Game: Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Reviewed: May 2015
The stealth genre has often been under-represented in the gaming industry, with either small sections of a game, or ‘stealth-lite’ elements often incorporated into your average action first-person shooter rather than a proper attempt at a fully fledged stealth game. One of the few series of games that does properly cover the stealth genre is Splinter Cell. The stories and ideas come from the author Tom Clancy, a person well known for his military and espionage-based fictional storylines. Tom Clancy has lent his name to various series, including H.A.W.X, a combat flight simulator, Ghost Recon, a squad-based tactical shooter, and Rainbow Six, almost covering the same theme as Ghost Recon, but with a counter-terrorism theme. Splinter Cell was supposed to be covering the stealth genre, and had done so through-out the series up until the woeful Double Agent, so it was with some surprise that 2010’s Conviction has dropped a lot of the stealth in favour of an action theme. Indeed, the game-play often seemed to suit a Call Of Duty style at times, rather than the stealth that fans had come to expect, so while it was a much more enjoyable game than the previous instalment, it was still a disappointment that the stealth element had been forsaken.
It was therefore great news that, in 2013, Ubisoft were releasing a new game in the series, ‘Splinter Cell: Blacklist’, that would be following its stealth roots. The only catch was that Michael Ironside, long-time voice actor for Sam Fisher, the series protagonist, was going to be replaced by a relatively unknown actor by the name of Eric Johnson. This caused antagonism from long-term fans of the series, since the main excuse was that Ubisoft wanted to take advantage of new performance-capture technology, something that shouldn’t affect the capturing of someone’s voice. Thankfully, this drama turned out to be a non-issue once the game was released, since the new voice actor produced a competent effort, but more importantly, the game is actually quite good, and that is far more important than who speaks a particular sentence.
Blacklist’s story revolves around the typical Tom Clancy theme of dealing the terrorism, with the attention focussed on hostility towards the USA’s military presence in other countries across the globe, resulting in an attempt by terrorists to force the USA to withdraw from other conflicts by presenting them with an ultimatum: to leave or get attacked every seven days. The story may not be the most exciting ever produced, but it is a solid enough plot, and works well as a background for the events in the game, and the general game-play focus.
Thankfully, that game-play focus is much more stealth based, although still giving you some freedom to do things your own way. The game rates you on your actions and ranks you in three categories according to how you complete the missions, with these being Ghost, Panther, and Assault. Obviously the best way to get through things would be stealthily through a ‘Ghost’ style of game-play, where you would ideally avoid any enemies to reach your objective, or take them down using silent methods, and then hide the bodies. A panther style is often a hybrid approach, whereby you are almost engaging in guerrilla warfare, doing hit-and-run attacks where you retreat to the shadows after taking a few enemies out, before they have the chance to find you again. Assault is the least desired approach, since enemies will quickly group together to take you out, and are much tougher to beat this way, particularly the more heavily armoured ones, but it is still a viable approach, just not very elegant, and very risky. There were occasions where I misjudged my stealth take-downs, and alerted enemies nearby, and had to go into full assault mode; most of the time I would die, but sometimes I made it through, although barely.
This freedom to play the game the way you want, to a certain extent, and treat each area individually, makes the game more accessible to casual players, and a bit more fun as a result, since an instant-game-over message every time you were spotted (or after 3 alarms had gone off?) would be frustrating. At the same time, some purists who long for the ultra-stealth of the early games will probably not like this approach. Checkpoint saves are not always ideally spaced, either, and as a result of this, some sections can require a bit of trial-and-error to get right, particularly if you are trying to achieve a completely Ghost style of play. Patience is therefore a must, since trying to rush through an area if you have been thrown back to the previous checkpoint will most likely just result in you dying quickly again.
Returning from the previous game (from which it debuted) is the ‘mark and execute’ feature, and this is also something that makes the game a little less hardcore for some players, but whether you use it or not is entirely your own decision, and in my own personal opinion, I found it a great feature that enhanced the game-play. The way it works is that if you take-down enemies, either silently, or through combat, you gradually fill up a gauge on your HUD. Once full, the gauge goes from white to red, and you can then mark/highlight an enemy or group of enemies (up to 3) for a swift takedown, which is handy if a group of enemies stays close together all the time, and isn’t easily separated. It is also handy to have as a last resort should a stealthier ‘Ghost’ approach backfire, since you can mark the enemies beforehand, and if you get spotted while attempting to do a silent take-down, any enemies already highlighted will be quickly dispensed with, meaning you keep hidden and remain undetected in the wider area. Whether you like this system or not, ‘Marking’ enemies is a useful approach just for keeping an eye on their movements, and can be used in conjunction with the mini-map on the HUD and the vision modes that your goggles provide.
