Splinter Cell Blacklist Preview

At its surface, Splinter Cell Blacklist isn’t likely to wow us all with innovation. This decade-long exercise in merging stealth and action is at a stage now where it’s all about refinement, rather than sweeping gameplay changes.

Blacklist refines what we saw in Conviction, throwing away some of the less loved elements of the last main Splinter Cell outing and bringing back some of the much-missed elements from earlier games in the series. So, light and shade are imperative to remaining unseen – and it can be properly difficult in places – but there’s still the Mark-and-Execute function that has such a pleasurable payoff.

Even the new mission planning and loadout customisation aspects are largely borrowed from Ubisoft’s other covert third person series, Ghost Recon. But that’s not a criticism, in this case familiarity is beneficial to the narrative and to the experience. Sam Fisher arrives as an experienced operative, ageing and jaded. Knowing the way around things will help the player feel that level of expertise for themselves.

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The set-up isn’t exactly revelatory, either: terrorists – the titular Blacklist – have attacked a military base and promised more attacks, one per week, until the United States withdraws its troops from the 154 foreign countries they’re currently living and working in. A crack team is pieced together, with Fisher at its head and they’re all packed off on a state-of-the-art military transport prototype that’s stuffed full of the highest of high tech equipment. The team is then sent off into the sky to stay out of the way of any potential attacks while they plan and coordinate the assault on Blacklist.

The make up of this team also features some familiar action movie clichés. There’s the shady CIA dude, the geeky super-hacker and the former trusted cohort that isn’t perhaps as well trusted as she might once have been. Some old faces pop up in the early missions too. No spoilers here but if you’ve been a long-time fan of Sam Fisher’s antics, you’ll get those few smug seconds of knowing more than some of the in-game characters which is always a nice reward for dedicated fandom.

So it should all feel quite familiar to Splinter Cell veterans but the aforementioned refinement of the principles of stealth and action make it feel as though Ubisoft has finally found a balance. From the few hours I’ve had to play it, Blacklist seems to be approachable in any number of ways. If you want to sneak through the entire mission without being seen by anyone, you can. If you want to take on your mission like a human explosion factory, gunning, running and blowing stuff up along the way, you can do it that way too. Finally, if you want to do a bit of sneaking but feel like your videogame experience just isn’t complete if there isn’t a pile of corpses in your wake then you can slink your way through missions silently murdering anyone who doesn’t salute the same flag as you and stuffing them in bins.

These play styles are named: Ghost for the super sneaky, Assault for the super noisy and Panther for the silent-but-deadly types. The game rewards each of these three play styles with upgrades and payouts, independently of each other – so you will gain extra tools in the game that relate to the way you generally play. I tend to most enjoy the Panther style of play in games like this, it requires a bit of engagement with all of the game’s systems in order to make it through – and it makes you feel smarter and more menacing than your opponents.

That said, I also enjoyed trying to play as a Ghost. It’s not completely unforgiving in the same way that the first Splinter Cell might have been, although ramping up the difficulty setting turns off Mark-and-Execute, makes your enemies a lot more perceptive and also makes your own advantages – like night vision goggles – less useful. The Ghost play style encourages you to stay hidden and that seems realistic in most situations. After all, Sam Fisher probably wouldn’t want to be detected at all while deep inside hostile territory.

Assault was probably my least favourite way to play the game, although it’s perfectly usable. Perhaps in a different game it would have really appealed but I go into a Splinter Cell game for the gadgets and the advantages they give me – the element of surprise, at least. The Assault play style offers a different type of gadget (bigger guns, generally) and, while it plays perfectly well as a rather unforgiving shooter, that’s probably not what most fans of the series will want.

Unfortunately, for my usual play style, there’s no special rewards for the “sneak in assassinating, get spotted, run around in circles lobbing grenades until you’re killed” method of taking part in missions so my scores tended to veer towards Panther with a little secondary bump to the Assault score from when things got a bit leary.

Every mission has a clearly marked objective pointer on your screen and they generally have a fairly obvious route to reach them. And yet, there’s a real sense of freedom in how you approach each area with plenty of alternative ways to that ever-present blue marker, some demanding a more stealthy approach than others. Interior locations often cry out to be played with like challenge rooms – set within larger missions – where you’ll dance between dark corridors, cover opportunities and window ledge-dangling in an effort to outsmart a group of enemies that have seemingly thought of every move you might make. It’s clever and it’s fantastically enjoyable too but it’s also rarely very simple.

And that’s another thing I took away from my time with the latest Splinter Cell: it’s not too easy. I loved Conviction but it wasn’t a difficult game, unless you forced some imagined restrictions upon yourself. Blacklist kills you quite quickly if you’re spotted out of cover and although there are regular checkpoints, it has no sympathy for your mistakes and regularly sends you back to them.

While the discovery of any innovation in Blacklist might require a little scratching of the surface, the refinement of ideas – and the way they’re conveyed to the player – is looking extremely promising. It’s too early for any grand declarations, that can wait for the full review, but Splinter Cell Blacklist is making a very good early impression.

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5 Comments

  1. “sneak in assassinating, get spotted, run around in circles lobbing grenades until you’re killed” method

    An honourable gaming strategy that has helped me with most games from MGS through The Saboteur and Uncharted to Hitman:Absolution…

  2. “Panther for the silent-but-deadly types”

    I’m guessing they didn’t want to call it the ‘Noiseless Fart’ play style.

    Won’t be splurging oodles of cash at this but will definitely pick it up when it’s a more palatable price. £20, I feel.

  3. Splinter Cell – I remember that series of games from the late 90’s through 00’s. Nice to know that horse is still being flogged…

  4. I was originally really excited for this, but it slipped off my radar. The stealth aspect sounds great, and I’d love to play co-op with a mate, but annoyingly none of my mates are really into tactical FPS’s. Maybe I’ll pick it up in a Steam/uPlay sale at some point after reading reviews.

  5. It sounds stupid but I had no idea this was coming to Wii-U until earlier today. The various co-op/competitive modes sound great so I may need to check this out with a buddy :)

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