Not so long ago, I had the strangest thought: what if the 17th century English poet, William Congreve was around today? Would his famously paraphrased quote “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned” be re-tweeted and re-blogged as “Hell has no fury, like a gamer scorned”?
I’ll admit, when it comes to games, I’ve been known to go from hero-to-zero faster than you can say “hadouken”. While my gaming addiction may have soothed the savage beast, and seen me through some of the toughest times of my not-so-young life, it’s also been responsible for exposing a couple of my most irrational and annoying character flaws. Take the previous Splinter Cell title as an example. Splinter Cell: Conviction was a sharp departure from the norm for Sam Fisher, and as a consequence, as a long-time fan of the series, it didn’t resonate with me (and a fair number of other like-minded souls). While a large number of critics and reviewers loved Ubisoft’s new take on Splinter Cell and welcomed – what at the time was considered a “Reboot” – our criticism was vocal and vitriolic.
was anxious to rip the latest instalment of Splinter Cell a new one. My vindictive stance rested not only on the decisions made during Splinter Cell: Conviction, but also because the “Voice of Sam Fisher” Michael Ironside had been replaced by newcomer Eric Johnson. There was so much to hate about this new game, and I was practically salivating. I was ready to make a name for myself – as the reviewer that gave Splinter Cell: Blacklist a 4/10. Infamy and glory were to be my destiny. I was already eyeing that new Editor’s position at (insert relevant magazine). but something unexpected happened; it occurred between my fourth attempt at a perfect/undetected stealth run (during a co-op mission). I had a sobering realisation (a gaming epiphany) that what I had in-front of me was actually very good. Blacklist had captured my attention. I didn’t even mind re-doing a mission with a random co-op partner – from that great online zoo.
Of course, Fisher’s current adventure rarely ventures too far from what is expected from a Tom Clancy-inspired work of military fiction. It eagerly checks all the necessary boxes: (a) the US is under threat, (b) a grand terrorist-plot is being unveiled, (c) there’s the obligatory plot-twisting subterfuge, (d) some internal team drama/conflict and if for the briefest of moments, you feel a bit like Jack Bauer from 24, just be mindful of the genre. Blacklist continues after the aftermath of Splinter Cell: Conviction. If Sam Fisher was hoping for some well-deserved R&R after the NSA’s Third Echelon was disbanded, he’s sadly in for some bad news. A new terrorist group, called the Engineers, is trying to make a name for themselves, and Agent Fisher finds himself leading a new special counter-terrorist task force, called Fourth Echelon (4E) to quell the coming-storm. Sam is joined by his long-time ally and aid, Anna “Grim” Grimsdottir, as well as a few new faces, hacking specialist and quartermaster, Charlie Cole and former CIA agent, Isaac Briggs.
While Blacklist’s story holds very little in terms of surprises, the real winner here is the superb gameplay. It’s definitely a compromise between classic Splinter Cell stealth-action and the 2010 reboot’s attempt at a “more approachable and action-driven game”. What makes the current version so memorable is the fact that you’re given a choice of how you want to approach a mission, rather than the game’s design making the choice for you. As Fisher you can be a creature of the shadows or use his state-of-the-art gadgets, weapons and training to subdue your enemies. The difference is that you’re given a lot more freedom in how you approach a mission. Do you want to go in guns blazing, or do you want to try a non-lethal approach or even a stealth-run with no one even knowing you were there in the first place?
The three vastly different approaches are expanded on through the game’s featured playstyles: Panther, Ghost and Assault. Panther is perfect for those who want to focus on stealth killings, whereas Ghost requires you to remain undetected. Of course, Assault is the playstyle for those who want to throw caution to the wind, and unleash Ares’ fury on their enemies. However, you’re not forced to choose between the three, and you can complete missions by using a mixture of the recommended playstyles. Since points are allocated based on your performance in the various styles, it opens up the possibility of revisiting missions and attempting to score perfectly in a specific playstyle.
