Splinter Cell Blacklist is White Hot
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The high-tech black-ops cyber-ninja is back. Sort of.
With Third Echelon disbanded, its corrupt members dead or in jail, Sam Fisher dusts off his iconic tri-focal goggles for a sixth outing, this time as leader of a brand new, squeaky-clean Fourth Echelon. It isn't long before his unique talents are needed and this one will be a real test for his untried new team, who, aside from Sam and Anna Grimsdottir (Grim), have never worked together.
Releasing video footage of their bloody take-over, an organisation calling themselves 'The Engineers' have attacked and destroyed Andersen Airforce base in Guam. This atrocity, they warn, is only the start. Details of a so-called 'Blacklist' follow, a cryptic list of increasingly apocalyptic threats with one to be carried out every seven days until America calls its troops back from foreign soil.
Sam Fisher is already seeking vengeance from the Engineers. His best friend is in hospital, badly injured as a result of the Guam attack. With unresolved differences still sparking between himself and Grim, he and his team board the Paladin, Fourth Echelon's new airborne Headquarters. On orders from the President, they must stop the attacks and neutralize the Engineers. To find where the Engineers will strike next, though, Sam must do something he thought he'd never do: save Andriy Kobin's life.
This latest Ubisoft offering splices the best of Conviction with the best of Chaos Theory and turns Splinter Cell Blacklist into a lean, slick and compelling gaming experience. The stealth sacrificed in Conviction to make way for speed and pacing is now back, but the speed, pacing and full-on, flesh-shredding action of Conviction is still there. It's a welcome return to the more classic Splinter Cell, yet losing none of the gaming innovations introduced in Conviction. The high tech is back, too, now Sam has access to Fourth Echelon's latest stealth and assault technology. No more car mirrors for looking under doors, or monochromatic screens to show when he's hidden, the goggles are on and the karambit is looking for throats.
Blacklist takes Sam from Guam to the Middle East, the UK and finally back to the States, following the Engineers' trail while striving to get ahead to stop the next attack. In the process he must seek intel from contacts, terrorists and criminals alike. As the stakes grow higher, the extremes he must go to eliminate the threats closes doors and burns bridges between Fourth Echelon and other agencies, leaving them increasingly isolated.
On board the Paladin, tension between characters is high and apt to spill over into conflict. While some of the issues Sam has are understandable - with, for instance, Grim - some of his outbursts seem surprising and unconvincing. Perhaps the developers were unsure how to reconcile this new, revamped Sam Fisher with the avenging angel he was in Conviction. The lines he crossed in his last outing, operating outside the constraints of Third Echelon's mandate, seem to have smeared his lens. At times his commitment to the cause seems to verge on the fanatical, making him dangerous not only to his enemies, but his friends and colleagues, too. His aloof attitude and seeming mistrust of new boy, Briggs, is never fully explained, which is an odd play for a man who must rely on Briggs to cover him or haul him out of hot-zones at no small risk to himself.
Putting aside character and story development, the levels within the game are both challenging and fun. As we know to expect, each area is littered with obstacles, both human and not. Cameras, landmines, open space and laser grids all can expose Sam to the enemy and bring a ton of heat down on him. A new little demon in the shape of a cereal box also makes life difficult. Controlled by a remote operator the patrol drones not only render Sam's goggles useless, but if they notice him they'll alert the guards before hurtling towards him, primed to explode.
The guards themselves present varying degrees of trouble but are much easier to deal with if Sam stays covert. While content to wander the area if undisturbed, they will patrol more actively if they notice Sam's presence (so hide the bodies), and if they spot him or you fail to get a clean take-down, they'll open fire, drawing more guards to Sam's location.
An important difference in Blacklist from classic Splinter Cell games like Chaos Theory is the lack of alert conditions. The alerts still exist but they're not mission critical. In Blacklist, (within the main campaign, anyway) the game continues however hot things get, until Sam can shake off the guards, or he or they are dead. This means players can adapt their tactics as they progress through each area. It expands on the all-action style of Conviction, and gives Blacklist a new edge. Whether a player likes to stay covert or use full frontal assault, this game accommodates them, and anything in between, which makes it instantly accessible to old and new players alike, whatever their gaming preference.
There's a performance score at the end of each mission, showing kills, knockouts, time taken and so on. This is split into the three Splinter Cell categories: Ghost, Panther and Assault. You'll get to see how well you did in each of those categories, depending on how you handled the mission. For those seeking a perfect score, this is replay heaven.
The Ghost strategy will appeal most to the traditional Splinter Cell gamers. We're talking non-lethal combat and extreme stealth. Rather than hunt and eliminate, Sam will look for ventilation ducts, overhead pipes and shimmy ledges. He'll stay in the shadows, close doors and windows behind him, hide bodies and use sleep-gas or non-lethal take-downs. The 'ghost' will avoid rather than confront and aims to get through the entire area without a trace. He was never there.
The Panther embodies a more traditional Sam Fisher. Stealth is still a high priority, and staying undetected is the best approach, but he can use lethal force where necessary, and cause damage - e.g., shooting out lights to create shadows. He, also, was never there. But someone was.
