Sam Fisher's changed an awful lot since he first emerged from the shadows with his light and dark-based stealth shenanigans back in 2002. Though he's regained his iconic trifocal goggles since the more action orientated Conviction, he's gone through a few more evolutionary steps in latest outing, Blacklist.
The Blacklist of the subtitle refers to a large scale series of terrorist attacks posed to decimate America at the hands of a mysterious band of evil do-ers dubbed The Engineers. It's up to Sam and his freshly formed unit, Fourth Echelon, to prevent these multiple attacks as the clock ticks down.
Fourth Echelon's base of operations is the Paladin, a large military aircraft packing enough amenities to make Commander Sheppard blush. Peopled with your babbling team, the Paladin also houses the coolest coffee table this side of Minority Report in the S.M.I (Strategic Mission Interface). It's from this admirably well integrated tactical world map that you access everything the game has on offer, from its satisfyingly lengthy single player campaign, to the impressive array of side and co-op missions and the returning Spies vs Mercs multiplayer.
The first question any self respecting Splinter Cell fan will be asking, especially in the wake of the brilliant, but worryingly action focused Conviction, is: is this a stealth game? The answer is yes, though perhaps not the stealth game you were looking for.
During missions you're rewarded with points and cash for playing to one of three styles. Work you way through levels silently, without killing any foes en route, and you'll walk away with the lion's share of Ghost points, which bestow the larger financial reward at the close of a mission.
If you're lethal, but still manage to go through a stage unseen then you'll fall into the Panther play style, which rewards you for stalking foes. The Assault style pretty much describes itself. Shoot first. And second. And third. And, well, you get the picture...
When there's a proper blend between these three play styles Blacklist is an absolute joy to play. One particular stage, tasking us with infiltrating the private estate of a target in South America, has Sam carefully planning out routes. We're scaling buildings with Fisher's improved Assassin's Creed like climbing skills and spending sumptuous minutes determining how to best to use our chosen gadgetry optimally.
"When there's a proper blend between the three play styles Blacklist is an absolute joy to play."
Some sleeping gas here, take out that light, wait for the guard to pass by then up and over onto the balcony to hide once more in the shadows. Make a mistake and there's scope to improvise using the other play styles, but it's obvious that the Ghost style is what you should be aiming for.
The noobie-pleasing Mark and Execute system from Conviction is back. With it you can tap Right Bumper to target up to three enemies before hitting Y to smoothly and automatically execute them.
Problems emerge when the choice of play style is taken away from you. Dishonored and Deus Ex: Human Revolution (minus the boss fights) have shown that it's possible to finely balance stealth and improvised uber-violence without forcing players down one particular path. It's a bit disappointing then, when in several missions during the later stage of the campaign, we must dance to the developer's tune. Enforced third-person gunfights are an example, while there are also instances of jarring insta-fail-if-you're-seen stealth only bits.
The sound design is utterly fantastic. From the dull thud as Sam smacks a guard's head on the tarmac, to the iconic burrrrr as your infra-red goggles hum into life, the world sounds believable and exudes coolness.
A shuddering soundtrack smoothly fluctuates between grinding electronic tension through chundering bass-filled chaotic beats, mirroring the onscreen action (or the tense lack of it) perfectly. Some of our favourite between-mission moments come when, just before Sam is about to talk, the music cuts out entirely, just to emphasise how ruddy cool he is. It shouldn't work. It should be tacky. But it does and it isn't.
Visually the game also fluctuates, though not as pleasantly. Some missions, such as an early trot through a bustling marketplace town in Benghazi, are vivid and full of minute details and atmospheric touches. Others, like a surprising trip to [SPOLIER REDACTED] are filled with muddy textures and invisible walls.
When not devoting yourself to the single player campaign, which can take anywhere between 10-20 hours depending on your mainstay play style, there are numerous distractions to keep you busy. Grab a buddy for split screen or online co-op and you can help Sam's fellow Fourth Echelon members with personalised side missions.
Returning intel exposition spouter Grim has missions focused on stealth, while the affable, one time enemy Kobin has a bunch of Panther style jobs for you to tackle. Typically cheeky hacker chap Charlie wants you to get your guns out for Assault jobs while Sam's field ops partner Briggs is all about the co-op teamplay.
Most of these, apart from the latter, can be played solo, though there are plenty of high areas and dual breach doors that can only be reached through teamwork. There's a keen sense of satisfaction on offer here that is rarely captured elsewhere. Imagine this situation: your co-op partner is seconds away from being spotted and blowing your painstakingly amassed, perfect scoring Ghost run, when you emerge from the shadows above with an acrobatic aerial takedown to save their ass. It's certainly high five material.
Upgrading Sam's threads between missions allows you to craft builds based on stealth, to reduce noise while moving, or combat, increasing your overall damage threshold.
Gadgets that you purchase with your post mission savings can be upgraded to best benefit your chosen play style as well. Stealthy types will want to pimp their crossbows with noisemaker and EMP bolts, for example. Need extra cash? There are plenty of optional Dead Drops to collect, Laptops to hack and side challenges to complete to bolster your funds.
Blacklist's biggest problem, and one that will likely upset many fans of the series, is that it occasionally eschews its own identity. For long periods of the game we were erroneously tapping A to attach to cover instead of B. It took a while, but we eventually realised that this was because we were subconsciously playing Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.
The visual style is near identical at times, with the same dusty lens flare and dirt-filled closeness. Some of the levels even play out in the same fashion, particularly the point at which high tech goggle-wearing enemies enter the fray. Oh and remember that drone used to mark targets in GW:FS? It's back in Tri-Rotor form.
"Blacklist's biggest problem is that it occasionally eschews its own identity."
But Ghost Recon isn't the only franchise ape-ed. The Paladin is clearly the Normandy in all but name. Call of Duty style UAV attacks sporadically encroach, asking you to fire rockets at cars and such from high above. There's even a totally needless and shoddily executed first-person shooter section, seemingly implemented for no other reason than to pander to the droves of gamers looking for a distraction from their first-person shooter of choice.
We've seen Ubisoft inject winning formulae into its various franchises to great effect (Assassin's Creed-like towers in Far Cry 3 say hello), but it's been shockingly unsubtle in its approach with Blacklist. This is a shame, because when these sigh-inducing moments pass and you're back into the Splinter Cell experience for realsies it's an utter blast. Your ability to enjoy those moments of greatness will likely correlate to how enamoured you've been with Sam's back catalogue.
Meaty chunks of a great stealth game book-ended by identity breaking flourishes. Sam fans may revolt, but there's still a great game here.
- Plenty of great stealth playgrounds.
- Bursting with content.
- Three play styles allow for satisfying improvisation...
- ...except when they're forced upon you.
- Has lost some of the series' identity.