Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review
Forward progress is a tough thing for games that have been around as long as Splinter Cell has been. Fans are really passionate when major changes are made, and this series has seen a lot of them in the last three iterations of the game. The Splinter Cell series was considered by many to be the premiere pure stealth franchise for quite some time. It’s one that has long had Sam Fisher clinging to the shadows as he infiltrated top secret military installations, traveling down a tangled web of a story in the Splinter Cell universe. Whether online or in the single player and cooperative story modes, stealth and the use of cool spy gadgets were the main drivers of the gameplay. Somewhere along the way, Ubisoft decided that they had bigger aspirations for the Splinter Cell series, and that it needed to appeal to a wider audience. The AAA-action audience, the Uncharted audience.
The first step in this direction was with Splinter Cell: Conviction. Sam Fisher was evolving from the killer in the shadows, to something that you would expect to see in the Bourne action movies. Sam Fisher became a nimble killing machine. He was now capable of all his old tricks, with a whole bunch of new ones as well. Hand to hand combat and brutal lethal and non-lethal takedowns, accompanied by slow motion mark and execute features, gave Splinter Cell the feel of an action game with stealth elements. With Splinter Cell: Blacklist, it’s apparent that Ubisoft doesn’t want to paint Splinter Cell with any one brush, it’s a game that proudly boasts a number of different playstyles and game modes, tied together into one cohesive Splinter Cell package.
Long time fans will notice right away that the voice of Sam Fisher has changed. Michael Ironside, the voice actor for the iconic special-ops agent did not get signed on to do Blacklist. It wouldn’t be so noticeable if Fisher kept to his normal routine, but Blacklist sees some considerable changes in the way the story is told. Sam Fisher is at the very center of it all, and plays a much bigger speaking role in Blacklist than he has in the past. He being the man in-charge of a group of special agents who are tasked with stopping a terrorist threat to the United States, you’ll get ample opportunity to see that this is not the Sam Fisher that you’ve grown accustomed to over the years. Fisher’s role isn’t one of a man in the shadows, but of a leader who is front and center in coordinating these defensive efforts against the terrorist group. The timely storyline of Splinter Cell: Blacklist is one that has a foreign agency fed up with U.S. military occupancy in countries that “they don’t belong in”. The single player storyline takes Sam and his group of agents across the world on a mission to stop these terrorist events from happening.
Below you’ll find a segement of gameplay from Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s single player campaign. It takes place about 3/4 of the way through the game, and is pretty representative of the variety that you’ll find in Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Open-ended areas that have multiple ways to attack objectives. You can choose to play anyway you like, but stealth is certainly rewarded with easier kills.
Single Player Gameplay
From a gameplay perspective, fans of Splinter Cell: Conviction will slide right into Blacklist. The major melee features and mark and execute gunplay have returned, and make for some pretty fun gameplay. Levels are still largely rewarding for stealthy tactics, because if you alert the enemy, you’ll usually be overwhelmed by reinforcements. Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a game of choice, it’s one that allows you to plan for any number of different playstyles, and Ubisoft is keeping track of it all in the game’s new progression system that carries forward into the cooperative and competitive online modes. Theorhetically there are three ways to play Splinter Cell: Blacklist. You are scored as a Ghost, Panther, or Assault. The classes really just mean how you tend to approach the levels. Do you brandish your firearms at first chance? You’re likely an assault player. Do you like to stay silent and sneak by as many enemies as possible, killing only when necessary? You’re probably a ghost. Panther’s do a little bit of both, and the game really plays best in this middle ground in both the single player and cooperative missions. The more you do play as a single playstyle, the more points and cash you’ll earn. Which can be used to unlock upgrades for both Sam Fisher’s single player kit, and for your flying fortress, The Paladin.
The Paladin is the central hub that ties Splinter Cell: Blacklist together. This ship houses all of your squadmates, some captured enemies, and all the intel that you’ve collected. It’s got a massive map of the world that constantly updates with new missions for the single player, cooperative, and spies vs. mercs game modes. You can select them all from the single player part of the game, it’s all very cohesive in it’s design. While the main storyline is to stop a terrorist threat of the Blacklist attacks, the side missions that arise from throughout the story might be the best part of the game, if just for the fun that cooperative gameplay provides. Taking Splinter Cell: Blacklist to task with a fellow player is a fun time, and the levels have all the variety and freedom that the single player missions do, perhaps even more.
The Cooperative gameplay video above is representative of the gameplay that you’ll find in these mission types. Some coop missions don’t have to be played with a second person, but if you do play them with a partner, different routes will open up. There’s just as much variety in the cooperative levels as in the single player content. And, there’s almost as many cooperative missions in total in Splinter Cell: Blacklist as there are single player missions. As you progress into the single player portion of the game, you’ll unlock missions to tackle with Briggs, Grimm, Kobin, and Clarke. Each mission type has different objectives, and tell a little bit more about the surrounding story of the game. You’ll find yourself in missions that require absolute teamwork and infiltration without being detected by the enemies. And there are also missions that will allow you to go in guns blazing. Some of the cooperative missions are “horde” like modes, that will be somewhat familiar from Conviction, though they differ pretty wildly.
