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Review: Splinter Cell Blacklist (after all these years)

I had honestly given up on Blacklist a while back. When I first tried it, the side missions were completely atrocious and godawful. Grim's stealth missions had absolutely no checkpointing or saving at all, while you would fail a mission upon first detection. That meant if you missed a single pistol headshot, or if a dog noticed you and barked, or any of a number of occurrences that might happen. And you couldn't save any progress, you just had to start all over again. That killed the entire thing for me. I've been a fan of the series since the beginning, and some of those earlier games had fail-on-detection mechanics. But guess what Ubisoft Toronto... they all had friggin quicksaves so you didn't have to restart the whole damn level all over again!

But Blacklist failed this, which just frustrated me to hell. And then there were Charlie's side missions, which inexplicably were all Horde mode-style defend missions that expected you to play the game like it was Gears of War. WTF? How can you completely bungle the entire essence of Splinter Cell by trying to turn it into a Horde mode third person shooter? This was insanity. So... I just didn't care for it. I dropped the game.

But now that I've finished Ghost Recon Wildlands, I got the itch for some ol Tom Clancy again. The ol Clance itch. And Splinter Cell is one of my favorite series. Even though Conviction was not quite what I wanted, it was still a pretty good campaign and had some nice powerful setpieces that made you feel like an intelligent black ops ninja. And I do still own Blacklist. And Rise of the Tomb Raider had not yet arrived in the mail yet. So uhhhh... I decided to go back and try it a second time, but avoiding the side missions this time. And I finished it and uh... yeah. I managed to get through it. That's the best thing I can really say about it.

First of all: Let's face it, the new voice actor for Sam sucks. He's just such a generic video game protagonist voice. I couldn't take him seriously as Sam Fisher, it felt so bizarre and off-putting when we've gotten to know and love Michael Ironside's cadence for so many years. This was a huge mistake. Now, Ubisoft Toronto says that they had to replace him because Ironside couldn't physically do the motion capture performance for the game. And uh... I get that, Ironside is an old ass man, but... why not just use the new actor for the motion capture, and then just use Ironside's voice for the voice and facial stuff? The result just wasn't worth losing the iconic voice of Sam.

The equipment unlock system means that you'll only eventually get to the same degree of stealth as in Conviction, which was puzzling at first. In Conviction, from what I recall, you could easily storm up behind someone while crouched and melee kill them without them noticing you. Your footsteps at top speed, crouched, wouldn't give you away. However, this is not the case in Blacklist, where you start out in the beginner OPS suit and need to buy your way up, upgrade by upgrade, to max stealth. This was strange at first, coming from Conviction, because you wouldn't expect Sam to get worse from one game to the next. But uh, yeah... you've just gotta suck it up and be extra careful in the first couple levels. Now, this feels odd to me because the game still keeps Conviction's two stage movement system. In the earlier SC games, you could modulate your level of movement, from slow creeping crawl, to light shuffle, to walk, to run. It was all done through the scroll wheel, or how much you moved your analog stick. In Conviction, they changed it to a basic two stage movement, where you're either at a fast walk, or a very fast walk. So even a light movement with the analog stick would result in hitting that fast walk animation. It was not nuanced at all, and felt simplistic, but it worked in Conviction because you were basically silent and it didn't hurt to be at a fast movement speed. But in Blacklist, with the weakened stealth due to the equipment system, it feels very clunky and unsatisfying for stealth play. Still very playable of course, but not as nice as the older games in the series.

The strongest pistol, the SC-IS pistol, still won't penetrate helmets, so why is there an option to use AP rounds for it? They do nothing. Everytime I saw a guy with a helmet, I always pulled out the sniper rifle. There's basically no benefit to adding three points of damage to it with the AP round upgrade.

The dog is hands down the worst enemy in this game. I can handle big armored thugs, or red laser snipers up on balconies... those guys don't scare me. But damn, those dogs that start barking and immediately run over to my position... I fucking hate the things. Worst enemy by far, and you better have a nice handy sniper rifle to snipe them on first sight.

Now, the game does have several levels that feel like classic Splinter Cell, and this is where it shines. This is when the gameplay gets good and feels old school and all is right with the world. There's certain segments of the campaign where you can tell they were calling back to old SC games and it got the right stealth tingles. Specifically, I'm talking about breaking into Nouri's mansion, the entire Iranian Embassy level, Guantanamo Bay, and parts of the last mission. These levels really do draw back on classic SC levels and are just about stealthing around like a bad ass covert ops ninja. The stealth mechanics all come together in a cohesive gameplay loop and you're just shooting out lights and hanging from pipes on the ceiling and it's very much the Splinter Cell that I used to love so much. So the devs did a lot of stuff right with those missions.

