Review: Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist is the sixth entry in the franchise and a direct sequel to 2010's Conviction. Does it return the series to glory, or take it further away from its roots?
- Worth The Time?Yes, this is a great return to form for the franchise.
- Things LovedThe stealth gameplay is really great, the three styled approach is very well thought out and works excellently in the game, there is plenty of variety and the customisability is fantastic, the story actually gets quite interesting, co-op and split screen is wonderfully pulled off and feels organic and well implemented rather than gimmicky, the multiplayer is a blast.
- Things HatedThe graphics often feel a bit outdated, there are some minor inconsistencies in the game mechanics, there's a bit of slowdown, some side missions could have used a bit of refining, the team balancing in multiplayer is a bit weird.
- RecommendationTo Splinter Cell fans and those who love action stealth blends, Blacklist is a fine choice of a game. With a lengthy single player, co-op that isn't forced but can be played either online or split screen, and an awesome multiplayer component, you really can't go wrong spending your money on this one.
- Name: Splinter Cell: Blacklist
- Genre: Stealth Action
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: Split Screen (2 players), Online (8 players)
- Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U
- Developer: Ubisoft Toronto, Ubisoft Shanghai (Wii U)
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Price: R350 (PC), R540 (PS3, 360, Wii U)
- Reviewed On: PS3
I’ve got to be honest here. I wasn’t expecting much from Splinter Cell: Blacklist ever since that action packed E3 demo showcased. I actually dropped the game off my radar after that. Now you might be thinking why on earth I would react that way to one trailer, but the truth is that I didn’t enjoy the previous title, Conviction, all that much. It was far too action packed for my liking with unsatisfying stealth gameplay, and after the dreadful E3 showing it seemed like this would be more of that. And truth be told, when I sat down to play this, the prologue mission did little to change my mind, as it really was the worst part of the game for me and got me prepared for disappointment, as it featured too much action, was too loud and the tutorials were typical Ubisoft. I swear to God, one hint told me that if I stayed out of sight, the enemies would have less chance of seeing me. Like what the actual fuck Ubisoft? But I digress. I could go on a long tangent, but the easiest way to say what’s on my mind is that there are few things more rewarding than being genuinely and pleasantly surprised that something isn’t as bad as you thought it would be. It’s actually pretty great. And that’s Blacklist in a nutshell for me. It’s great.
I’ll get to the why soon enough. For starters, Blacklist is the sixth installment in the Splinter Cell franchise and a direct sequel to Conviction. The game starts off with Sam Fisher and his buddy Victor Coste departing from Andersen AFB in Guam, only for the base to be attacked and entirely destroyed by an unknown enemy. Sam and Vic barely escape when helped out by hacker specialist Charlie Cole. Before the trio can attempt to figure out who was behind the attack, a group of terrorists calling themselves “The Engineers” publicly take responsibility and announce that it will be the first of many calculated strikes called “The Blacklist” that are intended to cripple the United States. Their one demand is for the US government to call back all its troops stationed abroad. This leads the US president, who previously shut down the corrupt Third Echelon, to assign Sam, Charlie, Isaac Briggs and a woman named Grim to a new counter-terrorism group called Fourth Echelon, with their mission being to take down The Engineers and stop The Blacklist before the countdown to the attacks hits zero.
Blacklist has a cool story concept, but I think most of us can say we’re pretty tired of the whole middle eastern setting. Unless of course you like killing those pesky terrorists. Nevertheless, what I thought would end up being the usual American heroes versus the monstrous, demonic animals that are the middle eastern people, actually turned out to be an interesting and exciting story later on. To me it felt like there was next to none of the usual dramatisation of how evil the savage Arab people are, and the villain was a decent enough character who made for some interesting moments. Blacklist is a story I enjoyed following, because it does a good job of focusing on the spy stuff, which is what you’re here for. Overall Blacklist is well put together, coherent and intriguing. I guess it would be a good time to comment on Sam Fisher’s change of voice actor, as series veteran Michael Ironside doesn’t reprise his role here, but rather new actor Eric Johnson. I felt he did a good enough job, as his voice has a low, commanding tone to it and he can be menacing at the right times, but fans are unlikely to take to him and I as well did feel that he can be quite flat and monotone in delivering many of his lines. Ironside was iconic and distinct, and Johnson does need to do a put more to give his role more flare.
After that dreadful prologue mission, the game quickly gets into its stride. This is not another Conviction, but rather a merger of the good ideas of those action elements and the awesome stealth that you actually come to this game for. However, Blacklist has evolved the gameplay in a way that feels natural, and the core way that it’s done this is through its three-styled approach to missions. Essentially, the gameplay works around Ghost, Panther and Combat actions. Which one you go for is up to you, but in a nutshell Ghost means non-lethal, unseen and pure stealth, Panther is basically playing like a predator with lethal stealth, and Combat is gung ho shooting. Sounds pretty conventional, right? Except, here’s the part where Blacklist betters a lot of its competition. Most other games simply offer stealth or run and gun and tell you the choice is yours, but in Blacklist these three styles are the core of the gameplay, which all ties into the rather fantastic customisation system.
