Options. For me personally, it’s what separates a good game from a great game. Mind you, I’m not referring to options like costumes, appearances, weapons, etc. When I say “options” I mean the freedom to play a game in a variety of different ways, each one presenting virtually a whole different game.
While not a perfect game by any means, Splinter Cell: Blacklist presents me with a number of options that make each playthrough a unique experience. With the preceding game (Conviction) and now Blacklist, I think it’s safe to say that the old, “classic” Splinter Cell gameplay is by and large, dead. That’s a shame as I am a huge fan of the series, and the first three games cemented SC as one of my top five game franchises. However, as much as it pains me to play a game that almost doesn’t resemble the original series, I understand why Ubisoft had to go this route. Video games are now a “pick up and play, multiplayer deathmatch ACTION NOW!!!!!!” business, and the patience required to play old Splinter Cell probably wouldn’t appeal to a large audience…certainly not the one that makes each new Call of Duty game the best selling entertainment medium of all time with every new release.
Blacklist tries to straddle a happy medium between the action-heavy, cover-based shooter mechanic of Conviction and the slow, methodical stealth of the classic games. It quickly becomes clear that while you are given quite a bit of options in how you want to approach the game, Blacklist clearly wants you to veer towards the Conviction style of play. This is not to say that it forces you into playing Blacklist like an action shooter, but so much of Conviction has been brought over to Blacklist; from the quicker movements of Sam and the Nathan Drake-like “platforming,” to the mark and execute mechanic that’s always prevalent in the UI, the heavy cover-to-cover movements, and the nearly endless indicators of where you can climb, drop down, interact, etc.
I played through Blacklist twice; once as I would with Conviction with minimal sneaking, and once as closely as I could to how I would approach Chaos Theory. Both styles work out just fine, and I’m happy to say that while the game resembles Conviction in the many ways mentioned above, it can still be played as a fairly decent stealth game. It’s not as methodical of a process to wait around for patrol patterns and Sam moves much quicker, but for the most part, all the light shooting, shadow hiding, throat slitting goodness of the older games is still present. Also, depending on the difficulty level you choose to play at, the enemies can be pretty dumb as well, though I suspect this is to make the game more palatable to the mainstream gaming audience.
While most levels give you an option on how you want to tackle the game, there a few levels scattered throughout the game that force you into one gameplay style over the other. One portion of a level has you escaping an old mill with your partner, guns blazing. Another level has you shadowing someone and you aren’t allowed to be spotted or harm any enemies in the level. Being forced into stealth leaves a bad taste in my mouth, regardless of how short the segment may be. That’s what the whole game used to be, not just specific levels here and there. But again, I need to remind myself that this is no longer “old” Splinter Cell.
All complaining aside, I enjoyed this game immensely. It’s a great action game with a great action/stealth mechanic. I enjoyed the story (which involves a terrorist group called The Engineers performing a series of attacks around the world called “The Blacklist”) very much, and was thrilled to see the return of Spies VS Mercs. There were some weird graphical hitches here and there, but for the most part, the PC version I was given was a great looking game. Splinter Cell: Blacklist is simply wonderful.
Like I mentioned earlier, Blacklist plays much faster than the older SC games. Sam moves with great speed and fluidity; it’s almost hard to believe that this isn’t a prequel game. The events of Blacklist take place after Conviction. Sam is no spring chicken anymore, and suddenly he’s back climbing on pipes and bouncing from ledge to ledge with a new, Nathan Drake speed. While it was somewhat hard to get used to, I came to appreciate the speed with which I could navigate a room. It’s nice to waste no time climbing up a pipe, shimmying along a ledge, and making my way to the other end of a large area.
Because Sam moves so much faster than before, sneaking up behind enemies to deliver the killing blow is easier than ever, which is either good or bad depending on how you like to play the game. The game also uses a slight aim assist when shooting, so slitting an enemy’s throat, popping off a few Mark and Executes then following it up with a couple of shots from your pistol can be done with very little effort. On one hand, stealth purists will probably balk at the ease in which Sam can now wipe out an entire group of enemies in a few seconds; on the other hand, it’s pretty cool to feel like an unstoppable killing machine. Yes yes, I know that’s not what Splinter Cell is about; one of the most appealing aspects of the game is the fact that Sam was always a “glass cannon,” but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying Sam’s ability to clean out a room in seconds flat.
