Sam Fisher is back, stepping from the shadows into a gaming warehouse that hasn’t exactly been packed to the rafters with blockbuster stealth action games since his last outing.
That game, Conviction, was slightly divisive among fans. Some loved the increase in action and accessibility while others lamented the perceived loss of real, unforgiving stealth gameplay that had been such a tenet of the earlier Splinter Cell philosophy.
So, can Splinter Cell: Blacklist find the perfect balance between stealth and action that will keep everyone happy?
It’s often said that there are only seven stories in the whole of fiction and that everything else is just a derivative of one of those seven. So perhaps calling Splinter Cell: Blacklist wholly unoriginal in its narrative is a tad unfair but even the daintiest of steps back will reveal a basic plot that you’ve watched, read and played through a hundred times before. In terms of those seven story archetypes, this is one of the simplest: Overcoming the Monster.
That monster, in Sam Fisher’s world, is a terrorist organisation – The Engineers – which is bent on putting the almost immeasurable might of the United States military back in its box on home soil. After an initial attack, the ultimatum is simple: withdraw from the 154 countries that currently have US troops living or working within them or face another attack every week on a different pillar of modern American life – the titular Blacklist.
So Fourth Echelon – a task force – is assembled of differently skilled action movie clichés, loaded onto a futuristically equipped cargo aeroplane and sent off to circumnavigate the globe, chasing down leads and dropping off Fisher to sneak, shoot and punch his way through the extended network it takes to keep a shadowy terrorist organisation in voice scramblers and remote detonators.
The make up of that task force is another gleeful skip through the action genre’s shared memory. The woman with which you have a history, the constantly quipping technology genius, the shady intelligence officer from another branch of the clandestine community and the former monster that you must work with for the greater good. I’m sure they’re all recognisable to you already and the way they play off each other will also be immediately familiar.
But familiar isn’t always a bad thing and the use of ready-meal plots and boil-in-the-bag characters means that Splinter Cell: Blacklist doesn’t have to waste time establishing motivation for the protagonist or setting the narrative in a believable world – that’s already been achieved by the history of similar experiences and stories you’ve experienced. Now Splinter Cell: Blacklist can build on that, unencumbered.
The gameplay mechanics revisit some of the best bits of Conviction while letting back in some of the nuanced stealth that marked earlier games in the series. Mark and Execute is back, at least on the lower difficulty settings, and so is the cover system and free-flowing movement between cover. So the action is satisfying and intuitive to control. The stealth side of things is less forgiving than Fisher’s previous outing – that feels like a step back toward the way stealth was handled in earlier Splinter Cell games. It’s not so rigidly unforgiving, perhaps, but the team at Ubisoft Toronto has clearly tried to find a balance and it has, for the most part, worked wonderfully.
There are still moments when the more lazy players among us might not be so strict about stealth because it’s a reasonably safe assumption that we’ll be able to fight our way out of a corner. There are times when progress through sections using stealth feel like they’re a case of trial and error, rather than skill and experience. But on the whole, it’s well balanced and offers a quite impressive range of methods to approach each situation. There are also numerous instances during missions when you’re tasked with providing sniper cover from the air, guiding the tri-rotor drone through otherwise inaccessible areas or some other secondary style of playing a brief section of the game so that it always feels like there’s a freshness to the gameplay.
The myriad gadgets and weapons, which you can purchase using funds gathered from successful missions, will make later forays a little bit easier and more varied in how you might approach them. Each mission can be revisited so that you can take your upgraded equipment into them and play them in any of the different styles – which you’ll need to do if you want to master each of them in each of the three play styles.
Those styles – Ghost, Panther and Assault – represent pure stealth, deadly stealth and noisy action respectively and the game encourages you to concentrate on one style at a time, giving better bonuses for scoring high in each style – which requires chaining together certain style-specific actions to make up the really big scores. So you might get a points bonus for several stealthy kills in a row, for example. All those precious scores are collated and posted to leaderboards too, so your friends list will have the chance to chase your best performances.
There are occasions when you’re forced into playing a particular way for the sake of the game’s narrative. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to allow the player to use shotguns and frag grenades when the story dictates that you must remain undetected, for example. But for the most part, each of the three approaches really can be used to surmount the game’s missions. In fact, every mission has a target score for each play style and they’re not considered “Matered” until you’ve beaten the mission using each separate approach.
If you’re particularly perfectionist about your games, this means you won’t feel like you’ve finished it until you’ve played it through at least three times – and there is also encouragement to do each mission non-lethally or without detection and on the frankly masochistic most difficult setting. That could be seen as a good or a bad thing, depending on how much the urge to complete things grabs you and how limited your time may be but what it does mean is that there’s plenty of opportunity for longevity, even without considering the co-op missions and multiplayer.
So there’s plenty of variation and there’s plenty to endear Splinter Cell: Blacklist to new fans and old. The lengthy single player campaign is augmented with plenty of co-op missions and that healthy multiplayer portion of the game to dip into. It might not have the most imaginative of plots and the delivery of that narrative is just okay but it’s not supposed to be anything too deep – it’s a summer blockbuster. In those terms, Splinter Cell: Blacklist succeeds at every turn thanks to Ubisoft Toronto’s impressive balancing of stealth and action that is, as yet, unmatched in this genre.