In any mission, you are free to play as you wish. Any action you do rewards you with points. But Blacklist has balanced the process in the sense that Ghost actions rewards you with the highest points, and Combat with the least. This means that pure stealth is more rewarding, but of course more challenging. So in essence you are not restricted to choosing one style and sticking with it. You can mix all three, adapt when necessary, or go straight for one if that’s your thing. This makes the gameplay very natural and organic, and is what I consider to be stealth action done right. You’ll be rewarded for all three separately at the end of the mission, which adds up and provides you with funding to purchase gadgets, equipment, suits, weapons and upgrades. This is where the customisation system shines. Rather than let you eventually become the best at everything, Blacklist works with trade offs. With the stealth suits, you’ll have little armour and die quickly when under fire, but make minimal noise and have more gadget slots, whereas buying armour will keep you alive in the field and give you more ammo, but decrease your stealth and sneaking ability. Of course you can mix it too, maybe armouring your torso but having stealth boots and pants. It’s up to you.
To paint a picture, I played a mixture of all three, with Panther as my main approach to all missions. That means I went into missions kitted out with silenced guns and plenty of gadgets, namely sleeping gas, smoke grenades, sticky cameras and exlosives for high alert situations. I liked to be prepared for things going south, but my main way of playing was with gadgets, deception and striking from the shadows. The stealth gameplay is really great, and the three styled approach is very well thought out and works excellently in the game, giving you plenty of options and variety. It’s always one thing to tell players they can go in guns blazing or stealthy, but it’s another in Blacklist’s case when you build the game around that, reward players for all their ways of playing and provide more than enough tools for them to do things their own way. It’s not a case of either or, but a real case of tailoring your own style. One thing I really liked a lot about Blacklist as well was that it got better the more I played and the more gear I unlocked. The pacing is good, with you getting just enough funding to noticeably change up your game frequently, and if you need more you can always do the rewarding side missions.
At the heart of every good stealth game though is good level design, and Blacklist nails this aspect. Environments are open and expansive with numerous ways of navigating them. Elements such as the enhanced climbing system enables you to attack from above or sneak past or get out of sight when spotted. The game caters nicely to all three playstyles in its levels, which is good to see. Unfortunately though there are a few minior inconsistencies in the game mechanics that blur the line between bug and fault. For example, you get points for hiding bodies in designated spots like crates, but it doesn’t count as hiding a body if you throw it into the sea or tall grass for instance. Another example is in a mission where you’re not supposed to be seen, I was busy shooting an enemy, who was completely alone as I killed all his friends, but he spotted me while getting shot and thus the mission failed. These aren’t major issues, but they are noticable. Overall, most levels allowed me the freedom to approach them diversely and this is especially evident with the game’s side missions.
I enjoyed Blacklist’s approach to its secondary missions. Accessible at any point from the main hub, these missions come from your comrades and are objective based, giving you tasks such as wiping out all enemies in an area or getting to three objectives without being seen. The good news is that you’re able to play these either solo or co-op, and the better news is that co-op is absolutely not forced on you at all as you can complete them perfectly fine on your own, bar the one set of co-op only missions. The even better news is that split screen is offered, and for the first time in years it has actually been done extremely well. The only issue is that it lags a bit at some points, but otherwise it’s damn fun. Most games just throw in co-op and hope it makes things better, but in Blacklist it’s organic and excellent. I played a number of missions with my brother split screen, and even he who doesn’t play games often unless I recommend them as top quality had a great time with the tactical side of the game.
It’s really exciting to plan your every move and see it all come together in perfect moments of execution. Of course the customisability is there too, so you can mix the three styles between you and a friend. You also get access to co-op unique features like duel execute, where you can both take down an enemy simultaneously. While this sounds gimmicky, it becomes an invaluable resource when faced with heavily armoured foes, as one shot can remove their helmets and the other takes them down, making a double takedown an awesome tool. You also can get access to co-op specific areas for better vantage points, but again these are not necessary as you can do the job just fine solo. And that’s how it should be. Co-op is not something that should be tacked on or forced, but built as a natural part of the game. One of my favourite moments in co-op was a highly intense section in which I controlled a UAV, gunning down enemies from the sky while my brother was on foot trying to get to the objective, and I had to keep him alive. He marked targets on the ground for me to see and eliminate, while I also cleared the way up ahead. It was a fantastic example of genuine co-op that added positively to the experience.
