the Mark feature to tag enemies so I could be aware of their respective locations while trying to either take them out or circumvent them altogether. It’s not very realistic, but its an absolute must of a tactic if the player is trying to avoid being spotted. Enemy AI has been improved as well. No longer walking along set paths, the enemies switch it up and will always check their corners. Because of this, movement is key and Splinter Cell: Blacklist gets this right. Sam is nimble, reacting to your reflexes quickly, efficiently and should you choose to be, quite lethally.

The few times I was spotted, the game used “Last Known Position,” another carry over from the previous game. For the uninitiated, Last Know Position places a ghost like outline where you were last seen by enemies and they will focus their attention there and converge on your position allowing the player to either sneak away or around to take them out quietly.

I did manage to engage in a few combat scenarios, in which I received bonuses for “Combat Knockouts” that were added to my score at the end of each level. Doing so kept me from getting full Ghost points, so these instances were few and far between and were probably the most I saw of the Assault playstyle.

After mission money can be spent on upgrading everything from weapons to the suits Sam wears on missions.
After mission money can be spent on upgrading everything from weapons to the suits Sam wears on missions.

So much to do, so much to see

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a much, much deeper and longer game than Conviction and I would even argue that it’s the longest Splinter Cell game yet. While the missions vary in length, some took up to an hour to complete due to trying to play using as much stealth as possible.

Compounding the game’s substantial 12-14 hour campaign is a slew of optional Fourth Echelon side missions that can be tackled either alone or via co-op. Your team will present these as leads for Sam to follow up on or ignore. Completing these missions gives in game cash rewards just like single player. Each member’s respective missions are varied and provide their own distinctive challenges. For example, Grim’s missions are 3 point information retrieval and extractions. Given a relatively large map, Sam is tasked with retrieve valuable intel from 3 separate locations on the map and once the task has been completed Sam must return to the start of the level for extraction. Sounds simple enough, right? Well these missions will definitely please old-school Splinter Cell fans because getting spotted is mission over and back to the loading screen.

The other bonus missions available include a kind of terrorist hunt which are broken up into two areas and require Sam (and Briggs if playing co-op) to take out all hostiles in the area. There is also a a horde mode of sorts in which Sam (and again, possibly Briggs) take on 5 waves of enemies with each wave getting tougher and more difficult to beat. Once the 5 waves are completed you can either extract from the area or take on another 5 waves until you’ve reached 20 waves. The longer you stay in without dying, the more your extraction bonus is.  Lastly, there are co-op only missions in which Sam and Briggs must track down a nuclear weapons smuggling operation.

These missions add hours of additional content and replay value to an already stellar package and I haven’t even talked about multiplayer. More on that later.

A fair portion of missions take place outside, during daytime. Shadows are even more important as players can spotted much quicker.

What I would call a “butter face”

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is by far the most ambitious Splinter Cell game to date, however, those ambitions come with a caveat. While lighting and animations are outstanding, the graphics themselves are somewhat underwhelming. Especially after other games this year have shown that both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 are capable of some amazing things. Making matters somewhat worse is that the two disc game contains an HD texture pack download, which, while entirely optional, comes with the advisory notification that the visuals will be greatly improved. As such I can only imagine what the game looked like without installing the 3 gig patch. With it installed, the game had some odd screen tearing in earlier cut scenes. It seemed to lessen as the game went on, but whenever it happened, it was jarring and surprising.

As I stated earlier, the characters are all well voice acted and visually realized looking exactly like their actor counter parts. Well, all of them except Sam Fisher. First of all, he is barely recognizable from any of the previous games, given a much younger look. He is also not modeled after the actor portraying him giving him a false look amongst the rest of the team. I guess I should mention here that Michael Ironside not doing the voice of Sam Fisher is noticeable, though Eric Johnson does a reasonable impression, Sam just doesn’t have that wit and dry humor that has been so long associated with the character. Instead Sam Fisher is merely a grumpy “do the mission no matter what” kind of leader who makes no real impression as a lead character. In between missions Sam can call Sarah on the phone, which I can only image was there to give another dimension to neoSam, but the character was only one dimensional and these brief, optional phone calls make him 1.5 dimensional because they’re so insignificant.

