REVIEW – Splinter Cell: Blacklist

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Sam Fisher has been through a lot in his existence, and the latest entry in the long running Splinter Cell franchise doesn’t go easy on the poor guy. That’s just in-game too: in the real world Ubisoft has released a number of pretty terrible Splinter Cell games that make you feel pretty sorry for Sam, let alone the recent voice change he’s undergone (we’ll talk about that later)! Is the latest entry in the Splinter Cell franchise – Blacklist – another one of these failures, or have Ubisoft managed to pull something out of the bag here?

Blacklist opens with Sam finding himself stuck in the middle of a new terrorist attack (he gets all the luck). The group behind it call themselves the Engineers and they provide a list of operations and attacks which they will carry out for as long as the US keeps its military in foreign countries. This forces the President to reinstate Sam to the 4th Echelon, this time tasked with stopping the Engineers before any more loss of life occurs. The plot is basically a device to drive the game, not really coming to the forefront until the last mission. This is a shame because the last mission really is actually pretty awesome, it’s just unfortunate that the rest of the game doesn’t engage you with its plot in the same way. Still, the plot shouldn’t be what you’ll want to play Blacklist for, the gameplay is!

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Blacklist is the successor to 2010’s Conviction, and it really shows, the game handles almost identical to Sam’s last outing but the system has definitely received some significant upgrades since then. Personally I was a huge fan of Conviction and the way it played so I’m more than happy to see the game system return in this title. One of the big gripes I had with Conviction though was the general lack of gadgets and true stealth, something that makes a return with Blacklist in a big way. Sam is back with the 4th Echelon this game which means he gets access to all his funky spy gadgets and suits again (as well as the iconic goggles from the franchise). This really opens up the options when compared to Conviction: in Blacklist you’re ranked in one of 3 tiers during your gameplay, Ghost, Panther and Assault. These tiers are used to measure your personal playstyle, and it lets you play anyway you wish. Whether it’s sneaking past all enemies without touching a soul, or running in with a shotgun and nailin’ fools left right and centre, Blacklist has you covered. And it’s not just the points system either… Sam has a huge number of weapons, gadget and Ops suits to choose from, with each one customisable to within an inch of their life. By the end of the game I was running with a full stealth suit equipped to the brim with long range thermal goggles, a silenced pistol, a shotgun (for when things got messy) and a crossbow equipped with EMP and stun darts. This is just a small selection of the equipment available in the game, with many more options available to you. This all added together really shows off Blacklist’s strong point: choice.

Blacklist is one of those rare games that let’s you play it exactly as you want to. Each mission has a seriously huge number of different routes and options available to you and the game rarely ever cuts off these options (and when it does it makes perfect sense plot wise, which is nice). This completely choice driven campaign is what makes Blacklist such a fun game to play, it’s just a shame that it’s all over far too quickly. The campaign itself only seemed to last a few hours. This isn’t a massive problem, however, if you consider the extra content in the game, because the side missions for me are what made Blacklist the experience it is. You have a different set for each person on your team and they all cover the main playstyles individually; Grim gives you ghost missions, Charlie Assault and Kobin Panther. These missions are absolutely fantastic at putting you through your paces purely because they force you to play a certain way. I know this sounds like the complete antithesis of what I just said about the games strong point (the choice to play as you please), but these side missions are probably my favourite part of the game. Yes the ghost missions remove the option to run and gun, but they don’t limit how you achieve your goal, there are still a large number of paths through each level and you can still take out enemies in a huge number of ways. The reason that these missions are so great though is the unforgiving nature of them. In the campaign if you’re sneaking around and someone notices you, it’s generally quite easy to massacre everyone in the local area and carry on. In the side missions you either just flat-out fail or heaps of heavily armoured troops get alerted to your position, it’s brutal…but oh so addictive!

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The best thing about these missions is that they can be played in co-op which just makes them even more enjoyable, if you have a friend who is competent at Stealth games (I used APB’s own Stu for this one) and you can hunt down the enemies with veteran efficiency and generally make them quake in their boots. If, however, your friend isn’t the best like my other teammate (naming no names, you know who you are!) the game generally turns into one very entertaining sprint seeing you try to play damage control for your teammate as he/she blunders through a stage. One thing that I really liked is that the game lets you do these missions in split-screen, rarely seen in games these days, and it’s a welcome feature. As great as the gameplay is in a number of regards, I don’t recommend playing any of the side missions until after you’ve finished the campaign. Doing anything in between story missions just makes the game feel really disjointed and non-sensical. I found it much better to play through all of the campaign missions to begin with and then move to the side missions.

While the game is great as far as playability, it does generally fall down in some areas: first and most important being Sam Fisher’s new voice actor. I spent the first hour of the game trying to work out if he was an acceptable replacement or not, then I got bored with just how monotonous he actually was. The guy doesn’t have any sort of variation in tone throughout the WHOLE game, instead choosing to deliver his lines in a “I’m-the-hardest-man-in-the-world-and-such-a-badass” kind of gravel. This would totally work if at any point the tone varied even just slightly… hell even Marcus Fenix from the Gears of War games has more variation in tone than this guy (yes, that bad)! I don’t think it would be so bad if the rest of the cast wasn’t so good (ignoring the occasional TERRIBLE line from the odd standard enemy before you put a bullet in their head), the main antagonist shines especially: delivering lines in a way only the most suave Bond villain could, he’s fantastically believable. The soundtrack to the game is your standard US army game affair, a.k.a. generally forgettable and the visuals are nothing to shout about. I chose to install a HD texture pack at the start which took a good 20 minutes to install, but it didn’t seem to do anything! The game looks average, there are a couple of stand-out locations that actually look quite pretty but that’s about it. What does make a welcome return from Conviction is the way in game mission information is given to you. Mission objectives and intel are projected against walls in the game, a really cool way of telling you where to go next. They feel underused when compared to Blacklist’s predecessor, but they still prove much better than traditional mission pop-ups in the middle of the screen.

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Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a good game, it loses some of Conviction’s magic but manages to improve upon the core gameplay massively. Give me a Splinter Cell with a coherent, plot based campaign that is uninterrupted like Conviction’s with the huge amount of choice and options presented in this game. Throw in the co-op and side missions from Blacklist and we’ll have a fantastic game. You were close this time Ubisoft, very close, but not quite there.

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