Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review
Resurrects the stealth franchise, so you can forget the sins of Conviction
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a great stealth game with careful level design, varied gadgets and proficient multiplayer. It follows directly from Splinter Cell: Conviction, but puts more weight towards traditional stealth gameplay. Elements from Conviction are merged successfully with aspects from earlier games in the series. The variety of gadgets brings choice to each encounter although most enemies can be avoided. Players again assume the role of Sam Fisher, and lead a covert team against terrorists that plan to bring the USA to its knees.
America is under threat from a terrorist organisation known as the Engineers. The Engineers demand that America withdraw troops from across the globe immediately. If their request is not heeded, they will unleash catastrophic attacks on American civilians and infrastructure. This cryptic list of inevitable attacks is designated the Blacklist, and it functions as the backbone for the narrative. Since America does not negotiate with terrorists, their first action is to set up a secret task-force that can prevent Blacklist attacks. Sam Fisher, Anna Grímsdóttir (Grim) and several other key personnel form a counter-terrorism unit known as Fourth Echelon.
Sam and Grim are back working together, but there are trust issues
Sam Fisher leads Fourth Echelon (4E) from a retrofitted cargo plane. This cargo plane, codenamed Paladin, is a staging area between missions. Just like in the Normandy from Mass Effect, you can roam the fuselage and engage in brief conversation with characters. There is minimal superfluous dialogue and it is unlikely you will forge a strong personal attachment with any of the characters. Sam Fisher’s new voice actor keeps his emotions level and by the end he will have you convinced he was Sam all along. Sam’s daughter, Sarah, provides the necessary emotional link to the American homeland as they endure repercussions from the Blacklist attacks.
Sam uses the Strategic Mission Interface (SMI) to launch campaign missions. The SMI gives an overview of the globe and shows story and optional missions. Like the galaxy map from Mass Effect, you can choose your next objective and view briefings before going into the field. Intel is presented smoothly on the SMI during cut scenes. Story missions bring the Blacklist attacks closer, but side missions do not hasten their onset. Side missions are worth pursuing because of their open level design and monetary compensation. The narrative is cohesive and the SMI is the window to all things Blacklist related. This freeform approach to mission selection is refreshing and empowers players to create their own variety.
The sequel’s objective during missions is to preserve traditional stealth gameplay. The emphasis on stealth begins with gadget selection. Many gadgets from Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory return, and this includes non-lethal options for the morally inclined. Shock mines, gas grenades, flashbangs and non lethal take-downs fell guards so you can drag their bodies to concealed locations. Sticky cameras will let you watch patrols or send enemies into a deep sleep. The tri-rotor, a remote-controlled miniature helicopter, functions as surveillance device and can mark problematic enemies. Marking enemies is as useful as it was in Conviction, letting you track threats through walls and avoid unnecessary confrontations. Mark and Execute can perform finishing moves on up to three enemies, and it is well balanced on realistic difficulty. Stealth is clearly an important aspect of this sequel and preparing for missions adds investment towards a play style.
The Tri-rotor is an excellent surveillance device
Points are awarded during missions, and the most points are reserved for ghosts. These points translate into money that can be spent on gadgets, weapons or suit customisation. Non-lethal attacks provide more points than lethal, and some missions end if you are detected or kill guards. Other missions bring reinforcements that make it difficult to finish the level efficiently. It should only take you a handful of missions to obtain the necessary gadgets for your play style. Suit upgrades are expensive, but can let you carry more gadgets or increase your armor rating. There are enough customisations options to provide the necessary money sink. You will want to maximize your point return and thus keep it as covert as possible.
Level design has improved over its predecessor with natural platforming and cover design that helps you stay hidden. The initial stages keep shadows to a minimum, partly because of their daytime setting, and bring players into the game with cover and platforming. Movement between cover is slick as you slide between walls or vehicles. When in cover, you can coax enemy guards to your location by calling them over. This baiting technique seems like child’s play, until the enemy patrols overlap. Platforming creates a multitude of paths through levels and is not used as padding between the action. You can climb railings, hang on pipes or mantle through windows as the AI continues their patrols. The implementation is so natural that by game’s end you will not need the visible world prompts. The combination of cover and platforming is an excellent component of the level design.