Late in the game players will be forced to play as Briggs from a First Person perspective which doesn’t quite feel as good as controlling in the third person since it uses pretty much the same control scheme. Only in first person there is no cover, and there is no non-lethal option. I suppose it’s inclusion in the single player is to serve as training wheels for multiplayer except the two sections are incredibly brief and don’t make much of a lasting impression beyond “well that was awkward.”

Furthermore, while probably not major, be sure to play co-op missions with a friend because on more than one occasion my random partner left the game mid level which bounced me back to the lobby, forcing me to start the mission over with a new partner. It happened to me more than once and it was quite frustrating.

One last gripe I have with the game are the way too numerous load times. None are offensively long but I was just starting to feel like long load times were a thing of the past. Unfortunately, Ubisoft Toronto had other plans. Though I suppose if the trade off is huge expansive levels with no load times, it may seem like picking nits.

Be sure your co-op partner is a friend. If your teammate drops out for whatever reason, it’s back to the lobby regardless of progress.

But wait, there’s more!

It would have been very easy for Ubisoft Toronto to provide the robust package of a great single player campaign, the optional side missions and engaging co-op and call it day, but nope, they went and added the lauded Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer to boot. Veterans of the series know what to expect but newcomers will find an exciting game of cat and equally dangerous mouse as players engage in either 2 vs 2 or up to 4 vs 4. One team plays as the spies, in third person and controls exactly like the single player game. The Mercs, on the other hand, play in first person and have a major disadvantage in this regard. If a Spy gets behind you it’s a one-hit kill. Thankfully Mercs can use proximity mines and UAVs that can not only give away spy locations by highlighting the spies in red, but it can also be detonated above the target for a kill.

Multiplayer features 6 game modes. There’s training grounds, which is what it says it is: new players can learn the ins and outs of Spies vs Mercs with other new players. After level 5 the rest of the playlist open up. “Classic” is 2v2 in which Spies are tasked with hacking terminals and Mercs have to defend them. Once a hack starts the only way for the Mercs to stop it is to kill the hacker. “Blacklist” is a 4v4 version of Classic. “Extraction” is similar to Attack and Defend except the Spies defend and Mercs attack and try to extract the intelligence. “Uplink Control” is basically Domination where teams control the uplinks until the transmission is complete. And lastly, there is “Team Deathmach”, which is… team deathmatch.

Unlike most multiplayer games, players will use the in game money earned from the campaign and co-op missions to purchase upgrades that can be used in multiplayer. This prevents new players from being overwhelmed and having low level guns and equipment while going up against higher level players. At that point it’s about skill level, which is really what multiplayer should be about.

While I have admittedly not put in a lot of hours yet, I did quite enjoy my time thus far with Spies vs Mercs because I’ve managed to find communicative team mates which helps any objective based competitive multiplayer. Good stuff overall.

Spies vs Mercs adds tons of additional value to an already loaded game.
Spies vs Mercs adds tons of additional value to an already loaded game.

 The sum of all fears….

As it turns out any fears one might have that Splinter Cell: Blacklist would continue Conviction‘s direction towards more action gameplay turned out to be for naught. Ubisoft Toronto has crafted what I consider to be the best modern, third-person stealth game yet and managed to successfully shove a ton of content into an already satisfying package for good measure. The campaign offers a lot of replay value due to the different playstyles, infiltration routes and tactical options as well as side missions, co-op missions and an incredibly fun and robust multiplayer suite. The controls and stealth mechanics are better than ever and offer something for players with all mindsets. Yes, the game suffers from some minor problems such as load times, a less memorable iteration of Sam Fisher and some forced first person shooting in the campaign, but in the end those criticisms hold little weight when the rest of the package is this good.

Sean played the Xbox 360 version Splinter Cell: Blacklist for 30 hours including completing the single player campaign, most side missions, co-op a several hours of Spies vs Mercs. The copy played was purchased by Sean.

9/10+ Great stealth gamplay
+ Rewards varied playstyles
+ Tons of things to do with side quests and upgrades
+ Robust mutiplayer suite
-Serviceable story
-Sam Fisher doesn’t resonate
-Some weird graphics issues
-Co-op partner drops out and it’s back to the lobby

Available on: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U

Version Reviewed: Xbox 360

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