Some enemies can’t be taken-down with the mark-and-execute system, and these are the more heavily armoured type, meaning you’ll have to find another way to deal with them if you wish to remain undetected. There are a range of options at your disposal, such as climbing pipes and doing an aerial take-down from above, or calling them over to an area, and as they investigate, quickly take them out using hand-to-hand when their back is turned against you. Some of the heavy enemies can be taken down this way in a head-on approach, if you are quick enough, but the more bulky ones will just rebuff your attack, and so only the aerial or rear hand-to-hand attacks will work. Those same enemies are also tough enough to absorb bullets like a sponge, so regardless of your play-style you’ll need to deal with them stealthily, which is good!
The game has, in effect, a 3D level as a menu for launching missions, called the Paladin. This is a plane that is used by fourth echelon, a counter-terrorism and special operations unit, as a sort of headquarters, and as a way of transporting you, Sam Fisher, to various assignments across the world. In-between missions you will head back to the Paladin, and from there you can chat to crew, ring up your daughter, Sarah, upgrade your suit, weapons, gadgets, and the plane itself, and also launch various other game modes in solo or co-op format, as well as the online Spies versus Mercs multiplayer game. The game rewards missions with dollar currency, and reaching certain targets, such as a number of aerial take-downs, high-value targets captured, and enemies shot with a particular weapon, for example, will also reward you with further currency as a bonus. This currency is used to pay for the upgrades, and is limited just enough that it compels you to play the extra game-modes provided to earn a bit more cash. Why? Well, without that money, you won’t be able to get the best suit for either stealth or combat style game-play, you won’t be able to afford gadgets like sticky-cams, tri-rotor drones, gas grenades, more powerful and usable weapons, and, rather bizarrely, making the lights on Sam’s goggles a different colour costs quite a few thousand dollars too.
Unlike the previous game, Conviction, where you barely get a chance to use any of the gadgets provided, Blacklist gives you ample opportunity, and this makes the game even more enjoyable due to the increase in options available to you when taking down enemies. It can be quite satisfying throwing a sticky-camera against a wall, making it play a tune, attracting a guard over, and then setting off sleeping gas. Oh, and if that doesn’t work, or if you want things a bit more messy, you can set it to explode too. A crossbow is provided as a third, non-lethal weapon, and this uses electric darts to incapacitate your victims. It can also be upgraded to include sleeping gas darts, and noise-maker darts. Unfortunately, the crossbow is only effective at relatively close ranges, due to it being surprisingly inaccurate. One new gadget that is fun to use is the tri-rotor drone. Drones seem to be popping up everywhere these days, and you can even get ‘toy’ ones quite easily from quite normal high-street shops, so it’s just as well that a game with a special operations unit also has access to them. The one included in Blacklist is handy for scouting out areas, and can be upgraded to include electric shocker darts, and also to explode if it has used up its supply of darts, or is about to get shot down anyway. Sleeping gas, tear gas, smoke, frag, and flash grenades are all standard fare stuff, as are noisemaker devices, and are all useful in varying situations, depending on the style of play you are going for.
Going back to Sam’s tech-goggles, these have two potential visions modes (not including the fact you can see normally too, of course). A green night-vision mode is provided by default, but which isn’t perfect for picking out enemies, or even seeing in the darkest areas. A second sonar mode can be added later, and this picks out metal objects, and electrical devices, as well any enemies wandering around, This mode is extremely helpful for seeing enemies through walls, and also helps high-light potential routes that you may not have noticed in the normal or night-vision modes. Although it too isn’t perfect, since it does not show walls, I found that it mostly surpassed the night-vision mode once I was able to use it. The best tactic was to use it to scout out an area, then pop back into normal vision, and then keep flicking back and forth to keep an eye on enemy movements. Occasionally, some levels had an enemy operating a vision-jamming device, and it was when this happened that I truly realised how much I missed using the sonar mode to find enemies.
Looking at the extra single player and co-op game-modes in more detail, these are split into four different types, each given by a different character on the Paladin. If you select a mission from Charlie, the resident tech-head, then you can expect to fight wave after wave of enemies. This sounds a little bit basic at first, but it does have a lot more going for it then you’d first expect, since to progress through each wave, you’ll need to employ a range of tactics, and use a mixture of stealth and combat to proceed. Everything is not as easy as you’d think, and it took me a huge amount of effort, and time, to reach the fifth wave of a potential twenty, the fifth being the first you can extract on, and keep all the dollars you earned.