The drawback of the side missions is that because each of your comrade’s missions remain the same, things can get repetitive quickly if you’re tackling them solo. What I mean is that, for example, the teammate whose missions task you with neutralising all enemies will always offer those missions just in different locations and with increasing difficulty. With co-op it will always be fun, but the novelty can wear off single player. However, the upside is that these side missions earn good cash and unlock gear, so they’re worth your time even if you don’t have access to co-op. They can also be quite challenging and unforgiving, potentially taking you in excess of half an hour to complete if you make mistakes and need to redo them. While this can occasionally lead to frustration as the harder side missions can drown time with cheap failures, it definitely does add more value to the game overall, they’re very rewarding and, as already established, with co-op these missions are a real treat to play.
Blacklist is definitely the complete package, offering a lengthy single player campaign and co-op, but on top of that there’s also the classic online multiplayer component Spies Vs Mercs. The online delivers a variety of modes, of which you unlock the majority once you obtain rank five, and this just takes a few matches to achieve. There’s firstly Training, where you get to play with other beginners. Then there’s Spies Vs Mercs, the core mode in which spies need to hack three terminals while Mercs have to defend them. Spies Vs Merc Classic is 2v2 and gives you preset loadouts, while Blacklist is 4v4 and allows for customisability. Then you get Extraction, where spies defend intelligence and mercs need to extract it, Uplink Control, which is like capture the flag, and Team Deathmatch. I’m certain most of your time will be spent playing the Spies Vs Mercs mode, as it’s by far the most awesome of the lot, but the others are very enjoyable as well and offer good alternatives if you want some variety, and of course you can always fall back on Team Deathmatch if you just want to kill other humans and be done with it.
The multiplayer is quite unique in the sense that spies and mercs have completely different playstyles, and not just with their gear as would be the case in other games. Spies operate much like you traditionally play Splinter Cell, with stealth, gadgets, deception and silent takedowns making up their main arsenal. Mercs on the other hand actually play from a first person perspective, and focus on armour, heavy weaponry, explosives such as mines and counter measure gadgets to combat the spies. This presents an exciting and awesome dynamic as you firstly get a completely different gameplay experience between the two factions, and secondly both sides have many advantages and disadvantages against each other, meaning you need to play to your strengths and work as a team. It feels quite balanced overall, and I never got the impression that I was outmatched or without a chance of winning in my entire time playing, despite being up against players dozens of ranks above me, which really does wonders to make a multiplayer experience more fun and fair for newcomers.
The multiplayer is a real blast, and extremely addictive. Customisability of course plays a big part, and while you start out with preset loadouts, you can buy your own slots and build your own character. In addition to weapons and tools both factions also get special abilities that stem from their selected suits. For example, the spies can buy a suit that can render them invisible, while one of the merc suits gives an adrenaline rush power. There’s really so much here that makes each match feel very different, and highly intense. It’s hard to put the exhilaration of being a spy into words, as for instance you could watching every second tick by as you near completion of your objective while mercs are closing in and their flashlights are searching the walls for you, and it’s also very hectic to be in the dark as a merc only for a spy to descend from the sky and take you or your buddy out, leaving you with seconds to react.
Honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact that I had to review this game I’d probably still be playing the multiplayer instead of typing this all out. It’s plenty of fun, and I’m drooling at the thought of how good it would be if you were playing with a party of friends on voice chat rather than strange internationals. The one small issue I had with the matchmaking though is that sometimes it didn’t seem to balance teams that well, as for example when I just started out and was level three, I got paired with a rank twelve while the opposition had a rank fifty one and nineteen. Fortunately though, what’s great about Spies Vs Mercs is that better equipment doesn’t necessarily mean instant win, as with skillful play you can really turn things in your favour quite nicely, and my low rank did nothing to stop me taking out the enemy from the shadows. You just need to make sure you have a good teammate as well of course. All said, I’m very happy with the multiplayer, and it’s been a long time since I’ve played one that I could invest in.
Graphically, Blacklist is a bit of letdown, as it often feels quite outdated. There are some moments where it looks quite good, and many others where it just looks bland and muddy, and lacks detail or visual depth. I was told that the PC version looks considerably better as it uses Direct X 11 though, but I can’t confirm that from first hand experience. While Blacklist mostly performs well from a technical perspective, it does sadly suffer from slowdown occasionally, noticeably during some moments in split screen play, and the loading times can just start to feel a bit on the long side here and there, but it should come as a relief that neither of these are too serious or enough to reduce your enjoyment of the game. I will compliment how quickly you can get games online though, as joining games is a breeze and I experienced minimal delay, although I do have a 4mb line so I can’t comment in general.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist has its imperfections, but when it boils down to it, the core gameplay is great and highly entertaining, and that’s what matters most. It also helps that the multiplayer is an absolute blast, and definitely worth investing in. As I said, I went into this game expecting little, and I’m pleased to say that Blacklist genuinely surprised me in all the right ways. For series fans and gamers who love action stealth blends, Blacklist is a damn fine choice, evolving the series and hitting all the right notes.