When the first gameplay of Splinter Cell: Blacklist was unveiled at E3 2012, I, along with many other longtime fans of the series, were left thinking, “Here we go again.” After a somewhat clandestine infiltration of a terrorist camp, Sam Fisher proceeded to lay waste to his enemies in the most Rambo-esque of fashions. Series fans were already weary after 2010’s Conviction took a surprising – and somewhat unwelcome – turn towards a more action-focused gameplay style. The initial footage of Blacklist only served to intensify fans’ concerns that the series had lost its way and forgotten its stealthy roots.
Ubisoft reassured fans that the trigger-happy Sam Fisher seen in that video (below) depicted only one option for completing that particular mission and went on to release footage of a stealthy playthrough of the same level. So does that mean that Sam Fisher is really back to his old ways, at least if that is the style of play chosen by the player? Can Blacklist really deliver on the promise to offer up a real choice between guns-blazing action and pure stealth without leaving one or both lacking?
Splinter Cell: Blacklist finds Sam Fisher heading up the Fourth Echelon unit, a secretive team of ops specialists, as they seek out an anti-American terrorist organization known as the Engineers. The titular Blacklist is a series of targets, each with a seven day countdown that ticks away towards another attack. The basic narrative here allows for this Splinter Cell to set itself in contrast to its predecessor. While Conviction presented a very personal motivation for Sam as he searched for his daughter, Blacklist is all business.
With the nation’s welfare in his hands, Sam is provided with a crack team of investigators. Operations specialist Anna Grimsdottir returns to the series, teaming up with tech specialist Charlie Cole and CIA operative Isaac Briggs to round out the Fourth Echelon roster. This assemblage of talent is headquartered aboard the C-147 Paladin, a cargo plane converted to serve the hi-tech mobile needs of the team. The setup provides for some of the most evident updates to the Splinter Cell gameplay formula. After each campaign mission, Sam can talk with the members of his team, offering a deeper insight into the story. This is a welcome opportunity, as uncovering the details of the narrative is surprisingly satisfying. Beyond the standard “America’s in trouble” storyline, the heroes and villains are believable, their motivations are convincing, and the clues to each attack are actually worth investigating.
Additionally, these side missions are a source of additional funds with which to better equip Sam. Meeting certain performance standards in the side missions or campaign is rewarded with money that can be spent in a variety of fashions. New weapons, gadgets, and suits can be purchased and upgraded. The level of depth here is impressive and quite surprising. Players can browse weapon parts, including scopes, stocks, and under-barrel attachments. Sam’s suit can be upgraded by purchasing new components such as goggles, vests, and boots. Even his trademark gadget can be upgraded to be more effective. The Paladin can also be modified in order to provide additional upgrade opportunities in the workshop. My personal favorite enhancement to Sam’s aircraft was the enlarged prisoner holding cells that, in turn, allowed for more information to be gathered from interrogations.
This economy system plays into another of Blacklist’s unique features. Throughout the game, a player’s performance is tracked based on three playstyles: ghost, panther, and assault. Meeting the objectives with non-lethal methods and without ever being detected is considered the “ghost” style, while doing so with lethal force is the “panther” style. “Assault”, as the name would indicate, involves “going loud” and implementing a much more aggressive strategy that shuns stealth tactics. Consistently performing in accordance with one of these playstyles rewards players with bonus cash.
As aforementioned, players can use cash between missions to upgrade their equipment. This system provides more than just better gear, but more importantly, the opportunity to customize loadouts to fit specific playstyles. Players looking to execute a “ghost” playthrough can choose silenced weapons, distraction gadgets, and don a suit that allows for more stealthy movements. For those aiming for a guns-blazing approach, assault rifles with extended mags, air strikes, and Kevlar body armor are available. This is what really sets Blacklist apart from its predecessor, as well as other Splinter Cell games. While Conviction often forced players into direct combat, players have a real choice throughout the entirety of Blacklist. Many games promise a feigned choice between stealthy and aggressive playstyles, but few actually deliver. With the inclusion of customizable loadouts, Blacklist offers a real choice in playstyles.
As a longtime fan of the series, my initial plan was to put the developer’s claims of the return of old-school Splinter Cell stealth by executing a “ghost” playthrough. My pride forced me to crank the difficulty level up to Professional – the hardest one. It wasn’t long before I admitted that not only had the developers brought back the stealth focus found in Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, but that they were determined to make players really work to accomplish a full “ghost” playthrough. Any true Splinter Cell fan will appreciate the fact that Blacklist somewhat unofficially dubs a true stealth playthrough as the best, most challenging option.