In between missions, players are taken to the Paladin, a flying headquarters for Fourth Echelon. The Paladin sections serve as an interactive game menu of sorts, and it almost reminds me a bit of the Normandy sections of the Mass Effect games. In the Paladin you can talk to other characters, upgrade your weapons and equipment, check your stats, and access anything from single player missions and side quests to Spies VS Mercs. It’s nice that Ubisoft went beyond the simple menu layout, and while the Paladin segments probably weren’t wholly necessary (other than progressing the story with cut scenes), it felt more immersive by placing players in a flying headquarters.
Graphically I am somewhat torn about the game. On the one hand, Sam looks and moves great, and the surrounding environments all look fantastic as well. And thank GOODNESS the black and white design of Conviction is gone so I can actually enjoy the visuals this time around. However, there is SO much screen tearing, stuttering, and lag that it’s borderline ridiculous. Anytime the game autosaves, you get stutter. In most cutscenes, you get stutter. Anytime the game transitions from cutscene to gameplay, you get stutter. If a cutscene is particularly action packed, you get some of the worst screen tearing I have seen in quite some time. And this is from the PC version, running off a system that can more than handle the game. I shudder to think of what the console versions look like.
It’s a shame that certain parts of the game look so poor because PC players get some nice graphical options to play around with, which are optimized for Nvidia cards. Running the game on max settings with DX11 tesselation, AF all the way up, TXAA, and ambient occlusion set to Field AO and HBAO+ makes for a very attractive looking game (minus the issues I mentioned). HBAO+ is an advancement of SSAO, and it offers much higher quality and faster implementation than previous technologies, giving gamers the best image quality possible. Along with DX11 tesselation, you get some pretty powerful tools for increasing the detail in a scene without being too much of a resource hog.
Now lets address the elephant in the room; Sam’s voice actor. It’s almost pointless mentioning it since whether or not you like an actor is subjective, but considering the stink it made when we all found out that Michael Ironside was not reprising his iconic role as Sam, I’ll at least offer my thoughts. I’ve played every Splinter Cell game ever made, including the handheld ones. The lack of Michael Ironside as Sam’s voice threw me off at first, and I can understand why many fans are upset. But give it a few levels; try not to go into Blacklist with a negative view already marinading inside your head. It’s a shock to hear someone different; it was almost like having another voice actor other than James Earl Jones playing Mufasa, but eventually, I got used to it. Eric Johnson borders on sounding too generic at times, but he does an admirable job and really his biggest “negative” is simply the fact that he doesn’t sound like Michael Ironside.
Beyond the main single player missions, you get co-op, Spies vs Mercs, and a companion mobile app called SC Spider-Bot. Spies vs Mercs is as most of you would remember, and it’s a blast. For those that are unfamiliar with the multiplayer mode, it takes one team of spies in third person and pits them against a team of mercs in first person. Spies are lightly armored and can be taken down quite easily, but they are much more stealth and have a wider field of vision. Mercs are restricted to the first person “tunnel vision” view, but are heavily armored and armed to the teeth. It’s a fantastic balancing act and makes for some of the most nail biting gameplay ever. I am not a multiplayer fan at all, but I love Spies vs Mercs.
The companion app (SC Spider-Bot) is certainly nothing to write home about, but it bears mentioning since playing it nets you some in-game items. All it really involves is controlling a drone through a variety of levels, hacking terminals, and avoiding cameras and enemy drones. All this is done via the familiar 3 star scoring system that is so prevalent in mobile games these days. It’s not something I would ever play again; I only really did it to get some extra items to use in Blacklist, but it’s there if you want to give it whirl.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a great game that has a good blend of the action of Conviction with the stealth of the classics. While it may not be 100% either of these different styles of gameplay, it adopts enough of each to present players with a very capable action game with solid stealth elements. SC purists may find too much that is “dumbed down” with Blacklist, but in reality, this is simply an evolution of the franchise. It’s as much an evolution from classic Splinter Cell as Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter was from the original Ghost Recon, or Rainbow Six Vegas was from something like Rogue Spear. Each of those franchises started leaning more toward to the action route and less on the classic formulas. It got to the point where the most recent games in each franchise barely resembled what they started out as.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is following the same route. For better or worse, depending on your preferences and how you choose to approach the game, Blacklist is an action game first, and stealth game second. Regardless, it’s a great game, and one I won’t stop playing for quite some time.