Can Sam Be The Top Dog Once Again?
One of the longest running and most popular stealth series is back. Sam Fisher returns after arguably his strongest performance so far in 2010’s Conviction and looks to improve even further on the formula. But can such an incredible game be topped? While not as innovative as it’s predecessor, Blacklist is still a very strong stealth game that earns it’s right to be called a Splinter Cell game in almost all areas.
The story sees a group of terrorists known as ‘The Engineers’ start a sequence of attacks on the United States they call ‘The Blacklist.’ These attacks will continue unless the government agrees to remove all of it’s overseas troops from all the countries they are currently in. Sam and his team are given the small task of stopping the attacks and finding out who ‘The Engineers’ really are.
While the initial premise and motive for the attacks is good and based on real life events, it unfortunately can’t build upon a strong start. The further you get into the story the less involved I felt and for the most part it was a typical spy story. This isn't entirely a bad thing as it does the job of putting you into many different and fun stealth scenarios, but it definitely lacks the ‘personal’ touch of Conviction’s story that really made me care about what was happening.
Gameplay for the most part is really solid and fun. The level design is great and very diverse with a bunch of different locations to explore. The best parts are when it was just straight up stealth, sneaking from room to room in darkness without the enemy ever knowing where I was. It is classic Splinter Cell and as rewarding as it has ever been.
There was a few areas of the gameplay during the campaign which I was not so happy with however. Some parts require you to play as a first person shooter which I just found completely pulled me out of the experience. They weren't fun at all and is the complete opposite of what I want the gameplay to be in a Splinter Cell game. Also using UAVs from the sky and a gadget called a Tri-Rotor just seems so out of place and something more at home in Call of Duty.
Outside of the main campaign is a ton of optional missions which provide many more hours of gameplay. Most can be done in either solo or co-op (one group of missions are co-op only) and are given the same level of attention that the main campaign got. Being able to play with a friend is really great and totally changes how you approach a level. It is a shame the whole game can’t be played this way.
The collectibles are pretty interesting and add to the experience. Laptops and dead drops provide the usual collectibles, but special enemies you must take down as hostages is a very cool idea and changes the way you play certain areas of a level. You have to make the choice of maybe picking the harder option to get your hostage and weigh that up against just avoiding it and picking the easier option. This level of choice is really great to have.
One of the main things the game likes to emphasize is play styles. There are three available which are Ghost, Panther and Assault. Ghost means you try to not be seen at all and you can engage but in a non lethal way by knocking out enemies. Panther is the same but you can use lethal methods such as guns. Lastly, Assault is when all else fails and you end up shooting everything in sight like a maniac.
This is great as it really lets the player play the game however they want to. You can even play the whole game as Sam Fisher and not kill a single enemy which will please the hardcore community. In theory it is perfect but unfortunately doesn't work as great as I’d hoped in execution. It can be kind of confusing as to what the game considers for each play style and is frustrating when you think you done enough to achieve that perfect score for that play style and see the game thinks otherwise. Also the moments I mentioned earlier when you don't play as Sam stand out even more when you’re forced to kill which goes against everything this feature stands for.
The other part of the package is the return of Spies vs Mercs mode for competitive online play. Having been notably absent from the last game, it is great to see the mode back in full force. It can be kind of unbalanced at times and is undoubtedly more fun to play as a Spy, which can make the experience not as good as it could be. While it is not something I personally want to spend hours getting good at, it is still a really fun mode that many will fall in love with all over again.
The games ties all these modes together really well in the form of the Paladin, the base of Sam’s team which also happens to be a large military aircraft. By accessing a world map you can choose to engage in either story missions or the optional missions at whatever pace you so wish. Fancy a game of Spies vs Mercs? No need to back out to any different menus, that’s right here also. You can also buy upgrades for all your weapons and equipment as well as upgrading the ship to unlock even more goodies such as new gadgets and gear. It really ties the entire package together in a neat and tidy way.
Before diving into any mission you can equip the right gear for the specific job and change difficulties with ease. Finding it too easy or hard? No need to start an entirely new play-through, everything can be replayed at any time without losing any of your overall progress. This means that you can obsess over one mission for hours without going any further if you want the top score out of all your friends, something that game likes to remind you on a frequent basis.
There really is a ton of content here which makes the game well worth it’s price tag. The campaign is designed for multiple play-throughs with it’s emphasis on mastering different play styles and the extra fourth echelon missions add even more to the experience. Multiplayer on top of this could add hundreds of hours if that’s your thing but even if you never touch it you will still get a very impressive bang for your buck.
Technically the game is very impressive and nice to look out. While most of the game is played in darkness, it still looks good even though not as impressive as it’s predecessor. I suffered zero glitches or frame rate issues on the Xbox 360 and overall did not encounter a single problem of note. With a game so finely balanced, even the smallest problem can ruin the experience and thankfully Blacklist passes the test.
Splinter Cell is definitely in the elite for stealth games. In a genre which I think is very hard to execute and can fail very easily, Blacklist absolutely pulls it off. Not as innovative or impressive as Conviction (and personally not as satisfying as Hitman Absolution), it still should be played by anyone who enjoys the slower, stealthy approach to action games. Sam is not pushing the boundary as much as before, but he can still hang with the best of them.