I have never played a game whose political agenda confused me as much as Splinter Cell: Blacklist. I’m used to my fair share of pro-American propaganda, especially in military-themed shooters, and I’ve encountered, albeit much less frequently, pointed critiques of our actions abroad.
But Blacklist’s story offers neither of those things. Longtime franchise protagonist Sam Fisher—and the other members of his newly established organization, Fourth Echelon—commit many of the same dubious acts that have made headlines of late. You carry out drone strikes in sovereign nations without their permission or knowledge. There are references to PRISM-style blanket surveillance and data mining. There’s an interrogation scene set in Guantanamo Bay that some might consider a depiction of torture—insofar as Sam inflicts bodily pain on a restrained man with the express intent of extracting information.
You could argue that these techniques are shown to be effective at combating the game’s enemies—a highly organized terrorist group known as the Engineers who attempt to carry out a series of five large-scale attacks known as “the Blacklist.” At the same time, however, your actions are presented absent of any moral clarity or whitewashing. Characters argue about the ramifications of their decisions. Tough calls get made in the field that you might not be wholly comfortable with as a player—I know I certainly wasn’t. Most telling of all, in the aforementioned interrogation scene, Sam delivers a threat that’s echoed almost word for word by the game’s main villain later in the game.
The sum total is something that’s neither ringing endorsement nor scathing indictment, but instead a topical, ethically muddled tale of modern espionage. That complex approach makes for the most compelling story the series has delivered to date, as does a larger, more fleshed-out cast of characters. For once, you’re actually encouraged to interact with your team, too, since your new aerial headquarters, the Paladin, functions as a Normandy-esque hub between missions. The voice work is generally solid across the board—though newcomer Eric Johnson has a hard time escaping the long shadow left by Michael Ironside during his tenure as Sam.
The same bar of quality has been applied to nearly every aspect of gameplay as well. At its heart, Blacklist is primarily an expansion of the core principles introduced in the last game, Conviction, but it’s a fairly ambitious one. Most notably, a much stronger emphasis has been placed on expanding options for traditional stealth gameplay, both lethal and nonlethal. Levels feature a surprising number of routes to your objective, rewarding exploration and evasion, and Sam’s arsenal of customizable gadgets and equipment has been tremendously expanded to accommodate whatever way you want to play.
Along those lines, there’s a brand-new scoring system that rewards points for your every action in one of three separate categories: Panther, Ghost, and Assault. Each is designed around a specific playstyle—Panther for stealthy kills, Ghost for nonlethal takedowns and outright evasion, and Assault for open confrontation. If you’re a diehard stealth player, you’ll find plenty of fun and challenge in completing a Ghost-only playthrough, even on Normal difficulty. If you’re in the market for a truly brutal stealth experience, though, the two notches above that, Realistic and Perfectionist, will force you to carefully plan your every move. I daresay Perfectionist manages to be even more punishing than the first three Splinter Cells ever were.
If, on the other hand, you’re not exactly the patient type, there’s still plenty of fun to be had by rolling with the punches and naturally transitioning into open combat when the sneaky approach falls apart. The cover system and gunplay aren’t quite as fluid as a dedicated third-person shooter, but they’re adequate enough. Once you master the returning Mark and Execute feature, which allows you to tag enemies and pull of cinematic, Jack Bauer–style chain kills, you’ll have plenty of fun gunning your way out of tight corners.
What’s more, since the game keeps track of whether or not you’ve mastered each playstyle, there’s considerable incentive to replay missions and max out your points in each category. Thankfully, a return visit with an entirely different approach can feel incredibly different, keeping the repetition and fatigue to a minimum.
Even after you’ve thoroughly exhausted the story missions, there’s still plenty more of Blacklist to be had. For starters, the game offers a fair number of side missions, divided up into four different categories. Three of those types focus on one specific playstyle and are available in either single-player or co-op, while the fourth is designed exclusively around co-op. They’re all fairly meaty and well designed, especially the dedicated co-op missions, which feature some of the most imaginative segments in the entire game, like one section where players take turns covering each other with a drone from a god’s eye view perspective.
