Terrorism. That’s Terrorism with a capital letter, not the lowercase terrorism of the previous century. Back in the late 1900s, terrorist attacks were confined, poignant and often domestic; they were perpetrated by single-minded individuals or mad groups, and society outlined them clearly without dwelling too long. Then planes were rerouted into the sides of America’s buildings unexpectedly, and terrorism became something large and organised. Terror became the operative part of the word, as the media and government calmly assured us that The Bogey Man was definitely under our beds and we had to blow him up before he slit our throats.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist thrives deep in this world of extremism, where sinister forces gather inside an amorphous blob of evil intent at thousands of undisclosed locations. It opens with an attack on a US military base by a terrorist group called The Engineers. This group is somewhat displeased with America’s interventionist policies and is threatening to carry out a series of attacks in the United States called the Blacklist.
That’s where you come in, assembling a crack team of special operatives and jetting off into space to save the galaxy from sentient machines. No, wait, that’s Mass Effect. In Blacklist, you’re playing a redesigned Sam Fisher, who has lost the rumbling voice of Michael Ironside and gained a striking resemblance to Commander Shepard. You have a mobile base inside a plane (not a spaceship) in which you can talk to your team (none of whom are aliens) and select missions from a map (of the world, not the galaxy). Ubisoft have clearly taken inspiration from the Mass Effect series for some of their design, and while it’s nice to wander around asking the drab ex-CIA man what he thinks about the mission and having optional and awkward conversations with your daughter on the phone, the shallow nature of the interactions make the comparison unfavourable.
The game tries hard to inject character development and interaction into its freedom-preserving, America-saving story, but the latter is bombastic and overwhelming, and the former is simply half-hearted. By the end, everyone is just angrier and the conspiracies are more ridiculous.
When you do get through the heavily-scripted and thinly-disguised tutorial that is the opening sequence, the plot begins to step out of the way and let the game itself open up. Choosing your approach is the single most important thing to do in Blacklist, as most levels offer many options when completing objectives. Broadly, you can take the path of the Ghost, the Panther or the Assault. I guess they ran out of cool, descriptive nouns with that last one. Ghost play is typified by non-lethal stealth play, keeping to the shadows and avoiding senseless murder. Panther is the same, but with a lot of murder, and Assault is about madly running through with your guns and gadgets firing in every direction.
Rather than asking you to pick a style to begin with, all options remain available at all times. Post mission you receive experience in each of the three areas depending on your actions, which can be used to increase your skills in that area. It’s a lovely way to avoid penalising players who prefer one way of completing a mission – or people like me who dip into each style by blundering haphazardly from one location to the next.
Unless you’re playing a fully-fledged Assault, shadow and cover will be rather huge parts of your experience. Fisher can snap to any piece of cover by simply pointing the camera at it and pressing a button, and stealth runs often boil down to finding the right piece of cover at the right time. The system feels fluid and responsive when it works, but the ease of use sacrifices manoeuvrability, with Sam unable to easily creep around corners and sometimes stubbornly sticking to a piece of cover when you just want him to move on. Movement in shadow is indicated by a flaring of your equipment lights, and slinking to and from dark areas will keep you out of sight.
The somewhat maligned Mark and Execute system from Splinter Cell: Conviction returns, allowing you to tag enemies and eliminate them in one dramatic movement. It’s an empowering mechanic, nicely tempered by requiring other successful actions to charge it up, but there are some moments where the number of enemies you face makes it almost compulsory, ruining the sense of choice the rest of the game builds for you.
In terms of presentation, Blacklist has all the polish and variety one expects of a major release, without ever going too far out of its comfort zone. Locations range from Benghazi’s rooftops, to a private villa, to several foreign embassies, providing plenty of different situations to tax your spying mind. Nothing really stands out post-completion, but it’s all entertaining enough at the time. Sam Fisher’s new design is considered, and all his various gear has clearly been shown some love, however the other characters frequently look like half-finished paintings. Many of the cutscenes have distracting levels of uncanny valley dragging them down.
Outside of the main campaign, Spies vs Mercs commands the attention. Splinter Cell’s trademark, asymmetrical multiplayer returning is sure to be a cause for celebration among fans, and it benefits from being unburdened by Blacklist’s self-important and consciously-cinematic story. The mode puts teams of either two or four up against each other, one playing the stealthy, third-person spies and the other playing the heavily-armed mercenaries in first-person. While it can take some coming to grips with if you’re a new player, the multiplayer is tremendously fun right off the bat, and provides an experience not often replicated even today.
Despite being wrapped in an incredibly trite and silly narrative which the game insists is vitally important to the experience, Blacklist is an extremely fun and accomplished stealth title. Early indications from the marketing suggested the series had taken a terrible turn towards mindless action, but the finished product merely expands the series’ focus to include more styles of play without losing the old ones. If you can stomach a lot of patriotic mumbo jumbo, conspiracy theories and forgettable villainy, this is some of the most polished espionage you can find. [8.5]
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Classification: R16 – Violence