Combat and evading have never been more fluid and effortless. Sam can comfortably swap between melee and gunplay. Individual gadgets are also never more than a button press away. While, I tend to focus more on the stealthy aspects of Sam, it is comforting to know that if he’s discovered, evading enemies can be rewarding and seamless. The truth is, Sam is never defenceless, and since gear loadouts are customisable, you can plan for any situation; whether you need a few incendiary grenades for pesky armoured soldiers or even a tri-rotor for scoping out enemy locations.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist also features a little bit of Splinter Cell: Conviction DNA, with the “Mark-and-Execute” feature making a controversial return. Fisher can mark and track up to three targets at a time. If your targets are in range, they can be instantly assassinated/executed. I’m still not a fan of this feature, because even in Conviction it felt like a very cheap cheat. Fortunately, for all my kindred spirits, who hate(d) it, the feature is disabled at Perfectionist level (the highest play level).
One auxiliary feature that I enjoyed was the fact that (in between missions) Sam can freely roam the mobile headquarters of the Fourth Echelon. The headquarters actually takes the shape of a massive C-159 Paladin military transport/cargo plane – simply called the Paladin. It is here that you’re allowed to check-in with your team mates, get valuable intel on missions, launch team-mate specific coop or single missions, upgrade & customise your gear and even buy valuable upgrades for your plane. If you’re getting a strong Mass Effect vibe, it would be on the dot, and it works perfectly.
The Paladin also serves as a hub from which you can launch your multiplayer adventures. Blacklist’s multiplayer modes include a couple of dedicated 4E co-op missions and even the return of Splinter Cell’s old multiplayer mode, Spies vs. Mercs. It’s actually amazing to think that nearly a decade has passed since it was last included in a Splinter Cell game. It has been missing since Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (2004).
If you’re unfamiliar with classic Spies vs. Mercs, it’s essentially an extremely fun battle where agile and ninja-like spies (played in third person) are pitted against gun-wielding mercenaries (played in first person). Blacklist expands on the classic theme, by also including mixed team matches in the typical online flavour: deathmatches, capture-the-flag scenarios (with a hacking subtext), and even objective-based King-of-the-Hill scenarios. This multiplayer mode proves to be extremely competitive. It’s also a brutal baptism of fire for newcomers. While matches tend to be very well-balanced, Low-level players tend to find themselves out-geared and outplayed by gadget-proficient higher-ranked veterans. If there was ever a display of the dog-eat-dog concept, this would be it. Regardless, the multiplayer features some of the most engaging battles that I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of.
Blacklist’s multiplayer and singleplayer are also complemented with an additional feature, called ShadowNet. ShadowNet captures all your gameplay information and provides you with additional challenges. These may include getting a certain number of kills with specific weapons, to updates on missed collectables to even posting online challenges to your friends. All challenges net you in-game cash that can be used for upgrading your plane, or buying and upgrading gadgets and weapons.
While, Splinter Cell: Blacklist puts its best foot forward, there are a number of technical issues that mar the experience. I definitely can’t fault the character animation, but visually Blacklist is underwhelming. Given, how the Splinter Cell games were always visually impressive and pushing the limits, I can’t help but wonder what went wrong. The textures on environments and even on the characters themselves appear ill-defined and patchy. Not to mention the ugly screen-tearing and texture lag.
As a total package, Splinter Cell: Blacklist delivers one of the best Sam Fisher experiences to date. The main campaign and the overall story may not be as strong as it could have been (with the final confrontation between Fisher’s Fourth Echelon and the Engineers never reaching the heights that the game promises). However, where it matters (the gameplay), the game excels. I can honestly say that Blacklist feels like a return to form for Agent Fisher. It’s the closest of all the recent Splinter Cell games to the stealth/gadget action of the much loved and respected Chaos Theory. However, if you were a fan of Conviction, it still allows you the freedom to unleash the fury.