August 15, 2013
We miss Michael Ironside. We all miss Michael Ironside. His gruff tones came to define the character of Sam Fisher over the years across five Splinter Cell games, but now he's gone. And after about an hour of playing Splinter Cell: Blacklist, you'll probably have forgotten all about the whole Ironside thing. We didn't expect that. Don't get us wrong; we love Ironside Sam, but Blacklist's performance captured rendition of the character is superb, adding a whole new layer of drama and tension to Fisher's latest outing and his shadowy Fourth Echelon doings.
Right off the bat, Splinter Cell: Blacklist feels different to what's gone before. It feels fresher, more real, more dramatic. There's a sense of urgency and pace to proceedings, starting with Sam escaping the wreckage of a helicopter, before sneaking through the exterior of a US military base. It's a thinly veiled tutorial, but it works. And once the prologue wraps up, you'll find yourself operating from the mission control deck of Fourth Echelon's cutting-edge Paladin plane, flying out to whatever global hotspot requires the intervention of a limber grey-haired badass in a sneaking suit and goggles.
Blacklist seems to have borrowed its tone and story from recent TV shows like Homeland, with an authentic level of detail that makes you feel like the whole thing is thoroughly grounded in reality, even if it's an alternate take on global politics and espionage. The story revolves around the eponymous Blacklist, a series of terror attacks that promise to tear the United States asunder unless the government agrees to pull its troops out of the Middle East. It's fairly topical stuff, making it that much more believable. As such you feel like Sam is truly a force to be reckoned with, using his guns and gadgets to make the world a safer place, one mission at a time.
Before each mission, you're given a briefing around the high-tech SMI table at the centre of you airborne Paladin base, where Sam and Anna Grim exchange brooding stares at one another while discussing the task at hand. Each week, the Blacklist's masterminds, The Engineers, threaten a new attack on American soil, and so gathering information from former agents and shady types before preventing each attack is the order of the day. Sam can customise his gear and suit before insertion into each mission, adding a further element of strategy to proceedings, although the game will recommend the best equipment to take as the situation dictates. Need to go loud? Take the kevlar and frags. Wanna go in quiet? Spend some money on soft padded boots.
You're also able to divert your attention to other optional solo missions dotted around the SMI's world map, some of which can also be tackled in co-op with CIA company man and Sam's new trusted ally, Isaac Briggs. You'll also find a few co-op only missions thrown into the mix assigned to Grim, resident hacker Charlie and field buddy Isaac, as well as the welcome return of Spies vs. Mercs, which gets its own dedicated waypoint on the map. Everything is all laid out for you in one place, and presented as one nice cohesive whole, which is a neat touch. It saves time having to piss about in menus too.
Out in the field, Sam is perhaps the most versatile he's ever been. He's incredibly lithe for an old fella too, able to scale cliff faces at speed and shimmy around ledges with an impossible, unerring grace and agility. The game's radial menu is clean and easy to use, enabling you to switch between lethal stabbiness and non-lethal brain punching, and NVGs or sonar goggles with ease, but still takes some getting used to. The rest of the game's controls are intuitive and make complete sense, meaning if your strategy goes tits up, it's probably your fault.
Blacklist is a smooth game to play, oozing quality and polish from every pore. All of the component game mechanics slot together neatly, and yet it's still an immensely tough game to master. Even at rookie difficulty – and you can set your difficulty level before each mission – enemies are smart, making stealth and evasion more sensible options. Mercifully, regular mission save points prevent you from tearing your hair out, if not avoiding the odd bout of frustration when things don't quite play out your way. Just try playing the game on Realistic or Perfectionist. It requires the patience of a saint. The saintliest saint.
You can play all-out Assault-style if you want, and still get rewarded for it, but there's always the more shrewd and less life-endangering quiet way to go about completing Splinter Cell: Blacklist's objectives. Sam has the tools and he has the skills to pay the bills; or in this case to pay for upgrades. Each mission debrief and actions performed in the field gives you a hefty cash injection to spend on Paladin upgrades that in turn grant Sam a different boost or ability. New gear can also be purchased, as well as new gloves, boots, vests, goggles and other bits for Sam's loadout. Some upgrades are simply cosmetic, like goggle colours, though why someone would want to turn Sam's iconic goggles pink, is beyond us. Sacrilege.
