By Marty Mulrooney
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is the sixth instalment in the Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series. Sam Fisher returns to Sony PlayStation after a long hiatus – the previous instalment, Splinter Cell: Conviction, was exclusive to Microsoft Windows and Xbox 360 – in a third-person stealth action-adventure game that sees him tackling a terrorist group calling itself ‘The Engineers’, which has launched a series of attacks on the United States called ‘The Blacklist’.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a video game that tries to be all things, to all players. The compulsory opening mission serves as a tutorial, during which the Andersen Air Force Base is destroyed. Responding to the terrorist threat, President Patricia Caldwell assigns series protagonist Sam Fisher, along with hacker Charlie Cole, newly introduced character Isaac Briggs and long-time fan favourite Anna ‘Grim’ Grímsdóttir, to a new counter-terrorism unit known as ‘Fourth Echelon’.
Fourth Echelon’s base of operations is a cargo plane codenamed ‘Paladin’. The plane serves as an interactive main menu for the game, with a huge high-tech touchscreen table showing a map of the world from which single player missions can be selected. The NPCs on board Paladin serve various different functions when spoken to (upgrade the plane to improve Sam’s abilities, buy weapons, armour and gadgets, check your overall mission progress) and also allow access to the multiplayer components of the game (online and split-screen co-op missions, the return of the Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer mode). The fact that you can talk to them (and phone your daughter between missions) is an optional afterthought. It’s all very reminiscent of Mass Effect.
The missions themselves are very well designed, with the semi-open maps offering plenty of opportunity to approach objectives the way that you want to. This same philosophy applies to the gameplay itself – the upgraded controls and gameplay mechanics allow for missions to be completed in three different styles (or a mixture of the three): Ghost, Panther and Assault. Ghost rewards players who complete missions undetected by enemies and use non-lethal takedowns – the classic way to play, and also the most difficult. Panther turns Sam into a predator who picks off his enemies one by one – this is the mode closest to the previous game, Splinter Cell: Conviction. Finally, Assault is for players who decide to abandon stealth entirely and charge in guns blazing – despite being a valid option once Sam is fully upgraded, this is obviously not the way the game is meant to be played, at least not all the way through from beginning to end.
The gameplay feels faster than ever before no matter how you play – the superb cover-to-cover system from the previous game is still in place and the ‘Mark and Execute’ feature has survived intact too, although it’s now known as ‘Killing In Motion’ because Sam can execute it while running. The ability to tailor your play style on the fly is great, although series purists who miss the old Splinter Cell experience probably won’t be converted by this latest instalment. The game will often force players into a situation such as a shoot-out that will feel out-of-place for those intent on playing as a ‘Ghost’.
After each mission, points are awarded for each play style and these are then converted into dollars that can be spent on new weapons, gear and gadgets. Custom loadouts can be created based on each player’s own unique interpretation of Sam Fisher – the tri-rotor drone is great fun to fly around levels, zapping unsuspecting enemies and creating a safe path. Engagement with enemies (or avoidance) is as fun as ever, with light and dark once again coming to the fore and Sam’s trademark green night vision goggles thankfully making a welcome return.The ‘Heavy’ class of enemy is an absolute nuisance and shouldn’t have been included at all – even games such as Uncharted 3 are guilty of this sin, but Splinter Cell: Blacklist in particular seems to reply on these bullet sponges far too much towards the end of its single player campaign.
Another change to the previous formula is the omission of Michael Ironside as the gravelly voice of Sam Fisher – the first time in the series’ history that he hasn’t voiced the character. All characters are now portrayed with a combination of motion capture and voice acting, requiring actor Eric Johnson to take up the mantle as the iconic spy. To be fair Johnson does a decent job, even if he does sound slightly too young – the main fault lies with the script, which portrays Sam as a moody individual who only cares about the mission. The occasional moments of levity and dry sarcasm from the earlier Splinter Cell games are sorely missed.
Kate Drummond is the new Anna Grímsdóttir and she manages to nail the character really well – she more than holds her own against Sam (although she does have a tendency to cock her gun for no particular reason). Carlo Rota (of 24 fame) is wonderful as calculating baddie Majid Sadiq, leader of The Engineers, but again the script never allows him to truly shine. The main problem is that the core Fourth Echelon team never really gels – Charlie the hacker has some interesting subplots, but they ultimately just fizzle out. Co-op partner Isaac Briggs is as generic as they come, with no real personality of his own.
The graphics are a mixed bag. Sometimes the scope of the game and the layout of the levels really impresses (the rain and snow effects, along with some clever lighting effects, are particularly effective and the motion capture is superb), but at other times animations can be awkward and textures can look like they belong in a game from earlier in this console generation, rather than one launching with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One just around the corner. There is also a lot of screen tearing. On the other hand, the sound effects are marvellous and the music proves suitably rousing.
Overall, Splinter Cell: Blacklist offers an enjoyable experience that marks a step back in the right direction for the series, even if there are some major hurdles along the way. The single player campaign provides a solid 8-10 hours of gameplay and offers plenty of replay value, despite the storyline wavering between passable and weak. The game is at its best operating under cover of darkness, rather than out in the open under the harsh light of day. The co-op missions work really well so long as you’ve got a good partner (either split screen or online) and Spies (third-person) vs. Mercs (first-person) is superbly realised and has great potential to stand out from the multiplayer crowd over the coming months. In the end, it must be remembered that no single game can please everyone – but you certainly have to admire Ubisoft for trying.
8 OUT OF 10