For me, the most noticeable shift from Splinter Cell: Conviction to Blacklist is the breadth and depth of the game. It’s epitomised by the large mission selection map on the Strategic Mission Interface (SMI) within the game’s hub, which by the end of the game will be riddled with dots for missions. All from the core of the single player story or one of many side missions, co-op missions or the returning Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer, merged into a single space, letting you have everything at your fingertips.
Where Conviction took Sam out of his comfort zone, setting him as a lone gun against a corrupted establishment, Blacklist sets a new status quo. It takes the core gameplay that worked so well to revitalise the franchise, with more open and busy environments possible and the potential for more action packed moments, that particularly arresting Augmented Reality style (now under the SMI’s umbrella) with information projected onto walls around Sam, and fleshes out the game around it.
As a group calling themselves The Engineers go after overseas US military interests, Sam is brought into the fold once more, to head up the somewhat lazily named Fourth Echelon, aboard their roving Paladin sky fortress. This plane acts as the hub world for the game, letting you view the map, hone your upgrade path, call Sarah between missions and talk to your support team.
There are a handful of new characters, the techy Charlie and ground support man Briggs, as well as pushing Sam back into awkward working relationships with Grimm and Kobin which, following the events of Conviction, could certainly put an extra bit of spice to the plot.
Of course, the main controversy here surrounds Sam’s voice, and I cant help but feel for Eric Johnson, the new actor behind Sam Fischer’s digital visage. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, that’s for sure, but when you come from previous entries in the series with Michael Ironside lending his voice to the character, he’s simply nowhere near as distinctive and this does detract from the character. It’s going to take a while for fans to adjust and accept the shift, but when they do, there’s still the solid core of Splinter Cell’s gameplay to be enjoyed.
Although the first mission’s setting of Benghazi, with the sun blazing down on you, is far from an ideal location to hide in shadows, there’s plenty of opportunity to try different tactics and tackle the situations you’re put into in different ways. These tie in with the three highlighted play styles which Ubisoft have streamlined the game around. Ghost sees you sneaking by undetected, whilst Panther is similar, except that you get to kill everything in your path. Assault is pretty self-explanatory, as you get to “go loud” and pit your wits against the enemies who are actively hunting you down.
In all instances, there’s scope to gain advantage from gadgets and your environment. Flicking a light switch will get enemies to come and investigate, allowing you to ambush them, or you might be able to hop out of a window, and go along the outside of the building. Making a return from Conviction are the slightly controversial “Last Known Postition” and “Mark & Execute” features. The former leaving a ghostly visage of Sam when spotted, for where the AI thinks you are hiding, whilst the latter lets you earn the ability to kill a bunch of enemies in quick succession, via stealth kills and headshots.
So it’s all comprised of elements which fans of the series will be familiar with, but ties back into these three styles of play, as the game constantly jots down what you’ve been up to and awards points. As you play in a particular fashion more and more, that will then let you unlock extra boosters and abilities which help to hone that aspect of your play, in addition to the various Paladin and SMI upgrades.
However, over the course of the first mission’s hour of game time, in which I had to extract Sam’s least favourite Kobin from a Libyan prison, the game wasn’t afraid to take me out of my sneaky comfort zone on a handful of occasions. Forcing me to haul his near-dead weight to an extraction point whilst fending off oncoming enemies or defending a set position, these were both very different challenges that lasted just a few minutes, but mixed things up nicely.
My only worry would be to do with balancing them with how players have been playing up until that point. I sank a good few times before I swam, and figuring out how best to tackle the enemies coming at me. Similarly, one particularly brutal checkpoint sent me back quite a distance, whilst trying to play on a harder difficulty gave me a different layout of enemies which I simply could not overcome, the vital Mark & Execute ability impossible to attain at that particular choke point. Naturally, these are all fairly slight niggles, which I would expect to be polished out for release.
I’ll also miss the small complimentary story arc which was painted by the co-op missions in Conviction. In Blacklist you now team up with Briggs for missions which are pitched as following leads of Sam’s support team on the Paladin. Some can be played both solo and co-op, but all will come to populate the SMI’s map.
Over the 14 co-op missions, they’ll also try to cater for different play styles, where some missions have the kind of insta-fail stealth that many people would find frustrating, and other are more lenient, merely calling in more reinforcements to an area. I certainly hope that the more plot-based co-op missions are still somewhere in the mix, as the one which I was able to give a go merely consisted of a couple of large arenas with enemies to clear out as quietly as possible. Shorter and snappier, but less satisfying to my mind.
Rounding out the whole package is the returning Spies vs. Mercs mode, from earlier games. This comes both in a 2v2 classic mode, but with the revamped Blacklist alongside, offering up a more modern feeling take on proceedings in 4v4.
It’s far from your ordinary Team Deathmatch, as the agile 3rd person perspective spies try to hack as many of the three terminals on each map before time runs out. Up against them, the mercs play in the first person, more heavily armoured and unable to clamber up walls or through the crawl spaces available to the spies. Once time is up, the teams switch places, and whichever did better wins.
There’s an intriguing balance to it, with the hacking spy having to stay within a particular area for the hack to continue, whilst the mercs search tirelessly for them, and I had a lot of fun on both sides. There’s something immensely satisfying about hiding in a perfect shadow, and dropping on an unsuspecting merc, or getting in a cheeky melee kill, just as much as spotting a spy who thought he was hidden, and gunning him down before he has a chance to move.
Naturally, there are rafts of customisations for looks and abilities to unlock during the multiplayer, and this just ties back to what is at the heart of Blacklist. Splinter Cell will always be a game which is primarily about stealth, but with Blacklist it feels like there are maybe slightly more diverging opportunities to tackle each little sandbox in different ways. Not to mention that, as Ubisoft state that this is the biggest Splinter Cell to date, there are many more of these deadly sandboxes to play in.