While Splinter Cell: Blacklist's single-player campaign is incredibly generous then, with a lengthy core narrative and side missions, multiplayer offers a variety of co-op missions, Spies vs. Mercs mode and a couple of other competitive options, like Team Deathmatch. Spies Vs. Mercs is obviously the main draw here, and this time around it comes in a couple of different flavours. There's Spies vs. Mercs Classic, which is the mode as you remember it from Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, pitting the first-person Merc hunters against the nimble third-person Spies as they attempt to hack terminals.
Avoiding the attention of the Mercs flashlights is still as tense as ever when playing as a Spy, while stalking a Merc from the shadows and turning the tables is still massively gratifying. Playing as a Merc with all that firepower is great fun too, and it's all remarkably well-balanced. Spies vs. Mercs Blacklist is the mode with added accoutrements like player classes and upgrades, as well as different gadgets and other bobbins. Mercs start without flashlights for example, and Spies have various loadouts to experiment with, but it's all still nicely balanced.
There's a wealth of content in multiplayer, and you can spend your cash earned across both single-player and multiplayer on gadgets and other equipment for Sam in the campaign or for your multiplayer characters. All the money you earn from performing certain actions in both SP and MP gets pooled into one big total to spend as you see fit.
Multiplayer is also bolstered by Extraction – a capture the flag style mode in which Spies must steal intel and return it to a drop point, and the Mercs have to stop them. Then there's Uplink Control, a Battlefield Conquest-esque game-type in which teams of Spies and Mercs (you can mix them up if you like) fight to control a series of designated uplink sites and protect them while uploading data. It's frenetic back and forth stuff, and another sign that Blacklist's multiplayer is no mere tacked-on afterthought by any means.
Sadly, the achievement list doesn't live up to the same high standards as the rest of the game. This has to be one of the most by-the-numbers lists we've seen in a while, consisting almost entirely of completion achievements and gathering collectibles like dead drops and laptops. Hardly the most inspiring set of tasks, completing the game on 'Perfectionist' difficulty will be stupidly hard work, as will doing almost literally everything in the game. And it's not a small game by any means. If we were marking the list for longevity, the score would be much higher, but we're not. A list to blacklist if ever there was one.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a class act that gets pretty much everything right. It looks slick, plays beautifully and boasts more than enough options to encourage repeat visits to its missions and multiplayer modes. The deepest and most engaging Splinter Cell yet then? Pretty much, yes. Chaos Theory remains the high watermark for many, but Splinter Cell: Blacklist feels like a real return to form for Sam Fisher, even without the gravelly, sonorous tones of the legendary Mr. Ironside. It's good to have you back, Mr. Fisher.
Typically dark synth music that's subtle when it needs to be. Sam's new voice takes a while to accept, but Eric Johnson does a fine, unenviable job in filling Michael Ironside's enormous shoes as Sam Fisher. In fact the voices are excellent all round.
Exemplary. The performance captured characters are thoroughly convincing, the attention to detail is remarkable and the presentation throughout is stellar. Special mention has to go to the lighting too, which is stunning.
A tight and almost flawless experience. Simple to play, but enormously difficult to master, Splinter Cell: Blacklist will stretch your stealth tactics to the very limit. It's hard, but oh-so satisfying.
Solo campaign missions are but the tip of the iceberg, with co-op and multiplayer offering up hours upon hours of gameplay. And it's all served up beautifully.
Mostly by-the-numbers with only a few achievements that encourage experimentation. This is mostly a list of things to complete and collect. Boring, and almost entirely devoid of creativity. Bleh.
Ubisoft has outdone itself with this one, producing a game that serves up quality and quantity in spades. Splinter Cell: Blacklist can be a demanding and sometimes harsh game, but it only serves in strengthening your resolve to do better, and explore different approaches and avenues to achieve perfect stealth. Whether you're a Ghost, Panther or Assault player, Splinter Cell: Blacklist has something to offer, regardless.