It’s no surprise, especially if you read my post from a few weeks back, that I was eagerly anticipating Splinter Cell: Blacklist. To reiterate some of my musings, I felt the series was overlooked in some ways when discussions arose regarding great games of the past. Chaos Theory, released in 2005, was Ubisoft’s third entry in the series and arguably their pinnacle of quality. Despite how great that game was, there’s no disputing that the current-gen offerings of the Splinter Cell series have been average at best and threw the series off-kilter from its origins in such a marked fashion. The last game in the series, Conviction, most notably disregarded the tactical-stealth gameplay that was once a series standard, and aimed for a more casual and gun-toting action affair, with sneaking thrown in, just so they could point at the screen and say to critics “See! He can sneak!”
Enter Blacklist, Sam Fisher’s last hurrah on the current gen of gaming. A part of me was skeptical when I heard the series was aiming to go back to its roots, but following the game through its development renewed my sense of excitement. Despite how new the direction for the series feels, it was great to see the quality of the game reach heights it hasn’t seen in years by relying on the old.
The first notable change to long time fans of the series is Michael Ironside. Or rather, the lack of Michael Ironside. Known for being the voice of Sam Fisher for the better part of a decade, Mr. Ironside was told his services were no longer required as Ubisoft went to a younger alternative, Eric Johnson. With the move to a more thorough motion-capturing process, they felt it wise to replace the older voice actor for somebody that was capable of pulling off some of the awesome secret agent moves in the game. For the most part, the change isn’t a big detractor to the game, but my preference lies with the snarky, dry wit of the original. Sam just sounds angry and frustrated in this game… granted, terrorists are trying to blow the world up and all that jazz, but it just feels weird initially.
Right from the get-go, you’re thrust into sneaking around enemies and utilizing darkness as your ally. The change to the older style is more apparent, although the game finds a perfect balance between the fast-paced nature of Conviction, and the style of the older games. Sam is definitely faster than he’s been in years past, which is not a bad thing. It’s a worthy modernization of the series’ roots. I found my natural spy instincts kicking in within a matter of seconds. Using cover, memorizing the path of guards, climbing pipes and opening vents like it was going out of style. The series was back to where it should be. There’s no better thrill than to circumvent a pack of 5-10 guards (ultra annoying guard dogs included), and make it to my next check point without tipping a single person off. It’s tough, but you can see the game through its entirety by being a ghost. Ubisoft did a tremendous job blending the style of both games into a hybrid tactical-stealth action game. If sneaking around and waiting for enemies isn’t your thing, you can always embrace the alternative of wielding an AK47 and taking on all contenders.
The single player campaign is now broken into a hub menu, where rather than go through the game in a linear level-to-level fashion, you’ll be able to talk to your crew on the Paladin, Fisher’s base of operations. You can take on extra side missions to earn cash and throw a wrench into the plans of those pesky terrorists, or see fit to upgrade both your plane and yourself. You earn cash at a very frequent rate, across all modes (including multiplayer, which I’ll get to shortly), enabling you to pretty much outfit Sam with the best of the best. You have the decision of making Sam a stealth ninja, or a brute with armor, depending on your play style. I often found myself going through each mission with the niftiest of gadgets and a silenced weapon in case things got really dicey. I appreciate that Ubisoft didn’t pigeonhole us into a corner regarding play style; the equipment selection process only accentuates that.
Graphically, the game is impressive for the most part, but the hardware does show its limitations from time to time. I’m playing this on the 360, so I was offered the opportunity to install the HD graphics pack on the disc, which is about 3GB of space. I haven’t played the game without it, though I imagine the quality of the game would be considerably lower.
In addition to the campaign, Blacklist offers a slew of co-op missions that can be attempted online or locally. These missions are a great add-on, although only four are true exclusive co-op maps, while the other 10 can be attempted solo. Being able to boost a friend up to an unreachable ledge, or take out guards in a team-oriented fashion are things I missed in the series. Why it was taken out in the first place, I’ll never know, but I’m glad it’s back.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Blacklist’s multiplayer mode, which in my humble opinion, steals the show. There are many modes of play available to you and your friends, but two modes in particular captured my attention specifically. The classic Spies vs. Mercs, mode from the series’ past is back, with a few alterations made, for better or for worse. Being the more tactical of the two modes, stealth reigns king here. This mode in particular utilizes lighting in a very strong fashion; there’s been points where I could barely see my own character on the screen due to the shadows, which is how I prefer my stealth games to be. Spies are fast, equipped with the most awesome of gadgets, and their goal is to hack three computers located on the map. The Mercs are the brutes, outfitted with the most rugged and volatile of weapons, including machine guns and remote control drones. Their task is to prevent the spies from hacking intel, and looking badass while doing it. It’s strictly a two vs. two affair, so the challenge is a bit daunting if you’re saddled with a bad partner. It can make or break your experience. My only complaint about this mode is that that they’ve removed the ability to eavesdrop on your opponents with the use of spy traps or tracking devices. This added a strategic twist, so its omission is questionable.
The other multiplayer mode, for those not into the 2v2 format of Classic Mode, is Blacklist mode, which operates similar to the campaign. You’ll be able to play on a team of four, with the same objective: hack the intel. The stealth elements aren’t as strong in this mode as the Classic, although they are still very good, but the mode is a delight to play through, as you’re forced to rely more on nifty gadgets at your disposal. I was fortunate enough to play on a team with three other highly communicative players, and the way the games unfolded through our planning was a stroke of brilliance. The tense moments I had in the final moments of games are almost indescribable, a feeling I haven’t gotten from a multiplayer game in a good while. When you have experiences like that in video games, you can’t help but appreciate them. Blacklist’s multiplayer mode had me genuinely excited for the next game, and I often found hours of my day gone missing. Through the mode, you’ll be able to use cash that you earned from the campaign and co-op, as well as multiplayer, to outfit your character how you see fit. You can get some really good combination of layouts going.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist has reinvigorated the series and has taken the level of quality to new heights not seen in the series for a good while. This game tops Chaos Theory as the best game in the series to me, offering an engaging campaign mode, with a ultra-robust multiplayer mode that rivals the best out there. I’m looking forward to seeing how they utilize the momentum they’ve built into the next-generation of gaming. Give this game a shot, you won’t regret it.