It’s becoming commonplace for games to have an all encompassing progression system behind it all, and Splinter Cell: Blacklist is no different in this regard. But it’s a first for the series, and Splinter Cell is a pretty good candidate for tracking down goodies, earning xp, and competing against friends. The connected nature of Blacklist allows for players to tackle levels and issue challenges to each other. Players can complete challenges from Ubisoft for XP and Uplay points, and track overall progression throughout your time with the game. The Shadownet features can be briefly seen in the video above, and you can see a few of the daily challenges that are offered for a bit of extra XP. It all filters back into a progression and unlocks system that carries over between the co-op and single player modes. Fisher can be outfitted in a number of different ways for single player missions. You can change everything from his goggles to his boots, weapons, gadgets, and other perks can be had as well. Though it is worth noting that you’ll need to play a good bit of multiplayer to unlock many of the extra gadgets for the competitive online modes.
Spies vs Mercs
As a long time fan of the series I was pretty pumped about Spies vs. Mercs returning in Splinter Cell: Blacklist. It was a game mode that Conviction was sorely lacking, and a primary reason that that game didn’t have the long legs of its predecessors. The Deniable Ops modes just didn’t have the same feel as the tense cat and mouse gameplay that the Spies vs. Mercs game mode has had in the past. Ubisoft really covered all their bases with Splinter Cell: Blacklist. They offer a traditional “Classic” Spies vs. Mercs mode, which beckons back to the days of Pandora Tomorrow. But make no mistake about it, this new mode is certainly something different. It doesn’t quite have the same feel as the previous games in the series, but the Classic mode is a valiant effort.
The major difference between the old Spies vs. Mercs modes and the new Spies vs. Mercs mode is the requirement that players stay within an area after hacking an objective. As you can see in the video above, if you hack an objective you have to remain in a specific area until the hack has reached 100%. It’s constraining, and takes away a lot of the cat and mouse gameplay that was found in previous variations of the mode. It certainly differs from what was found in Double Agent, and it just feels far more action oriented than any Splinter Cell Online mode before it. The Classic Mode does have the pinnings of the old game. The use of flashlights, shadows, and sound play a much bigger role than they do in the “Blacklist” variation, and it has less players. The Classic Mode is 2v2, where Blacklist mode is 4v4. For old school Splinter Cell fans, Classic mode is where you’ll likely feel most at home.
Getting into the new variations of Splinter Cell: Blacklist, and things get a bit muddier. A four vs. four Spies vs. Mercs with customizable classes is a mess of a game mode. Its got the same core objectives as Classic Spies vs. Mercs Mode, but it puts up to eight players in tight quarters that previously had only four. Things get really crazy once an objective is hacked, because players have to stay in a specified area. There’s just so much going on, with such limited space, it’s hard to have any real strategy. This Blacklist mode also gives players the ability to customize loadouts, with things like invisibilty, sonar detection, and a number of different tools. This new Blacklist mode does not resemble any Spies Vs. Mercs before it, in almost any way. Spies have guns, they can melee attack, and the numerous gadgets just get to be a little much. It’s hard to tell how balanced these things are, but it didn’t seem like there were any cheese classes out of the gate. We’ll have to wait and see if the community breaks this balance post release, but for now, it plays like a much more fast paced version of its former self, with more players. The other game modes are pretty much throwaways. Defending objectives in Extraction, Controlling Terminals in Uplink, and then there’s a really unnecessary Team Deathmatch Mode. They might be fun to play every once in awhile, but neither of three feel as good as Spies vs. Mercs and Classic Mode specifically.
It’s not surprising that Ubisoft has made another great Splinter Cell game. They do keep making these games for a reason. Sam Fisher is still at the top of his game when it comes to stealth, and Ubisoft has really got a handle on the new way that single player and co-op is played. They made good on the promise that there would be multiple ways to play Blacklist, and stealth action hasn’t seen a better offering this generation. As for multiplayer, Ubisoft knocks it out of the park with Blacklist’s impressive co-op slab of content. But it really seems like they thought too much about how they should change the competitive multiplayer. They already had a winning formula. Instead of just making something that would please fans of the old games in full, changes have been made to the game that don’t allow it to live up to the name. A lot of the competitive modes feel unnecessary, and the new spies vs. mercs Blacklist mode feels overly complex. Nevertheless it’s a step back in the right direction for the franchise. While it might not be perfect in all regards, Splinter Cell’s unique brand of online play will definitely offer a change of pace as there’s nothing quite like it on the market today.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist
- Available On: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
- Published By: Ubisoft
- Developed By: Ubisoft Toronto
- Genre: Stealth, Action
- US Release Date: August 20th, 2013
- Reviewed On: Xbox 360
- Quote: "Sam Fisher is still at the top of his game when it comes to stealth, and Ubisoft has really got a handle on the new way that single player and co-op is played. They made good on the promise that there would be multiple ways to play Blacklist, and stealth action hasn't seen a better offering this generation."