No Ironside, No Problem.
A common problem that afflicts many games these days is that they simply try to do too much, to attract as many possible players as they can. Of all the developers to attempt so, Ubisoft has easily seen a largely negative response, and acceptable but less than expected sales.
It's only fitting then, that after almost burying the series with Conviction, Blacklist comes along and does it right.
Blacklist feels good. Everything about how it handles is incredibly natural, and having the speed of Conviction's movement actively improves the stealth mechanics. There's a moment in the campaign where I was sneaking through the central area of a mall during night. I misjudged my timing when I went to move from behind one kiosk to another, and in any of the other games, I'd have blown it. My options would have been get shot, or meander across while the guard gets close enough to see me.
In Blacklist, I simply did a knee slide to close the last bit of distance quickly, risking the additional noise in the process.
I was pleasantly surprised time and time again when I found myself restarting checkpoints and levels, not out of frusturation or failure, but to attempt things differently. I would be lying if I said there weren't cases of linearity here, but they were vastly outnumbered by the freeform encounters.
I was hesitant to put away my non-lethal gadgets and pull out my guns, grenades and knife, but eventually I gave in and saw what was going on with the less subtle playstyle.
It turns out, laying dudes out with automatic weapons and phosphorus grenades is pretty great too. Sam still isn't a bullet sponge, but you can equip him with some heavier armor in the loadout screen if you lean towards that style of play.
Aside from the solo play, much of which is also playable cooperatively, there is the long awaited return of Spies VS Mercs. Hooray?
I loved SvM before, and it's certainly still fun here, but there are changes to how the mode works in Blacklist that really bug me, and having a "Classic" mode that doesn't allieviate these issues doesn't help.
The goal of SvM was originally for the Spies to hack two terminals, and the Mercs protect said terminals. The Mercs had guns, gadgets, and a flashlight, the Spies had all the limber movement and fancy googles a Spy should, but only had a tiny little stun gun and grabs, chokes, etc for attacking. There was proximity chat, so if a Spy grabbed a Merc, they could taunt them, then snap the dudes neck. It was great.
With Blacklist, SvM now works differently. Spies now carry straight up guns. They can use a stun gun, but most opt for an SMG. There are abilities like an EMP blast, a cloak that makes the player invisible, and so forth. Spies no longer grab Mercs, preventing any kind of taunting or fooling a Merc into following a friendly radar blip into a death trap. They just straight up stab them. And there are now three terminals to hack, all of which are hacked from a distance. The Spy just has to initiate the hack in front of it first, and then stay alive.
Mercs also got some new toys, like goddamn motion trackers, infrared vision, all kinds of crazy stuff that basically completely changes how SvM plays. While the included SvM Classic replaces all gadgets and guns with the original tools, the new objective style of "get close, then hide" is just not very much fun regardless. In an otherwise stellar package, it's a shame that what should be phenomenal is instead the major blemish.
I expected the worst from Blacklist. Everything was counting against it, and yet it's easily one of the best games I've played in 2013. Any Splinter Cell fans who were burnt by Conviction like myself would be remiss to not check this out, and if you just plain like video games, odds are you'd get something from Blacklist too.