The latest instalment of the Splinter Cell series is developed by the newly-ish created Ubisoft Toronto. The studio has not produced any other games, but is headed up by Jade Raymond (Assassins Creed) and has been given the job of working on Blacklist as well as the in-development Rainbow Six: Patriots.
The game follows on some time after the end of the Conviction story with some returning characters (I’ll not spoil which ones), but sadly no Michael Ironside. This is a big thing for Splinter Cell fans and something that needed mentioning straight away. There’s been no clear answer on why Ironside isn’t voicing Sam Fisher this time, ranging from his anti-violence stance to the fact they wanted someone to motion capture Fisher as well as voice him, and it’s really noticeable if you’ve played the other games. The new voice actor (Eric Johnson) does a decent job but a quick IMDB search says he’s 34 years old, making him a little under half the characters age, which you can hear in a voice that’s just not gruff, mean and experienced enough.
Thankfully, the game doesn’t hinge on the ability of the main voice actor sounding like a grizzled soldier with the knowledge and equipment to kill mercilessly on a whim. Blacklist combines elements of gameplay from Conviction and Double Agent to make a set of well-balanced mechanics that give the player multiple options on how to proceed through levels. The reduction of HUD elements seen in Conviction is still present, so you use the visual clues from the character to work out how well hidden they are, and mark and execute also returns to make it easy to clear rooms of bad guys from the shadows. Ubisoft Toronto has also brought back the ability to pick up and hide bodies, and re-introduced non-lethal takedowns for truly covert action. Additionally, there’s the “Killing in Motion” function that basically expands on the mark and execute so that you can still look bad-ass if things go wrong, or you can take an aggressive approach to a situation when you have to move quickly through a number of targets. Doing this at the right point also means you can refill the mark and execute gauge immediately and continue the kill streak, quite handy in the heavier occupied sections of the game.
Also thankfully, the game doesn’t hinge on the ability of the player to be invested in the plot. We were discussing this over at Codec Moments Towers, and considering we were half way through the game at the time, we couldn’t say what was going on or what it was about. Then we realised that we couldn’t remember the plot for any of the other Splinter Cell games. It’s not that it’s a bad story (something to do with terrorists, that guy who was in a couple of series of 24 – Chloe’s husband, America good, rest of the world bad, etc.), it’s just that when you get into the levels the plot is irrelevant and the gameplay takes over. It’s all about being Sam Fisher, sneaking your way through a village, neutralising guard patrols, using high-tech gadgets, and not being spotted. The story is there to give context to the scenario and if there was no story there would be more complaints, but as it is, you really don’t care what’s happening. It’s all about getting in there and finding the most efficient solution to reaching your objective. We did get into a wider debate on the merits of game story and if it’s important, and how some of the recent interesting and critically acclaimed games have had no visible story (Limbo and Hotline Miami are examples). There’s a good piece over on Eurogamer at the moment on a similar subject, check out this link if you’ve got some time.
What you do find with the gameplay is that until you’ve earned some money and invested in better equipment, you are limited in what you can do and it’s sometimes a matter of how quickly you can find a way to be killed. It doesn’t take long to earn money though, there’s a generous helping for each mission, there’s extra for completing side missions, there are challenges given to you based on your performance and your friends which all come with bonus cash, and there’s a pretty good meta game that has you deciphering clues to find locations on the world map that leads to a score multiplier bonus. All of these are accessed from the hub system you encounter between main story missions, which is reminiscent of the non-Animus sections of Assassins Creed combined with walking around the Normandy from Mass Effect. Upgrading your kit is fairly easy, comprehensive and you can focus on clothing, gadgets or weaponry to tailor them to your style of play. Each mission is scored based on how you approach it: Ghost is for non-lethal methods and not being spotted; Panther is for stress relief, i.e., lethal methods without being spotted; and Assault is exactly that – all out, guns blazing, going down in a hail of bullets. The side missions in particular promote all three styles and you’ve got four options with these:
- Infiltration – get to an objective (which always comes in three’s, handy that!) without being spotted and raising an alarm. Instant mission over if you’re detected so it promotes Ghost style.
- Elimination – take out everyone, I MEAN EVERYONE! Panther is usually best for this because getting spotted brings in heavily armed reinforcements.
- Survival – you’ve got to make it through several waves of enemies. Each mission has 20 waves but you only need to complete 5 for the mission to be a success, after that it’s all bonus cash. You’ve probably guessed already, assault is the way to go here.
- Co-op – a blend of all three types and can only be done with two players. These have a very vague story to them that comes to the fore in the last mission, and kind of hints at some DLC heading our way.
Each of the side missions can be done in co-op, with specific routes available for those who tackle them this way. We did most of them as a two player team and had a lot of fun, as well as using the old “1, 2, 3, now” dialogue for timing our shots. The co-op is a bit glitchy at times but doesn’t ruin the experience because it only affects minor things like having to access a resupply menu instead of just restocking what you’ve already got in your loadout. We did have two points that caused a problem. One was where I’d died but the mission didn’t revert to the checkpoint as it should, instead Andy was running round aimlessly trying to trigger the next section. And the other was where Andy had his weapon selection replaced by the game and this stopped him from being able to complete one of the sections easily. We got through but only with a fair amount of swearing and toys-out-of-pram throwing.
So, the game is fun, but there are a number of flaws that can’t be overlooked. There’s quite a lot of screen tear, and whilst it doesn’t affect you it distracts from an otherwise good-looking game. The last part of the last mission is a clichéd QTE that you’ve not come across in any of the other missions, is a pain with its timings, and failing means starting the whole last section again. The tie in Shadownet website and Spiderbot app don’t work properly (anyone who’s tried to join the Codec Moments cell can testify to that!). And, there’s a blatant setup for DLC. I appreciate it’s a strategy of a lot of games now to plan how the DLC will fit in after release, but with Blacklist there’s a spot in the menus to tell you that you’ve not completed the DLC, weapons are listed as DLC when you go to the upgrade menu, and your side mission progress is never 100% because two of them are exclusive pre-order or special edition DLC bonuses. This makes me think that unannounced DLC is ready to go now and that they’re just waiting to release it. As long as it isn’t a 100 KB unlock file to access content already on the disc…
However, there’s replay value galore in here. The auto-challenges prompt you to go at missions again to beat your best, and your friends best, scores and times; there are collectibles to be found in nearly every mission; the co-op missions have player induced variability combined with the fact the AI is never in exactly the same place at the start; and the Spies vs Mercs multiplayer is there for everyone to get in to. I’ve played a bit of it and liked the fact you have to start in a beginners lobby so you’re not up against experts immediately, and that you can improve your equipment using the cash from the single player portion instead of grinding away online in uneven and unfair matches until you can unlock a small bonus. Spies vs Mercs is a bit different to most multiplayer games and really does need teamwork to get the most out of it, and the contrast of the spies being weak but agile against the mercs who are tough but have to work in 1st person makes for some tense moments.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a great game despite some of the things mentioned here. It does exactly what you want a Splinter Cell game to do, and it is definitely worth a go if you’re a fan of the series or this genre. Would I recommend it if you weren’t? Probably not. This type of game can be hugely frustrating if you only want a quick fix of action. It says a lot when the par times for some of the missions are over an hour, with the last being 75 mins (I did it in nearly 90 mins), so there’s a significant time investment needed. There might be action in there, but there’s a lot of patience and planning needed too, and that’s definitely an area it gets right.