Missions from Anna ‘Grim’ Grímsdóttir involve a more traditional Splinter Cell approach, and thus you have to use completely stealthy methods to complete each mission. If you get caught, even just the once, it’s game over. I found this mode equally challenging to the Charlie missions, and more enjoyable in one sense, since I was using full stealth to complete them.
Further missions are available from Kobin, a rogue member of the old third echelon organisation, and can only be started once you reach the required point in the single player story where you pick him up; this is relatively early on though. Kobin’s missions are like a hybrid of the other two types, being less full-on than the Charlie missions, but you still have to kill every enemy, and if you get it wrong, you not only lose any bonus cash, you will also cause an extra dozen or so enemies to appear in the area, all actively hunting you down. So therefore stealth is a big requirement too, since it becomes a whole lot more difficult once you trigger the extra enemies. This mode was fairly frustrating in the first area, when I was quite early in the single player game, and hadn’t upgraded many gadgets, but once I had upgraded things a bit more, I found it much easier to complete. These games mode are great fun to play either in single player, or co-op, although personally I only played them single-player.
The fourth characters’ missions, from a guy called Briggs, are co-op only, and thus far I haven’t completed them, so I can’t comment on them, other than to say that they include more enemies, and will require the two characters to be sometimes in separate places to action certain events, but working together as a whole.
From a technical point of view, the graphics in Blacklist seem like an evolution of the ones presented in Conviction. They are nice to look at, and there is decent lighting, as is necessary in a stealth-based game. The textures seem sharp enough, and characters look as good as any other current game. Sound wise, the guns make the appropriate noises they should, and there are plenty of background noises from things like fans and the humming of other electrical devices. Voice acting is done decently enough, whether that coming from returning voice actors, or new ones, and I largely forgot about the drama surrounding the loss of Michael Ironside, since Sam’s new voice sounds fit for the job, and as I mentioned before, I largely forgot about such a minor detail anyway since the game was actually good to play. Had it been poor, I would have probably made more of a big deal about it. Seriously, anyone who still has a problem with it is just nit-picking.
Reliability wise, the game crashed back to desktop on me just once, although there was an issue where the voices of characters in the cut-scenes were muted, which spoiled some of those a little bit. In-game, I didn’t really encounter much beyond an NPC getting briefly stuck on one spot while walking when I was hiding behind cover. I discovered once I moved away from that cover, the character would carry on moving normally, so it was a partial glitch, and one that didn’t spoil things much. Uplay, as ever, is a weak point of any Ubisoft game, since it is often slow at logging in, but I found it to have improved a little bit compared to when I last used it for Conviction.
I’ve come away from Splinter Cell: Blacklist feeling quite satisfied with the game and the direction it has taken this time out. Sure, it still might not be quite the same high standard as Chaos Theory, and purists who loved the original games might not like the current brand of game-play it offers, with features like mark and execute, and also allowing for a more casual style of play, rather than the ultra-stealth of old, but it does feel like the most ‘complete’ Splinter Cell game that we’ve had for a while; I would say it was almost as good as Chaos Theory. From the depths of despair caused by the woeful Double Agent, the developers made a few errors in their re-imagining of the series in Conviction, but this time out, they have got it far more polished, and it finally feels like we’ve got the series heading back in the right direction. Even Sam seems to have returned to his more sensible, disciplined self, rather than the brute we encountered in the previous game.
Perhaps a few more things could be tidied up to make the hardcore types happy, but overall, this has been a great game to play, and has kept me entertained for a good number of hours, approaching the thirty mark. For old fans of the series who were left disgruntled by the previous two efforts, I’d say this was definitely worth checking out, especially if it was on sale, and if you have never played a Splinter Cell game before, this is also a good one to start with if you like a stealth/action mix of game-play. If you think of Conviction as the ‘good for one watch’ action film approach, then Blacklist is like the full series follow-up that goes one better, and that you might like to replay.
Verdict: A [silent] step in the right direction; it still might upset a few of the original games fans who can’t move on, but for everyone else, it’s a great blend of stealth and action that improves upon the series last two outings. I shall give the game the following arbitrary final score:
Is this game like a Splinter in one of your skin Cells? Let us know by sneaking over to the forum!