Upgraded Sonar goggles: useful and rose-colored
The best levels bring shadows into play. Sam Fisher is not invisible in the darkness like he was in Chaos Theory. Shadows allow you for flank enemies and hide between patrols. Much thought has been given to shadow placement and how they are positioned relative to enemy patrols. Your suit will illuminate when shrouded in darkness, letting you know that enemies will have trouble seeing you. Remaining stationary will hide you more efficiently, so it’s important to know which way enemies are facing before emerging from of darkness. Most light sources can be shot or disabled with a pistol or EMP grenade. Guards are rarely upset if you shoot lights near them, but you need to be careful when creating more darkness.
Atmosphere, driven by the excellent lighting, is a vital characteristic of the level design in this sequel. The Chicago Festival Hall is a good example of the mood crafted when all the elements are working together. Guards patrol the Festival Hall with flashlights as Sam enters from the roof. Christmas music echoes through the Hall as twitchy enemies search between vacant stalls. Moonlight shines through the roof and casts shadows over the carpet. These shadows form road-like conduits that facilitate stealthy traversal. It is a shame you do not spend much time in the Festival Hall, given the stellar atmosphere. Fortunately, the atmosphere resonates through many of the levels and outshines any visual inadequacies.
Hang around the Festival Hall for the great atmosphere
Level design is half the battle when it comes to stealth games, as the Artificial Intelligence is just as crucial. The AI has a lot of smart mechanisms that make them fun to engage. If two enemies hear a noise, one will search and the other will react if the first guard does not return. If guards are on high alert, they will likely search in pairs back-to-back. They can peek over railings or behind boxes when hunting for you. Patrols can change when replaying areas, this might mean guards engage in conversation or just continue down a different route. These changes are just enough to keep you on your toes and provide variety when restarting from sparse checkpoints. You will learn the AI mannerisms and come to appreciate the aptitude of your adversaries.
Different enemy types spice up the AI encounters, although some work better than others. Snipers cover specific areas with laser sights, and they will detect you in the shadows. Flanking sniper nests is satisfying when battling AI groups. You can then use the sniper rifle to eliminate oblivious guards below. Dogs smell you within an area, and prove most annoying when combined with armed foes. Heavily armoured guards resist bullets and shock attacks, so they are typically approached from the rear or avoided all together. Security cameras protect vital areas and draw guards if they are disabled. More levels with regular AI enemies would not have diminished the quality, but it’s good to see various enemy types.
This guard had some trouble locating the Sticky Camera that put him to sleep
Co-op is well linked to the single player component and features several exclusive levels. The second player assumes the role of Briggs, a vital member of 4E during the campaign. You can join a random player during the narrative and transition back to the story after the mission is complete. It is not always easy to find a player with the patience to stealth areas, but it’s worth replaying missions to find them. Briggs and Sam work together to find information, eliminate guards or secure locations. One exciting aspect of co-op is when both players circle enemies from different directions and execute simultaneous attacks. Separating and going for alternate objectives will see the missions completed quickly, but working together has advantages. Dual mark and execute allows pairs to silently eliminate guards wearing helmets. Dual boosting gives access to areas not available when playing alone. The co-op is seamlessly integrated into the campaign and offers good replay value.
The quality of the co-op exclusive missions varies from good to poor. Sneaking into an Indian missile facility, disabling lights and then securing a nuclear weapon was one of the better missions. It employed open level design and focused on stealth above all else. On the other hand, one mission gives players alternate control of a drone that fires rockets at ground targets while the other player moves through the buildings below. This is a poor imitation of the AC-130 co-op mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Co-op can be more bombastic than the campaign, but the open level design is usually preserved.
