Review: Splinter Cell Blacklist is the most personal Splinter Cell yet
Splinter Cell Blacklist is the most open-ended stealth game I've ever played. There, I said it.
I've played the other Splinter Cell games, mostly because I'm a big fan of Tom Clancy, but also because they were remarkable and unforgiving. Now, I'm not great at stealth games, but I enjoy the challenge of them. Splinter Cell Blacklist lets the player decide how to play, though. If you want to be as stealthy as you can, while it's really hard, you can. And the game rewards you for it. If you want to go all-out, guns blazing, you can do that too. If you want to perform some stealthy kills and takedowns, merging stealth and action, that's also an option. The player makes the game what they want it to be.
The game opens with a terrorist attack by a group called the Engineers. After an attack by them on an Airforce base in Guam that leaves Sam's friend Vic injured, they announce a countdown leading to a series of attacks on United States assets called “The Blacklist.” If the U.S. Doesn't remove American troops stationed abroad, these attacks will commence. In response, President of the United States Patricia Caldwell – I know, a female President... HAH! – puts Sam Fisher in charge of the newly created Fourth Echelon counter-terrorism unit and tasks them with hunting down The Engineers before the countdown reaches zero.
Let's get all the little things out of the way before we get to the gameplay. The story is pretty damn good and features an excellent villain. It has its twists, turns and surprises – everything that you can ask for. The story also does a nice job of weaving multiplayer co-op missions into it. New characters like Isaac Briggs are a welcome addition as well. The story also drives the point that information is the deadliest weapon of all, which is a very current-events notion. This is a more current Splinter Cell story, and it feels refreshing. The ending, after a thrilling last level, was a bit disappointing, though.
The voice acting is superb, but it's a little strange to hear Sam Fisher have a new voice. Gone from the previous games is Michael Ironside, who I wholly associate with Sam Fisher. Replacing him is Eric Johnson, who does a nice job, but it feels like a different Sam Fisher because of it. This Sam Fisher slips into moments of Jack Bauer or Christian Bale's Batman at times. Even though this takes place after events of Conviction, it feels like a rebooted Sam Fisher. While he can be equally stealthy, he not opposed to using firefights to get the job done. So maybe a change in voice actor is good for the direction of the series.
Visually, the game looks good – as long as you install the texture pack. I played on the Xbox 360, and I can now see that this console generation is pushed to the limit. The game, while really nice-looking overall, complete with amazing lighting, is just being held back from its potential.
At its core, stealth drives Splinter Cell Blacklist. I started out trying to play as stealthy as I could, not killing anyone and only subduing enemies. The controls feel great, and the amount of fluidity that Sam has climbing, sticking to the shadows and moving from cover to cover is unparalleled – easily the best I've seen in the series. That said, if you're going to play pure stealth, it's a challenge. Trying that was the hardest I've felt Splinter Cell has been, and I was promptly greeted with a swift kick to the a**.
Luckily, Splinter Cell Blacklist doesn't make you play a certain way. While you're still going to be stealthy, the option is there to play the game more action-oriented, stringing together kills and showing more of the killer in Sam Fisher. That's ultimately what I had to do. I took more of a Jack Bauer approach, which is appropriate considering that's who Sam sounded like at times. While I didn't just run right into the enemy and start shooting, I played the entire game as more of a hybrid. All three are viable options, mostly due to the open-ended layout of the missions that beg you to experiment.
Once I became comfortable in the first few missions with not having to be perfectly stealthy, the game became a whole different monster. I felt like more of a bada** and had the mindset that Sam is just doing what he has to do to complete the mission. Also, when you do a stealth takedown, you get an execution move. This allows you to tag targets and then take them out in succession. It looks and feels awesome. The only problem I had with it is that you can tag any target, but you'd better make sure you're within range to perform the execution.
After every mission, you're awarded points based on which of the three styles you've played: “Ghost” play is all pure stealth tactics, avoiding enemies and sticking to the shadows; “Panther” is stealth gameplay where you don't mind getting your hands dirty taking down enemies; and “Assault” is exactly what it sounds like, using weapons and marksmanship to accomplish your goals. However you want to play, SCB rewards you; there are so many possibilities that you'll want to play through the game again and again. Points are rewarded to you at the end, multiplied and calculated to figure out how much money you earned. Yes, playing through as Ghost will earn you the most, but it's certainly the most difficult. I found myself with a nice combination of all three playstyles, but leaning a little more towards Panther. After that, it's off to the Paladin.
The Paladin is an airborne base of operations where you'll choose what missions to undertake, talk to teammates, call your daughter, and upgrade your equipment and features of the Paladin. For instance, upgrade the infirmary and Sam and Briggs will regenerate health faster in single-player and co-op. To buy new equipment, guns, armor and attachments, you head to your tech guy, Charlie Cole. Charlie is pretty typical as far as characters are concerned. He's comic relief and has that nerdy feel to him when compared to all the operatives he works with, but he tells you that, when you bring him cash, he'll upgrade whatever you want. That's where the story elements kind of threw me off, actually. The President gives you unlimited funds and tells you to do whatever you want to stop this terrorist group, but you're going to have to earn cash to do it... It's a necessary mechanic, but I just find it funny.
The armor you can buy supports the different styles of tactics you can employ. If you want to maximize your Ghost effort, you can buy armor that increases your stealth rating, making it harder for enemies to see you. If you do that, though, you're not going to be that durable if you get shot. Likewise, there's armor if you're interested in playing more in the Assault style. This increases your armor and weapon efficiency. The downside is that it lowers your stealth rating. You can mix and match pieces, but I found myself leaning more towards the Assault gear. The same can be said about equipment; whether you prefer to play stealthy or go full gorilla, there's equipment that supports both playstyles. Choosing your playstyle and a set of gear that matches it really personalizes your Sam Fisher – and I love that.
Another cool feature is the SMI – Strategic Mission Interface. It's where you're going to choose what mission you want to play. Here you'll find the single-player, co-op and Spies vs. Mercs missions available to you. It's all in one easy location that acts as a main menu, built into the story. It's perfect. As a matter of fact, the whole Paladin has a Mass Effect-like feel to it.
Speaking of other missions, the co-op missions are a blast. Of course, you can try them solo, but you really get the full effect of them when you're teaming up with another player. Playing split-screen was a lot of fun as my partner and I held off waves of enemies. It wasn't your typical “shoot and kill enemies as they march at you.” It had more finesse. We could work together to draw enemies into our trap. And playing stealthily was still totally an option!
Spies vs. Mercs makes a return, bringing some competitive play to Blacklist. Using two different playstyles, teams of four go up against each other to see who secure their objectives first. One team plays as spies trying to secure data or something like that. The other team plays as mercenary soldiers, utilizing a first-person shooter perspective. Spies stick to the shadows and use stealth to secure their objective and take out the enemy. Mercs also have a special set of skills and gadgets at their disposal, as well as armor and weapons. Matches are really intense, and the mode is a nice departure from the story and co-op missions. Also, whether you're playing single-player, co-op or Spies vs. Mercs, your money and gear are persistent.
Splinter Cell Blacklist is full of opportunity. I used it as an opportunity to play as a Jack Bauer-like operative. The great thing is that the game's open-endedness begs for replay. You'll see different ways to approach every situation, so you'll want to keep trying those new ways. The layout is intricate and full of depth, and Sam's skillset is superb – the perfect combination for a new breed of Splinter Cell that gets personal.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]