Unfortunately, there's way too many sequences where it's unrelenting action and completely unsatisfying for a stealth playthrough. You pick up Kobin and it's time to extract... what happens? A whole huge squad of soldiers comes bumrushing in, forcing you to Mark and Execute them (unavailable on Perfectionist mode). Or when you've got Reza Nouri and you're trying to extract him... what happens? A whole huge squad of special covert ops operatives comes bumrushing in, trying to kill Nouri. So it's now an escort mission on top of everything. It's just so unpleasant and frustrating to deal with. You wonder why these devs thought this would be fun gameplay. I mean, who even thinks escort missions are fun anymore? Yet there's one here. Oy.

Then you as Sam get poisoned by some VX gas and feel whoozy and start slipping and falling everywhere, trying to recover. And what does the game do? Throw whole waves of covert ops operatives at you, trying to kill you. And they've all got armor helmets, so you can't take them out with single headshots from the pistol. And they took away my sniper rifle, so it feels particularly unfair. Again, what is this doing in a SC game? It feels like a deeply frustrating gameplay decision that doesn't appeal to old school SC fans, nor does it provide a welcoming game for brand new players who might be more casual. I just don't understand what the devs were thinking, they made the least fun thing imaginable. As a stealth game, the goal should be to avoid gunfights, yet they just force you into these engagements. And with the armored helmets, you can't even feel good with taking them out with stealthy headshots with the pistol either, as that's an impossibility.

Another example: storming down a plane's cargo ramp into gunfire? How is this Splinter Cell? Where is the stealth? I couldn't believe what they were asking for. And that's literally what you're doing, just running down a ramp, with no cover, hoping and praying that you don't get shot.

Bursting into a train and getting instantly gunned down? This actually happened to me over and over again. You're supposed to go down this train, car by car, gunning down the terrorists along the way. It worked out pretty well at the beginning. You just take cover and shoot down the enemies that are in front. But then you get to a section at the end where you have to climb along the outside of the train and then force your way back inside. Sort of an homage or callback to Pandora Tomorrow, I suppose. Yet, because I was playing on Perfectionist, I'd just get instantly gunned down by one or two shots as soon as I broke the window and slid back inside the car. It just got so frustrating. Finally, I had to lower the difficulty in order to survive. I dunno what else they wanted me to do. It felt incredibly lame, getting shot and killed instantly, without any way to avoid the damage or take an alternate path.

On the oil refinery level, you're tasked with chasing down an important henchmen. But the game's forcing you to chase him down, at full speed. You can't let him get away, says the game's objective. So you run at full speed and keep up the pursuit. But then no... you get shoot by the other henchmen. So then you take it slow, and try to shoot and be careful. But then you fail the mission for being too slow and letting him get away. WTF? Do you see how idiotic this mission design is? Either pick one or the other, don't fail the player for doing the smart prudent thing. This isn't an arcade action shooter like Quake Arena or something. If players are to take out enemies, give them the time to do so. This schizophrenic jerk between forcing the player to chase at top speed, and stopping to kill guards along the way, feels way off and just results in irritating gameplay.

There's even one section where you play in FPS mode. WTF? There's actually a mission section where you take the role of Briggs and it just completely turns into a first person shooter, with a gun and ADS and you're just supposed to go around shooting guys. It all feels clunky and unpolished and enemies don't react satisfyingly when shot. I mean, if you're gonna turn the whole game into an FPS and disrupt players' expectations, at least make it feel good and satisfying like a casual CoD game or something. But it doesn't even manage to feel that good. Instead, it feels lame and dumb, and the aiming is clunky and not particularly smooth, and then you're pumping a million rifle rounds into a big armored guard and they gun you down with one shotgun blast and it all feels incredibly stupid and clumsy. Why did we need this in the game? People who want to play Splinter Cell don't want a generic first person shooter. And even if they did, they would at least want one that plays well, like a CoD, and not like the poor excuse for a shooter that this sequence was. It's just baffling to comprehend.

The game's ending is horrible. You're stuck with a gun without any bullets, running around while the bad guy is firing at you and lights are blinking off and on around the environment. What a horrible gameplay experience. There's nothing fun about scurrying around like a toothless animal. I don't know what the devs were thinking. It's one of the worst endings I've ever seen. And then, right at the end... you choose to use the Fifth Freedom and... spare the guy's life? Huh? When a few minutes ago, Briggs chose to use the Fifth Freedom as well, and killed the Secretary of Defense? Isn't it understand that the Fifth Freedom means you get to kill? But why does it not do that for the main bad guy of the whole game? The villain behind so much death and destruction? I'm so confused.

There's half of a good game in SC Blacklist. The Mansion, Embassy, Gitmo missions... all great SC-worthy content. But again, it's just half of a game. The other half is horrid, awful actiony garbage that does not belong in a SC game.

Edit: Oh yeah, one more thing... I really liked what they did with Grimsdottir this time around. You could tell that they really sexed her the hell up and made her into some weird super operative in Conviction, which felt pretty silly. But here, with the more realistic look... I dunno, it really just worked for me. I thought her portrayal, while not being very close at all to what the first 3 games had, was a very grounded and respectable one. And the motion capture was pretty impressive. She's definitely one of the most attractive video game characters I've seen, but in a very believable and normal, not-sexed-up, sort of way. Thumbs up from me.