You’re faced with a terrible conundrum every time you sit down to review a video game. You have to balance “how much you like the game” versus “how good you think it is objectively.” When Splinter Cell Conviction came out in 2010, those two thoughts clashed like never before. Not only for me, but for many gamers. Conviction, while objectively a good game, abandoned virtually everything that made the Splinter Cell series what it was. The main character, Sam, could no longer hide bodies, dispatch enemies non-lethally and the levels were structured in a way that stopped players from being able to slip passed most enemies. On top of that, the competitive multiplayer was cut and the cooperative campaign became very uncooperative. Ubisoft recognized these errors and sought to fix them with the latest entry in the series, Splinter Cell Blacklist. And they succeeded, but in the process lost someone very dear to every Splinter Cell fan’s heart: Sam Fisher.
Blacklist’s campaign revolves around a group of terrorist known as the Engineers. At the start of the game, Sam Fisher has once again left behind working for the US government and Third Echelon (his employer for the first five games). Now working as a security contractor, Sam is at the site of the Engineer’s first attack, Guantanamo Bay. With a friend’s life in the balance, Fisher agrees to don the garb of a secret agent in order to stop the Engineers, who promise more bloodshed until the United States agrees to bring its troops back home. Fisher doesn't simply return as a field agent this time. No, he is now the leader of the newly christened Fourth Echelon, the most secret of secret government initiatives. Being the head of an organization has it perks. As such, Blacklist includes a number of new customization and gameplay options, like the ability to buy new equipment and upgrade your base of operations, a plane called the Paladin.
The Paladin plays a large role in Blacklist and goes a long way to differentiating it from other entries in the series by giving the game a sense of world that none of the other Splinter Cells had before. Once through the game’s opening mission, the Paladin acts like the Normandy from the Mass Effect series. You spend a great deal of your time aboard it and from there Sam talk’s to his crew, upgrades his weapons and op suits and, of course, chooses which missions to go on. On missions the game returns to a much more expected Splinter Cell fare. You’re job (most of the time) is to get into a facility, get information and get out. But how you do so is up to you. Blacklist tries very hard to cut the difference between Splinter Cell Chaos Theory and Conviction. While it retains all the fluidity and speed the series gained in Conviction, it doesn't let that get in the way of allowing you to meticulously hide bodies, knock out enemies or evade your foes entirely. The gameplay is not a complete assimilation of the two styles, however. Instead, it’s more of a compromise because the game requires you to play both ways. You may start a mission needing to leave all guards completely undisturbed while ending the same mission having to take out waves of enemies. While this marriage of these two gameplay styles will certainly cause some to groan in agony, I found the balance to work well. My only gripe being that the game still uses the binary shadow system from Conviction. So either you’re hidden or you’re not, there is no in-between. Thankfully the system has been refined and isn’t as finicky as it was and the screen no longer turns black and white when Sam is hidden. Now LED's on his suit simply light up to let you know he is in enough shadow to remain hidden.
Outside of those few sections that force you to play one way, the game gives you free reign to tackle objective how you see fit. The game calls these different play styles Ghost, Panther and Assault and rewards you for each. Ghost is a traditional stealthy gameplay and rewards you for knocking out enemies or (the goal of every fan of the original games) leaving them totally unaware of your presence. Panther compensates you for playing in manner more akin to Conviction, taking out your enemies silently but violently. And finally, Assault is presumably for Gears of War players and doles out points when you kill enemies loudly. The game does, however, lean towards the Ghost play style. It gives the most points for leaving enemies alone, while giving the least for killing alerted enemies. The great thing is that Blacklist gives you points no matter how you play. There is literally no wrong way. At the end of each mission, the game tallies your points and gives you money based on them. With them, you purchase plane upgrades, weapons and gadgets.
But all those points wouldn't mean anything if the game itself wasn't fun. Thankfully, the mission variety and map design is easily the best part of Blacklist. In many ways, it feels like an homage to the series’ greatest hits. In one level you’re infiltrating a US embassy, having to leave guards untouched, which brought back memories of the CIA mission in the first game. The last mission feels directly inspired by the final mission in Chaos Theory, which is one of my favorite levels of all time. Many levels across the campaign appear inspired by other great Splinter Cell levels, those are just two.
