The Short Version:
It’s one of the finest stealth games I’ve played in years, and easily one of 2013’s best games. There’s just so much to love here, from its visual variety to the depth and refinement brought to the gameplay. This is a game both fans and newcomers can appreciate, and I highly recommend you go out and purchase it as soon as possible.
The Long Version:
I’ve long had this sinking feeling that the Splinter Cell franchise just wasn’t for me. I like the political thriller elements of its storytelling, and I appreciate its challenge as a stealth-based series, but up until now I haven’t been championing one particular instalment over another. Mostly I think I can attribute it to the technical limitations of pre-2010s game design, since after that point things like the cover mechanic and precise aim became part of the mainstream.
So going into Splinter Cell: Blacklist was a particular challenge for me… and boy was it worth it. Not since ParaNorman have my expectations been thoroughly undone by pure goodness. It was challenging, deep, diverse, and definitely more fun than a lot of what I’ve played these days.
As per my generic formula, here’s the story: a terrorist group is targeting American assets – together referred to as “The Blacklist” – with their single demand being the return of all soldiers stationed overseas to the States. When the first Blacklist attack hits close to home, retired operative Sam Fisher is drawn back into action to serve as the head of the new Presidentially-authorized “Fourth Echelon” division. Essentially, this means access to all the spy equipment and weaponry that tech buffs will drool over, in exchange for hunting down the dastardly bad guys threatening America’s interests.
Despite the America-centric tone, I actually like the direction of the story for what it is: a statement about American interests becoming too influential on world events. This isn’t really the place to get into my political beliefs, but these days it does feel like the States’ military is worming its way into foreign conflicts far outside of its reach and values. It’s good to see a developer get topical, even better when it’s done right.
With that said, storytelling has always been more about characters and their interpretations of events and big ideas, at least for me. I’m not head-over-heels for the more reserved Grim or the naive company-man Briggs, but I enjoyed any scene involving returning character Andriy Kobin and the young technician Charlie Cole. Sam’s turn from aggressive rogue agent to tired mission-driven operative basically fits with his history if not his emotional state, and the antagonist of this whole damn thing is interesting in how sadistic yet engaging he is.
Where I’m scratching my head is in the conclusion, which is weak in both story and gameplay. The final mission actually raises a lot of questions about the extent to which the “Fifth Freedom” can be enacted, in a pair of powerful yet quick scenes. Trouble is, the climax that connects them is one tedious run-and-hide action scene that undermines the otherwise smooth cover system and movement controls, culminating in a huge cliffhanger that all but shouts “Sequel-Bait”.
As luck would have it, though, the rest of the experience is golden. You control Sam as he sneaks (or charges) through large non-linear environments packed to the brim with alternate passages, ventilation shaft, balcony ledges, and other means of level traversal. Blacklist is the definition of variety: I always felt like the game wanted me to have a good time, by giving me a million and one ways to play as I wished.
That “play-as-you-wish” philosophy extends to other aspects of gameplay. Following in the footsteps of its pre-Conviction bretheren, Blacklist allows the player to use lethal or non-lethal takedowns – a skilled and devoted gamer may choose the latter out of sporting goodness, while newcomers may want to test the waters with a less refined approach. No matter the choice, the game offers plenty of customization thanks to a pre-mission (and later mid-mission) loadout screen carrying all sorts of gadgets and equipment. We’re talking stat-boosting uniform parts for Sam, a tri-rotor RC machine, upgradeable firearms, explosives of lethal and non-lethal varieties, a stun gun, and a f**king crossbow that shoots sleeping gas.
In-game, this variety of tools is balanced by a very persistent and very well-organized AI system. Enemies are typically armed to the teeth and move in packs for safety; on their own, they stick to cover and move quickly. They’re aware of their surroundings but never to a degree that felt unjustified or cheap, particularly when dealing with the special-ops soldiers.
The game knows how to keep options and difficulty in check. The player is offered four difficulties off the bat, ranging from Easy to Medium to Realistic and the hardcore-enticing Perfectionist. Those looking to relive the glory days of Chaos Theory, and whom did not share my enjoyment of Conviction, may find solace in the fact that Perfectionist removes all indicators and leaves the player to their own wits and devices. For everyone else, though I have faith in the lower difficulties, I was perfectly satisfied with the challenge presented on Realistic difficulty.
Other touches made by Ubisoft help make the game all but seamless. The movement and interaction system from Conviction returns, making use of that game’s patented on-surfaces text and indicators in a less distracting manner. It’s now possible to better aim and interact with objects, as well as stealthy proceed without trouble, though I noticed an occasional hiccup from time to time with the cover.
The sheer range of content also deserves praise, though it’s aided by the overall quality. Each of the four supporting characters has their own set of Fourth Echelon side missions, one set of which is co-op only. Each set follows a general formula, so if one doesn’t suit you check in with another character. All of the mission are accessible from an interactive hub in the form of the division’s Paladin freight plane, a design decision which I completely support. If you want the player immersed, you go all out.
Add to that an excellent economy, and plenty of things to spend your cash on. See, at the end of a mission, your actions earn you varying amounts of money depending on your overall mission score. This score is influenced by three different types of actions: Ghost actions (stealth without killing), Panther actions (stealthy & efficient killing) and Assault actions (combat efficiency). Thus, any and all styles of gameplay reward the player with currency, which can then be spent on upgrades to Paladin’s various resources or on improving gadgets and weapons.
The little things also matter to this game. For one thing, Sam can have conversations aboard Paladin with his daughter, occurring to the tune of the underrated Conviction main theme. These really help cement the underlying tragedy of Sam Fisher as a character, as well as tying the game into the series’ rich history.
There’s also the welcome return of Spies vs. Mercenaries, the famed objective-based multiplayer mode from series’ past. I can’t speak for the mode myself, but the footage I’ve seen indicates good times to be had. As I gather, Spies can perform takedowns but have limited resources, Mercs have heavy firepower but play from the first person, and thus an asymmetrical balance between utility and pure force seems to exist.
From a presentation standpoint, the goal seems to have been “refine and expand” rather than “evolve”. The textures are rather standard and the character models border on uncanny valley, but I struggle to call anything strictly bad. It’s more about how the engine is used – from English ports to dusty mountainsides, there’s plenty of colour and well-lit environments on display.
I also appreciated the return of seasoned voice actor Elias Toufexis, who really should get a bigger paycheck for sticking with the franchise. The soundtrack’s not all that notable, and again it’s only the Conviction theme that really stands out.
But now we get to the big controversy – Michael Ironside being replaced by Eric Johnson in the role of Sam Fisher. First and foremost, I’m just going to say that I don’t particularly like Johnson’s portrayal; it lacks Ironside’s dry wit and sense of age befitting of a fifty-year old man. However, I understand the context for Ubisoft’s decision – given the story direction and the state Sam is in post-Conviction, a sort of jaded and younger-than-he-seems portrayal makes some sense.
Ultimately, in spite of the flaws Blacklist represents victory. For Ubisoft, it means a massive paycheck and more fans. For gamers, it means a truly worthwhile and deep stealth-action experience. For me, it’s the culmination of eleven years’ work for the sake of advancing the idea of fun, engaging game design. Thank you, Blacklist, thank you for everything.