The Assault tactic is simple. Use automatic weapons. Use Frags. Kill all the baddies. Of course, recklessness will generate a high number of KIAs for Sam, so a little discretion is always advisable. Stealth is not a high priority for this tactic, aside from staying alive till the next checkpoint. Enemy contact is frequent, and often lethal, but if you're good with your weapon and have your amour leveled up, Sam can kick some serious butt. In this mode, Sam Fisher was definitely there.
So, something for everyone. It's as tense or as thrilling as you want it to be and, with difficulty modes running from Rookie to Perfectionist, it's great for beginners and experts alike. Plus, as an added extra, there's even a treat for FPS fans whenever Briggs steps in on a mission.
Blacklist also retains the mark-and-execute system (which was so controversial in the previous game) and the last-known-pos silhouette, so useful for luring enemies. The M&E is only present in the easier difficulties, and you don't have to use it (though it's handy for keeping an eye on guards as they patrol the map).
Taking a Breather
Sticking to the solo campaign missions alone will see you through the game in fairly rapid order, but as you go you'll find the going progressively harder, unless you undertake the optional side-missions. These missions are often condition critical and can be tough to get through. Each key member of Sam's team has stuff they need done. This is not a bad thing, since each side-mission earns in-game cash which can be spent on valuable upgrades like weapons, amour, stealthware and other useful items. In fact, Blacklist offers the widest range of upgrades of any Splinter Cell game to date, including adding extra sparklies to the already glittering Paladin. So don't go straight to the next mission the second you finish the last one. Seek out Grim, Charlie, Briggs or Kobin and do them a favor. Kill baddies, get goodies. It's a win-win situation.
Sounds CoolThe whole point of Splinter Cell is sneaking, so until the villains bring the heat, the music in a level is subdued, even subliminal, with almost all the audio given over to background noise, equipment and radio traffic. You won't really notice the music unless the guards become suspicious. Then it lifts an octave and starts pulsing. The ambient sound on each level creates a convincing atmosphere and adds another dimension to make it feel like you're really there. Incidental sounds such as the whine and buzz of Sam's goggles, the 'pfft' and tinkle of his pistol knocking out a light, the whir of cameras, drone of laser grids all give a sense of realism and immediacy. It was subtly and convincingly done, although occasionally a guard would whisper in Sam's ear that he's going to find him when, in fact, that guard is way the hell over there. Perhaps this was to deliver information to the player, i.e., he's hunting you, but I would have preferred the consistency of a distance filter.
Let's face it, Splinter Cell is about gadgets and Ubisoft have outdone themselves this time, with the delivery of cool new hardware. I'm not talking about weapons, but the Paladin and its Shadownet Management Interface (SMI). This table-like construction is reminiscent of something found in a WWII situation room, but there the similarity ends. Shown in all its glory in the cut-scenes, amidst a multitude of lens-flares and slick gesture input, it acts as the focus for most briefings, and as a mission map during gameplay.
The settings in this game were awesome, and the maps challenging, from a storm-torn British Coast to an overrun Pakistani prison, they are varied and realistic. Goggle vision has improved on the early Splinter Cell games (why wouldn't it?) but I felt some of the upgrades were just for show, such as the colored sonar filter, which actually made it harder to figure out what was going on. The lens-flares got a little tiresome after a while, and at times were a challenge in themselves, especially when you're trying to look past them at the enemies beyond.
However, I felt the graphics were beautifully rendered overall, adding to the realism and aiding the player's immersion into the game.
I felt the absence of Sarah, Sam's lost and returned daughter, meant we didn't see enough of Fisher's sensitive side, though he does get to check in with his little girl via phone between missions.
By far the biggest criticism I had, and anticipate Ubisoft will receive from the wider Splinter Cell fan-base, is Sam himself. As I said right at the top, he's back. Sort of.
Somehow he's now a good couple of decades younger. More importantly, gone is the sarcastic growl of the Sam Fisher we've come to love. Ubisoft have given an explanation as to why Sam has changed in both appearance and voice. They now use performance capture rather than motion capture, so they can record the voice, action and face of Sam's new actor (Eric Johnson) in one performance. Apparently Michael Ironside didn't have the physicality for Sam Fisher. Maybe so, and it's a damned shame. Still, I don't know why Sam's appearance couldn't have been digitally aged to make it consistent with previous games, or why an actor with a much younger-sounding voice was chosen. Compare Joel's raddled fizzog and menacing snarl in The Last of Us to his voice actor, Troy Baker. Surely it's not Ubisoft being ageist?
Blacklist is a highly-playable, gritty, well-executed game which, if you're not addicted already, will feed a need for stealth you didn't know you had.
In terms of value, this is one massive replayground. Each mission can be accessed indefinitely once unlocked. Those who like to rise up the leaderboard, or who want to try a mission using each different stealth category will certainly get value for money. Then there's multiplayer. Undertake missions in splitscreen with a buddy, or go online and recruit someone. Or visit the Spies Vs Mercs online area, where there are plenty of takers if you want some quality killing time.
Overall, Splinter Cell Blacklist is a breath of fresh air in a decade-old franchise. Sam's appearance might have changed, but the stealth, the gadgets, the heinous villainy and crushing jeopardy are back.
All said and done, this is an awesome game. Immensely playable (read addictive), entertaining and challenging.
Martine Ashe is happy on either the PS3 or Xbox 360. She'll pick up anything with a good story and strong characters but has yet to find an FPS that doesn't make her barf.