Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review (PC)

To say Splinter Cell: Conviction was controversial is like saying Kevin Conroy is the best voice of Batman – when it comes to the fan community it’s just f***ing true, don’t argue. Ditching the slowly-careful-whoops-I’ve-failed-because-an-alarm-went-off of previous Splinter Cells in favour of a quicker, deadlier, gun-first actiony-stealthy type of game was never going to sit well with a fan base hungering for another Chaos Theory. So when the first videos of Splinter Cell: Blacklist went up and showed the game as little more than an athletic third-person shooter it’s no surprise that many people wrote off the game there and then. Having played it now, I can safely say they were wrong to do so and at its heart Blacklist is every bit as stealth-first as Chaos Theory.

First of all the bad news. Like every single other stealth game this year the main character’s utterly perfect long-running voice actor, in this case Michael Ironside, has been replaced. New guy Eric Johnson is competent but feels far too much like Generic Gravel Voiced Male, to the extent that Sam Fisher is almost nullified as a character. I got used to him after a while, and the facial animation is absolutely perfect now which they obviously couldn’t do before, but I’d much rather Ubisoft had gone with a new player character and had an Ironside-voiced Sam Fisher running the show. The fact that the game opens with an older “mentor” character being gravely injured so that he doesn’t appear for the rest of the game suggests to me that Ubisoft had planned exactly that but decided against it.
Sam and Grim gearing up for another epic game of Pong.
The story is a gritty race-against-time save-the-world-from-terror-attacks plot that is the staple of Tom Clancy and games bearing his name, and luckily is rather entertaining. A group called The Engineers, after attacking a US army outpost with Sam Fisher present (bad luck guys); have issued an ultimatum to the US government: pull your troops out of foreign countries or face a “blacklist” of major terrorist attacks. The President authorizes the formation of Fourth Echelon to find the Engineers and stop them, which consists of Fisher, series female mainstay Anna Grimsdottir, jittery comic relief techie Charlie, and black ex-army tough guy Briggs (who joins you for co-op missions and the occasional single-player “moment”, and who no one will want to play as). A rather standard action movie spy team I think you’ll agree, but they work together in an entertainingly dysfunctional way. While a few of the character twists are predictable, as is a lot of the plot (involving a charming British villain who’s one step ahead of the authorities and knows how his plans will make them react which is what he wants them to do OMG), but it’s certainly all enjoyable and kept my attention for the duration. There are at least two Mission: Impossible movies I couldn’t say the same about.

The gameplay though will leave players, whether fans of the faster Conviction or the slower, more methodical ‘Cells of old, very happy indeed. Ubisoft have been advertising Blacklist’s three play-styles but you do have to play the game for several hours for them to really become obvious. The ‘Ghost’ style is classic stealth, non-lethal, moving between shadows, unseen and unheard. ‘Assault’ is the loud and noisy opposite, sneaking optional but shooting required. ‘Panther’ is a mix of both and is closest to Conviction, still stealthy but quicker, lethal and more worrying about cover than shadows.

It is to Ubisoft’s credit that no matter which of these play-styles you choose Blacklist still remains an enjoyable challenge, and the choosing itself feels utterly natural. It’s not quite Deus Ex where you can smoothly transition between stealth and action and an alarm going off doesn’t mean you need to restart (sometimes that actually happens), since actually your preferred style of play is reflected mostly in upgrades. Going up to see Charlie in his workshop on the between-mission hub allows you to buy these upgrades using money earned during missions, and often there’s a trade-off. You can buy various items under various body parts (steady ladies), weapons, and gadgets. For example you can get Torso armour that makes you harder to see, but means you’re less protected against being shot. You can choose quiet non-lethal stun mines or noisy deadly explosives. A Crossbow that blows up the room or takes out the lights. Proper Splinter Cell players will pick all the non-lethal noiseless options, but other players might prefer something more durable and less reliant on sticking to shadows. The choice really is yours, and you can tailor Blacklist to play exactly how you want it to.

I was a little worried when I played Blacklist a few months ago for a preview as it was still a little easy to headshot everyone even after they’d been alerted, or spam Mark & Execute. The final game however is tricky even on Normal, and Mark & Execute rarely operates as a “win” function. Armoured enemies are regular, patrols are frequent, reinforcements are an alert away, and the AI is very good indeed. Enemies will notice if a door’s been left open or if a guard’s missing, change patrol routes, decide between themselves who’s going to investigate something suspicious, and while a quick noise via the “attract” button might get a grunt into punch-to-the-face distance at long range at close range they’ll recognise the noise as human and go on high alert. You really have to use all your skill and put your gadgets and the environment to good use.
These armoured gits are really hard to take down.
Luckily the level design, which is always been of a high standard in Splinter Cell games, is excellent too. Every area is like a little stealth-bastard playground, often with multiple ways to get around, plenty of cover, and several levels of elevation. All areas feel believable and can be played in many different ways, with players able to organically change their tactics on the fly and try different approaches – with only the occasional invisible wall spoiling things momentarily. There’s also a wide and interesting range, from Middle Eastern deserts to American chemical plants, from high security government buildings to supposedly abandoned factories. My favourite’s probably Guantanamo Bay. Yes, the Guantanamo Bay. Even though it nearly made me throw my headphones out the window.

