So this is what he did after the Turtles.
Splinter Cell is a series that has experienced incredible highs and lows, often without really warranting it. From the unique and novel gameplay of the first, the groundbreaking asymmetrical multiplayer of the second to the near-reboot of the game in Conviction; Splinter Cell has been praised and lambasted despite keeping an overall quality that has made every game enjoyable. Sure Double Agent and Conviction (the two current-gen entries) were different, but they each had their charms and kept the ongoing story arc going, developing Sam Fisher into the ruthless operator we see him as in Blacklist. Long ago Sam Fisher ceased to be a real hero, he’s efficient and rarely moral, and at risk of becoming downright unlikable in much of Blacklist, but it’s his most engaging and exciting engagement in a long while.
For those who are somehow unaware, Splinter Cell is a series of stealth games where you play as Sam Fisher, operating just outside the confines of the US military and intelligence services to stop terrorists. This isn’t NSA-style government work (they really should have included a level where the NSA is tinkering with a Kinect) but more like the Navy Seals, you tend to drop in, get the job done and then get out as fast as you can. How you play it is entirely up to you, and this has been formalised in Blacklist. After each mission you get a score based on three different approaches: Ghost – which involves avoiding everyone and getting in and out without touching a guard; Panther – which involves silently murdering your way through a level, often leaving it completely barren before you walk out unhindered and Assault – where you run in guns and grenades blazing as some kind of comical supervillain, seemingly only stopping the terrorists because they’re not violent enough. You get more points for going down the Ghost route because it’s much harder, but the game rarely penalises you for messing up a stealth run, instead it encourages you to transition into a different approach.
Many of the features from previous games make a comeback including mark and execute where you can ‘tag’ enemies and take them all out with a tap of ‘Y’ as long as you’ve stealth skilled someone to refill the meter. The levels seem less built around this mechanic than they did in Conviction and many guards wear helmets making it impossible to take them out stealthily using this. There’s also an array of gadgets including sonar goggles and a tri-rotor that you can fly around the level to deactivate lights and cameras as well as exploding it behind people’s heads because that’s just how Fisher rolls. Sadly the split-jump doesn’t make a return, while it was rarely actually useful in the first game, it somehow seems iconic to the series in terms of impractically achieving your goals. If you can’t do it with style then what’s the point?
In the pursuit of stealth there are some items which seem almost overpowered and make playing the game through on normal incredibly easy. Sleeping gas grenades can silently drop groups of guards and the crossbow allows you to do this at quite a range. While the helmeted guards should be an intimidating sight, an armour piercing sniper rifle will take them down in a single shot to the face, albeit lethally. At the higher difficulties these are less effective and you can’t resupply mid-mission, but most of the mission are fairly short so it’s rare you find yourself devoid of options. In all modes bar one you get a chance to customise your loadouts with gadgets and weapons purchased through a menu, and you get so much money just playing through on the standard difficulty you’ll quickly be able to buy everything. It almost makes you wonder why they bothered with a cash system as it seems odd that 4th Echelon are getting paid for what they’re doing and you never have to actually save up for anything. Many of the suit, weapon and base upgrades can be bought within the first few levels so having different tiers is a complete waste.
Your base throughout your campaign is the Paladin, a giant aircraft kitted out with an infirmary, holding cells, a lab and more. From here you can start the single player, co-op or versus modes in the game as well as chatting to your crew and ringing your daughter Sarah. It functions much like the Normandy in Mass Effect and you get just as attached to it. There’s a few secrets hidden around and it looks incredibly impressive, much moreso than a simple menu.
The campaign is fairly lengthy and has some co-op missions built in as side tasks for the crew members aboard the Paladin. Each member of the crew has a different style of missions for you so Grim sends you on extreme stealth runs, Charlie has horde-mode style defensive tasks, Briggs has more standard missions and Kovak wants you to take out every enemy on a level. All of the co-op missions feel like fully fledged levels without being cut down or lacking in detail. They’re a lot of fun to play through, even with randomers in the matchmaking although a lack of checkpoints in some of them can be frustrating. There’s some real challenge in Grim’s missions too and there’s leaderboards for all of them the encourage you to keep trying them again and again. Most can be completed in half an hour or so unless things go badly wrong. A particular highlight is a stealthy assault on a yacht that a ridiculous number of paths to get to each of the three objectives and is satisfying to finally complete without a guard ever seeing you. Nothing like hanging out of a window 50ft above the sea waiting for someone to finish their conversation before you dive behind a piano after they pass. That’s what you get if you don’t invite Sam to a party.
The plot is typical Tom Clancy political thriller, which isn’t to say it’s bad, the voice acting is superb and there’s a real villain you can easily hate, but don’t expect it to stray too far from its roots. There’s an irritating UI problem where ‘A’ is used for lots of actions and running, and then also features as the ‘skip cutscene’ button meaning we skipped far more than we would have liked due to cutscenes appearing right after a section where you have to run. While the story is compelling there’s a few moments where things don’t quite make sense or it gets unrealistic for the sake of drama and action. There’s also a trip to London where all the buildings are in the wrong place which is immensely disappointing for Londoners.
Graphically, the game looks brilliant on PC and runs easily on our 7870 on Ultra at 60fps. I’d avoid getting it on console if possible due to the severely limited hardware struggling to run it well but whiever platform you land on it’s an impressive looking game. Every Splinter Cell has shown the developers have a firm grasp of lighting and dramatic scenery and this is no different. There’s a little less variety than in past entries in the series, often leading you to industrial-looking buildings and compounds, but there’s the odd surprise that’s certainly welcome.
The multiplayer will be the focus for many as Blacklist heralds the return of the much loved Spies vs Mercenaries mode from Pandora Tomorrow. For the uninitiated, SvM has one team of spies going up against a team of Mercs. In Blacklist it can be up to 4v4 but the original mode has 2v2. The spies must attempt to hack certain objectives while the mercs try to stop them. The interesting part is that the spies are massively underpowered in terms of weaponry and can’t really take the mercs in a head-to-head fight, instead they must hide in the shadows and outwit the mercs in order to get things done. In the menu as ‘SvM classic’ there are a few changes like the fact you can only attack one objective at a time and there’s more emphasis on aggression rather than stealth, but it’s a whole lot of fun and definitely worth checking out even if you missed out the first time round. It’s a mode like no other and if you have a teammate who communicates well it’s one of the most immersive and tense multiplayer experiences in video games. Hanging from a ledge as a spy while a merc walks past oblivious is something that no other game has been able to replicate. They’ve made stealth work in an online game and for that they should be commended. There are other modes available including one that has the mercs trying to steal information while the spies defend and a team deathmatch style mode that really highlights the spies’ new offensive capabilities. So far the Blacklist SvM hasn’t really grabbed us yet as most matches degenerate into the Hunger games and stealth rapidly goes out the window. The spies simply have too much of an opportunity to kill the mercs rather than hide from them so stealth becomes less and less encouraged.
Overall, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is another excellent entry into the Splinter Cell series and cements its position as the best stealth game without question. The single-player is an enjoyable romp through a Tom Clancy story while the multiplayer is engaging and challenging as well as being a breath of fresh air from all the FPS and cover-based shooters around. If you’re new to Splinter Cell you might want to catch up on the story via Wikipedia or even playing all the (still excellent) older games first, but do so safe in the knowledge you’ll enjoy this outstanding game.