Splinter Cell has always been in a continuing shift in tone and in gameplay. Double Agent introduced the concept that Sam Fisher isn’t always willing to be the good guy and Conviction showed that he’s pretty darn good at shoot outs. The latest entry in the series, Blacklist, attempts to appease fans on both sides of the fence, with a sometimes rocky balance of action and stealth.
This time, graying gruff bad-to-the-bone, albeit this time not voiced by series’ veteran Michael Ironside, Sam is back working for the U.S government. As the helm of the newly formed Fourth Echelon group, he brings back a few old friends and foes into the fold, in order to face a new threat to national security. This time, opposition comes from a group only known as the Engineers, who plan to take down offshore American military operations any way they possibly can, and keeping with the tradition, they choose terrorism in the form of aimed attacks on U.S soil.
The handful of characters introduced during the story are paper thin. And even Sam, who used to be conflicted and acted as a wild card during the previous games is nothing more than a constant one note train car that is solely there to move the game along. None of the cast goes beyond anywhere they started off at, and threads that are timidly added during cutscenes are quickly dropped and forgotten by the unsurprising end of Blacklist‘s overly dramatic boilerplate narrative that’s carried along by many jargon filled and absolutely convoluted cutscenes.
But hey, at least you get to go to some cool locales.
Blacklist starts out strong in terms of mission design, regardless of where its story takes it. You’re flown around the globe for reasons you are bound not to care about. For the most part, the game does an admiral job at cooking up interesting scenarios to sneak, shoot or combine both styles on your way through to dismantling the Engineers.
In an attempt to somehow merge the gameplay style of Conviction with previous games in the series, Blacklist features a score based ranking system that split into three different categories. Ghost, as the name implies, is all about avoiding contact with enemies altogether, sticking to shadows and being non-lethal. Assault has you going in the opposite direction, making use of violence and guns throughout the game, while Panther combines both approaches, awarding the use of surprise tactics and terrorizing guards.
The way the game mixes these styles is mostly fun, but tends to make playing Blacklist a bit unnerving if you are bent on going solely for a particular approach. That proves especially true for a pure, no kills stealth run, which can turn frustrating when out of the blue, for no apparent reason, the game decides to award Panther points when you clearly eliminated a guard silently – something that happens a tad too often during levels. Thankfully, the scoring system has a small range for little mishaps like that, so mastering a particular system within a mission is perfectly doable, if you are willing to put up with some of those inconsistencies.
A welcome inconsistency during missions, though, are guard and enemy patterns. They hardly stick to the same positioning in repeated checkpoint loads, and while not ridiculously difficult to figure out, each time you load up a stage, their patterns might be on a different phase than they one they were the last time. On the other hand, their behavior is far from being predictable. While distracting them usually leads to a silent way to quickly eliminate them, it can also take you to a failure state – making noise sometimes has them going mental and start shooting and screaming at shadows… risky and positively annoying.
Conviction introduced two main features that remain in Blacklist and make up for the bulk of the Assault style: Mark and Execute and Last Known Position. Mark and Execute allows Sam to mark up to three different targets for an instant kill – or a non-lethal takedown if you so choose, a new twist brought into Blacklist. Last Known Position comes into play once Fisher is discovered by guards and acts as a shadow of where they last saw him during a gunfight or pursuit, allowing Sam to ambush them, make a getaway or act as a diversion for a partner.
Co-op was a huge new feature in Conviction, and it was where I spent the majority of my time after finishing the story campaign, so I had grand hopes of it making a splashing return in Blacklist. And quite a comeback it did. Blacklist‘s single player mission layout is placed on a world map, which also contains a handful of levels that involve members of the Fourth Echelon team. Each of these mission types involve a style of play and are freely available for single player and local or online cooperative play. Some approaches to the missions are only available during co-op and are absurdly rewarding, ranging from wave based combat scenarios to be-seen-and-fail stealth sections.
Failure, however, is not an option during the second section of multiplayer in Blacklist. Fan favorite Mercs vs Spies, first introduced in Splinter Cell‘s second outing Pandora Tomorrow, makes a mostly successful comeback. Teams are split between the gun totting, heavily armed, first person shooter controlled mercs and the sneaking, Sam Fisher inspired spies. Gameplay modes pit both teams in a few variations of classic multiplayer modes like Capture the Flag, which in Blacklist’s case involves a suitcase full of intel, King of the Hill, or the beacon, called Uplink and of course, Deathmatch.
These multiplayer modes make use of rank and leveling similar to shooters like Call of Duty, and much like its brethren, new items and stats become available during progression, which makes Blacklist‘s multiplayer less and less approachable the better your opponents’ gear becomes. As a thrown bone, there’s a catch up mode up ’til level 5, but since that comes so quickly, after only a couple of matches, it fails to introduce new players to multiplayer, before they are thrown to the wolves. While it’s easy to be put off by a couple of unforgiving, painful defeats during these matches, Blacklist‘s multiplayer has a positive draws.
ShadowNet, Ubisoft’s daily and weekly challenge system introduces a new challenge for Blacklist’s single and multiplayer modes, which award players with money for a certain number of actions within these modes, like killing a certain number of opponents, for instance. You’re also given the option to spend Uplay coins to unlock a couple of equipment upgrades and money boosts to your virtual coffers.
Money comes incredibly easy throughout both game modes and makes equipment evolution in single player very unbalanced, maxing everything out way before the end of the story. Replaying levels for better scores award you even more money and makes it useless in the long run. Multiplayer slows down that progression by adding the need of a token for each gear progression upgrade, awarded at level up.
Blacklist‘s ambiguous approach is unfortunate. In just about every facet of its design, it adds unnecessary and painfully uneven sections of gameplay. That’s especially evident towards the end of its single player mode, when you are forced to take a particular path that strips all freedom of what’s supposed to be open ended missions: a straight, disappointing line across the level, with zero alternatives and no regards to whatever style you are going for within the game. It rings even truer if you are going for a traditional stealth run, where the illusion is pretty much shattered when you are forced to take control of a drone and basically mow down guards before going on foot.
Middling story and gameplay quirks aside, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a competently enjoyable game to blast and sneak your way through. While its multiplayer and the mission based score rankings help give it a boost in terms of replayability, it doesn’t scratch a new watermark for the Splinter Cell series. If you are willing to look past the unsurprisingly dense and moronic pace of the story during single player, as well as the unforgiving nature of its competitive online mode, Blacklist is a faulty, but still mostly fun blockbuster.