My “assault” playthrough, while not the Splinter Cell experience I was looking for, was still an enjoyable one. The controls work just as well when cover shooting as they do when skulking through the shadows. Splinter Cell purists will scoff at the inclusion of the “Mark and Execute” and “Last Known Position” mechanics, but they do work well in the context of a run-and-gun playthrough. Finding a happy medium with the “panther” playstyle was equally as enjoyable, as killing from the shadows and hiding bodies in laundry hampers never gets old.
These contrasting playstyles can all exist as viable options because the missions have been built to allow for a balance of pros and cons for each. While the game is by no means an open world affair, there are a surprising amount of different routes to take through each level, along with hidden paths for keen eyed explorers to discover. Players looking to stick to one particular playstyle can take the time to investigate each level and choose whichever route suits them best. This is almost a necessity when attempting a “ghost” playthrough on harder difficulties. Avoiding the sightlines of human enemies is challenging enough, but with the inclusion of dogs and their annoyingly acute sense of smell, finding the optimal route will spare players the frustrations of repeatedly reloading checkpoints. Damn mutts…
Exploring the environments of Blacklist is a rewarding endeavor, not simply for finding alternate paths, but also for taking in the well-crafted level design. From modern day office buildings to Middle East terrorist camps, each level is full of details that help to bring each mission to life. That being said, the graphics themselves are surprisingly mediocre. This is especially apparent when looking at the character models. Sam has clearly been given a higher level of polish than anyone else in the game. I suppose that is one of the perks of being the series’ protagonist. However, during the cut scenes, it’s somewhat distracting to see the stark contrast between his grizzled visage and the other members of Fourth Echelon.
On the topic of Sam’s “experienced” persona, I have to take issue with the new voice of Mr. Fisher, Eric Johnson. He does a perfectly serviceable job, but does not exude the same gravel and gruff we heard from previous voice actor Michael Ironside. Johnson simply sounds far too young – easily 10 to 15 younger than the middle-aged spy he is voicing. This becomes all the more apparent as the rest of the characters seem almost perfectly cast. I was particularly impressed by the other member of Fourth Echelon. Each did a fantastic job of conveying the severity and gravity of their situation, especially during some of the more tense moments of the game.
The rest of the sound design helps to really bring the missions to life for the players. Gunfire is satisfyingly sharp and explosions with rock your surround sound with a bassy thud. Don’t worry Splinter Cell fans – the sound of Sam breaking a baddies neck occurs with a pleasant snap. The soundtrack to the game does a great job of reinforcing each situation, ramping up the tempo during some of the more hectic moments.
So, is Splinter Cell: Blacklist the triumphant return of the stealthy Sam Fisher we remember from years past? No. To say so would be doing a disservice to the developers and the work that has been done here. After playing Blacklist, it’s clear that the developers at Ubisoft Toronto have taken lessons from not only past Splinter Cell titles, but the successes of other games in the Ubisoft family. There is an undeniable Assassin’s Creed influence that can be seen in the verticality of the level designs. The customizability of Sam’s arsenal harkens back to Ghost Recon’s Gunsmith Mode. I can even recall some Rainbow Six Vegas flashbacks during mid-street shootouts on my “assault” playthrough. These elements, coupled with an intentional effort to allow stealth gameplay to exist alongside more aggressive styles, are evidence that the developers learned from past missteps and triumphs alike.
As a result of these influences over the game’s design, they have delivered the largest Splinter Cell game ever. Blacklist encourages multiple playthroughs as players attempt to master each of the three gameplay styles. Tackling all of the side missions, finding all of the collectibles, and unlocking all of the equipment will give players hours and hours of extra gameplay beyond their initial playthrough.
However, bigger is not always better. The real question is whether or not Blacklist is a better game because of these developmental inspirations. Yes. As someone who has played every Splinter Cell game since the inception of the series back in 2002, I was simply hoping for a return to Sam’s good ol’ days. Ubisoft has delivered far more than I was looking for. Blacklist is a rare title that can be enjoyed by old and new fans alike. Though it is not the return to the early days of the series that many fans wanted, it is, simply put, better. I’m not saying that it is a better game than Pandora Tomorrow or Chaos Theory, but rather that it is better than a rehashing of those games would have been. For those willing to allow the series some room to evolve, Blacklist is a great experience that pays proper tribute to the roots of the Splinter Cell franchise.
(Review copy provided by Ubisoft for review, thank you!)
(Reviewed on XBox 360)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 8/10
Gameplay/Design – 9/10
Visuals – 7.5/10
Sound – 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal – 9/10
Overall – 8.5/10
(Not an average)
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto (Ubisoft Shanghai – WiiU)