Since these side missions frequently feature sporadic—or nonexistent—checkpoints, they offer considerably more challenge than the main campaign. As a result, they’re where I most frequently encountered my largest frustration with Blacklist: the context-sensitive controls. The A Button performs an absurd amount of heavy lifting here, doing everything from swapping your cover to climbing ledges to opening windows and doors. To figure out exactly what it’ll do at any given moment, you need to aim your targeting reticule at the floating text in front of the object you want to interact with.
During slower moments, the system works perfectly fine, but I lost track of the number of times it misconstrued my intentions in the middle of a high-pressure situation. I’d try to climb in a window, only to jump to ledge above it, leaving me even more vulnerable to the very gunfire I was trying to avoid. I’d attempt to close a door, only to open the one right next to it, giving a passing guard even more time to spot me. It’s a shame—and I’m not sure there’s an easy solution, since the complicated control scheme already seems on the verge of overloading the controller—but it’s not such a frequent occurrence as to ruin your entire experience with the game.
And even if my struggles with the controls did spoil a bit of the fun, they couldn’t dampen the giddiness I felt playing the long-awaited return of the Spies vs. Mercenaries multiplayer mode. As someone who poured hundreds of online hours into Pandora Tomorrow, Chaos Theory, and, yes, even Double Agent, I can honestly say that Ubisoft Toronto has done sufficient justice to the my favorite competitive multiplayer mode of all time. The cat-and-mouse tension of its asymmetrical showdowns between agile third-person spies and heavily armed and armored first-person mercenaries is intact and as exciting as ever.
It is different, though; there’s no denying that. Even in Classic mode, which sticks true to the 2-on-2 formula of the original, spies are considerably more powerful than in prior games, able to execute swift melee kills from any angle. The other four modes muck with things further by introducing class-based abilities and customizable loadouts, but these additions actually won me over after a few rounds. The skills—like going invisible as a spy or sending out drones as a merc—do a lot to expand the metagame, forcing you to change up your team composition to maintain a strategic, rock-paper-scissors–like advantage over your opponents.
The first of the new modes, Blacklist, features the same standard objective of hacking three terminals scattered around the map, only with teams of four and the aforementioned tweaks. The second, Extraction, tasks the mercenaries with retrieving a briefcase defended by the spies, and while the balanced seems quite heavily skewed in favor of the defenders, it’s still neat to see the standard formula turned on its head, with the mercs on offense for a change.
The last two gametypes represent the most drastic departure from the norm, as teams can be made up of any combination of spies and mercenaries. One is a standard Team Deathmatch—considerably more enjoyable than you might expect—while the other, Uplink Control, plays out like a pared-down version of Battlefield’s Conquest mode.
As you can see, Ubisoft Toronto has managed to squeeze a lot of variety out of the Spies vs. Mercenaries concept. For my money, while none of the new modes quite match the excitement of good ol’-fashioned Classic, they’re each decent fun in their own way, and I imagine they’ll all find their fair share of advocates.
One the whole, that’s really the most impressive thing about Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Usually, when a game tries to offer something for everyone, the individual areas suffer, but Blacklist pays so much attention to every aspect of its gameplay that’s it hard to imagine anyone walking away feeling completely unsatisfied. As a stealth aficionado with fond memories of the first three games, I can’t quite say it’s my favorite entry in the franchise, but in terms of sheer volume of content and accessibility, it’s by far the most successful. Sam Fisher might be going gray around the temples, but if Blacklist is any indication, he’s got a fair bit of life left in him yet.
Blacklist’s bitingly topical campaign, huge selection of co-op missions, and wildly enjoyable update of the Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer make for the best, most ambitious Splinter Cell of this generation.
M – Mature
|Splinter Cell: Blacklist is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC. Primary version played was for Xbox 360. Product was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.