Briggs has the same skill set as Sam in co-op, including an affinity for ledges
Spies vs Mercs is asymmetric multiplayer that produces intimate games with rock-paper-scissors balancing. Spies are silent and can climb through vents or hang from ledges. Their limited weaponry power is offset by devastating melee attacks and high-tech gadgets. Mercs are heavily armoured and have grenades, machine guns and counter-gadgets to hunt Spies sneaking through shadows. Mercs are played in the first person view to add a layer of vulnerability. Both sides can be proficient killers when they work to their strengths.
Each side has a number of specific gadgets to fill a role, and the best sides will have a mixture. One Spy gadget allows a player to become invisible for a short time. This is very powerful in the right hands, although you can still be exposed by the motion tracker. Mercs have a self-detonating tri-rotor, perfect for locating Spies crawling through vents. The speed of action can be hectic and the gadgets play a crucial role in defining strengths. Sometimes the only counter for a good enemy is changing your loadout. The prevalence of powerful gadgets overpowers the cat and mouse tactical experience you might have expected.
Thankfully, classic mode simplifies both multiplayer teams to just the motion tracker for the Mercs and night vision for the Spies. Mercs also carry flashlights that produce dynamic lighting to locate Spies in the darkened maps. This classic mode is slower, and not just because it’s limited to 2 vs 2. The pacing is deliberate and Spies have to be careful about firing their shock crossbow unless they will hit their target. The atmosphere is palpable when walking through gloomy streets as you hear footsteps behind you. You turn to catch a fleeting glimpse of a Spy who disappears into an alleyway. The classic mode requires more patience, but is no less rewarding.
Dynamic light adds tension to Spies vs Mercs Classic mode
Spies vs Mercs has addictive qualities, but it can also be frustrating. The biggest matches are limited to just 4 vs 4. While this creates an appropriate atmosphere, good players will dominate the entire match. When this happens, one side will have the upper hand and the losing team will barely trouble the scoreboard. You might feel like you are little more than a moving target on the losing side when this happens. If the sides are balanced, there is great tension as the Spies protect the player who started the hack. Mercs will check ceilings and corners, fearful of surprise attacks and Spies will wait patiently in the darkness. When the dynamic focuses on wits, and not gadgets, it is most thrilling.
Key-function clashes prove to be the biggest mechanical fault with the game. The E button (or A on the 360 controller) is used for everything. This single button will cut fabric, switch lights, open doors, peek under doors, drag bodies, restock ammo, take-down enemies and switch weapons. This leads to many undesirable circumstances, especially during time-critical single player manoeuvres. After knocking out a guard, you might accidentally switch to his unsilenced AK-47 and be forced to reload the weapon. Once you finally grab the body, another guard spots you with his friend draped over your shoulder. You attempt to kill him quickly, only to fire the unsuppressed AK-47 that brings the entire militia to your location. There are many other keys that could have been used, and the drop-down menu from earlier Splinter Cell games would have sufficed. The one-key-does-all system proves more bothersome than any dog or heavy guard combination.
Other technical glitches prevent it from being a perfect game. Sam occasionally refused to accept any input in single player, but would recover and finish the mission without issue. It crashed a few times in the campaign, but most crashes were reserved for multiplayer and often during host migration. Despite all of this, it is still one of the better PC games from Ubisoft. UI elements can be disabled, DX11 is well supported and the framerate is stable. The multiplayer connectivity is peer to peer, but produces minimal lag in the small matches. As a pleasant surprise, co-op and multiplayer both have text chat. If the game did not use checkpoint saves, the isolated problems would have been less problematic.
Flying Jump kicks? Yes.
Splinter Cell is back to where it should be, near the top of the stealth genre. This is largely because of the great level design, AI and gadgetry. The stealth gameplay is not as consistent as Mark of the Ninja, but it does peak higher. Varied gadgets prove useful and the options encourage you to replay areas to find the best way through. The AI has appreciable qualities and they provide a fitting challenge. Co-op highlights some of the multi option gameplay and the competitive multiplayer experience requires a different kind of patience. Despite the absurd key-function clashes and minor technical glitches, it is a comprehensive package. Sam may have a new voice actor, but the franchise has rediscovered its origins. Splinter Cell: Blacklist is an excellent stealth experience and worthy of the franchise name.