Aside from the main story missions, you also have five different types of side missions, one for each of your crew and one to forget. Missions for Grimsdottir (your former friend and technical analyst) ask you to infiltrate small compounds without raising the alarm. Missions for Charlie (your new technical analyst) require you to fend off waves of enemies. It’s basically the game’s version of Horde mode. Missions for Kobin (the guy from Conviction that faked Sam's daughter’s death) are all about going through an area and killing a preset number of baddies. And missions for Briggs (the other field operative besides Fisher) are co-op only missions. All side missions besides those for Briggs are available to play by yourself or with a friend while the main campaign is solo only. The fifth, last and worst type of side mission is the text-based pixel hunt. In it, you’re given a clue and have to search the Paladin’s world map to find the next clue. Once you're through a series of clues, you’re given a choice of how you want to handle a situation. These choices include things like bribing a suspect or bringing them in. In the end, you just have to guess and if you get it wrong, you fail the mission and lose the money invested in the op. If you guess correctly, you get a small bonus that is applied when you complete other missions. It's honestly a complete waste of time. It's also not intrusive or important; I was almost done with the game when I realized it was even there.
The final part of Blacklist is the multiplayer. The game includes the renowned mode, Spies vs. Mercenaries, that first appeared in Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow and expounds on it. In multiplayer you have two teams. One teams is comprised of spies which controller very similarly to Sam Fischer. The other team is made up of mercenaries, who controller like a traditional first person shooter. In the main mode, two mercs are tasked with guarding three information nodes while two spies try to hack them. There’s also a four-vs-four version of the same mode as well and one that is reversed (mercs hack, spies defend). Finally, there’s also a more traditional death match mode where spies and mercenaries fight together against another team of spies and mercenaries.
From what I played of Blacklist’s multiplayer, it was a lot of fun and just as tense as it used to be. However, I didn't get to play it as much as I would have liked because I ran into an issue with the game’s chat function. I couldn't talk to anyone. I tried re-installing the game and contacted Ubisoft’s technical support but neither helped. It doesn't seem like it’s a large spread issue because I couldn't find any mention of it on the game’s forum. For many games this would not be an issue but Splinter Cell is a very cooperative game and requires a lot of communication. I found it nigh impossible to play without being able to talk to my teammates in the competitive mode and completely unthinkable in the co-op. Hopefully no one else will experience the problem, but know it is a possibility.
When all is said and done, I only have one main issue with Blacklist (chat issues notwithstanding): the direction they take Sam's character. This can be most readily seen in the new voice of Sam Fisher, Eric Johnson. Johnson does a great job acting and obviously very talented. This comes across well the game suburb visuals and animations. In fact, all of the actors do a great job. The problem is that he’s not Sam Fisher, he’s Special Agent Gruff McDudeson. Previously played by Michael Ironside, Sam Fisher had a snarky sense of dark humor, whispering "Hi there" in a guard's ear while holding a knife to their throat. He was an older man that just didn't care what people thought. That humor went a long way to lightning up the game’s otherwise stone-serious story line. Sadly, Johnson brings none of that to the table and the world seems far more flat because of it. Now, whether that’s the fault of Johnson or the scriptwriter, I don’t know. The fact is that Fisher has ceased being Fisher and it's most apparent in his voice.
Splinter Cell Blacklist is a good game. Actually it's a great game. The action is tight, the missions are fun and customization is deep and varied. In a world were the independent game population is growing rapidly; it’s a great reminder of the epic scope and polish you can get from an AAA title. But like many AAA games, it feels slightly soulless and a little too sterile. Still, whether this is your first Splinter Cell or your eighth, you deserve to give it a shot because while it's not the best Splinter Cell, it is definitely one of them.
PC Specs: AMD FX-8350 Vishera, AMD Radeon 7950, 16GB DDR3 RAM, Win8 OS
Jonathan is the host of the DarkCast, DarkCast Interviews, and Gamers Read. He loves books, video games, and superheroes. If he had to pick favorites, they would be Welcome to the Monkey House, Mass Effect, and Superman respectively.