Ah yes, finally we get to my main issue. Checkpoint-only saving in stealth games should be banned, frankly. Splinter Cell 1-4 on PC could be saved anywhere and so were vastly less frustrating and more fun than their console versions. Conviction I didn’t really notice since it was so quick, but in Blacklist I’m able to go slow and methodical, taking my time to plan every kill and wait for every break in patrol routes… so it doesn’t help my mood when I spend nearly an hour on one section and get killed by a dog or an armoured thug I couldn’t take down or kill. And then again. And again. While initially the large fun playgrounds full of enemies are a joy to tackle by the fifth time of having to redo the entire section I was ready to uninstall the game and never play it again. Checkpoints are fine in action games if spaced correctly, but in slow stealth games that encourage you to take your time? An exercise in frustration. Furthermore occasionally a save will put you in a position you’ve never been to before, or respawn enemies you’d dispatched before the save.

Maybe you can deal with checkpoint saving and that isn’t a negative for you, but what will get you annoyed on PC are the controls. They’re generally overcomplicated (for example why is ‘drop down’ the same button as ‘take cover’ rather than ‘crouch’?) and unless you’re planning on using a gamepad expect to memorize a lot of keys. I don’t mind that too much since I’d rather have a key for every function rather than consolized simplistic controls, but one key function that isn’t here is the crucial ‘walk slowly’. With a control stick you can just push up gently, but with WASD keyboard controls you’re either walking at full speed or you’re not. Consequently, and infuriatingly, even with full Ghost upgrades it is impossible to sneak up on an enemy without them noticing you. If it’s a regular enemy there’s a cool moment of shock Sam can exploit so that’s not a problem, but heavily armoured guys are therefore extremely unfairly difficult to take out on PC.

Which is a shame, because these quirks aside there is a lot of content here. I didn’t time myself with the campaign but it’s got to be around 15-20 hours long, and on top of that there are 16 extra missions that can be done solo or co-op (apart from Briggs’ four, which are co-op only and relate to the plot) and the Spies Vs Mercenaries multiplayer – where two teams of players face each other, one playing Fisher-like Spies trying to hack terminals and the others FPS-style Mercs defending. At the start you only have the Training Grounds and Spies Vs Mercs Classic (2v2, default loadouts only) unlocked, but after reaching Level 5 you get SvM Blacklist (4v4, optional loadouts), Extraction (like Blacklist except the twist of Spies defending, Mercs attacking), Uplink Control (3v3 mixed teams!) and Team Deathmatch. All in all, an excellent and diverse selection.
The co-op's pretty damn fun. A little unfair on this guard though...
SvM Classic will probably be the option of choice for many as it’s the tensest, purest experience, although the larger teams and optional loadouts of the new SvM Blacklist was equally fun and frustrating. Matches have the usual multiplayer problem of “if the host quits no one gets any XP” which is especially prevalent here since matches can go on a long time, but Spies Versus Mercs remains an addictive, nail-biting affair. It’s wildly more fun with people you know however, although that could be said about any multiplayer game. I have to say there were a couple of niggles – one serious, one not. The first is that it’s a little annoying that you can’t go straight into multiplayer from the menu; instead you have to load the single-player campaign and have Sam examine the map where you can choose all your missions. That’s no biggie, but me not being able to go online until someone on the development team kindly helped me out is. There’s currently a 31-page thread on the forum full of users, mostly PC but also console, who have been unable to connect to Blacklist’s servers for no obvious reason. Hopefully this will be sorted soon, as I came very close to making this a single-player-only review.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist isn’t absolutely perfect, but there’s bags of quality content here that’ll keep stealth gamers happy on-and-offline. The story’s fun, graphics as lovely as an end-of-generation Unreal game can be (that’s pretty damn lovely particularly in the facial animation department), but most importantly Ubisoft Toronto have absolutely nailed giving the player the freedom to choose what type of stealth game they want to play. Whether Ghosting, Panthering or Assaulting you’ll have a great challenge on your hands, with every level a playground full of variety, hidden paths, sneaky covers, and “ooh that pipe runs right over that guy’s head hee hee” moments. Checkpoints may be aggravating, the controls might have some problems and online definitely has several problems, but Splinter Cell: Blacklist could still well be the best stealth game of this generation. The ball’s in your court now, Thief.

Top Game Moment: Probably Sam’s infiltration and escape from Guantanamo Bay, but in truth there a lot of great moments.

Version Reviewed: PC

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