Splinter Cell was an interesting series. I remember being so intrigued by it when it was first announced as an Xbox exclusive – why on earth would people want to avoid shooting things? It was a strange “wake up” call of sorts and one that introduced me to the stealth genre – I just had to try it out. Playing on the Gamecube with my GBA Link Cable, I felt like the coolest spy around. Splinter Cell has been one of those series that I’ve grown up with and adored, but after the mediocre Conviction, I knew that the latest iteration, Blacklist, had a lot to prove. So, with the franchise returning to the Wii U, is the Blacklist worth a peek at?
Splinter Cell: Blacklist takes place after the events of Conviction, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it were a reboot of the series. The entire cast is fresh faced and Sam Fisher himself has been recast. It’s a bit jarring at first, but the new Sam Fisher does just as good a job – although there is a weird disconnect between his youthful actions and his somewhat ageing appearance. Sam and his group are in a rush to stop a terrorist group calling themselves “The Engineers” from carrying out a series of attacks on the United States (known as the Blacklist). Recognising the threat, the president of the United States reinstates Sam’s operations group with a new name – Fourth Echelon, in order to hunt down the terrorists. The story is quite honestly, mediocre – nothing truly amazing happens and there’s little to no tension built throughout its unravelling.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist rights most of the wrongs of its predecessor – that is, it equips the player with all the skills, tools and abilities to approach each mission any way they like. The game specifically acknowledges this – distilling actions by the player into three distinct categories: Ghost, Panther and Assault. Completing actions in each style awards points – sneaking past an enemy accrues Ghost points’, killing them silently gets you Panther points while taking them out loudly without stealth gets you Assault points. It’s an interesting system that allows you to kind of “realise” what kind of style you play, and adjust accordingly. Paying homage to its stealth roots, going with the Ghost play style garners the player the most points, which provides great incentive to the player to play Splinter Cell stealthily.
A major problem with the previous game, Conviction, was difficulty and a general scale back of the game’s features. Almost all of the problems with Conviction has been fixed to bring Blacklist back to a standard set by the original trilogy of games. Sam can move and hide bodies to prevent detection, crawl through air ducts, whistle, hide, knock out enemies and jump or hang from almost every surface. The ability set Blacklist grants the player really does give each level a kind of “open playground” feel where almost anything feels possible.
Splinter Cell purists will be happy to know that higher difficulty level strips away the more “modern” features of the game – including a marker that lets the player know where the enemy thinks you last were, or the mark and execute system where enemies can be marked and one button can be pressed to execute them swiftly and stylishly. These features are obvious bids to appeal to a newer market, but they’re completely optional in Blacklist so many hardcore fans of the series can use them as much or as little as they choose.
Sam is outfitted with a huge amount of gadgets whether it be smoke grenades, sleeping gas grenades or tear gas. Each gadget is designed with the three play styles in mind. Some in particular also utilise the GamePad very well. Sam can peek under doors and control a remote controlled “tri-rotor” to take down enemies, all on the GamePad. In addition to this, the game also is fully playable off-screen on the GamePad which is always nice too. For those more intense moments, using the GamePad to switch your gadgets and weapons on the fly without entering menus also gives the game a more streamlined feel.
The game also features a very comprehensive multiplayer mode, although unfortunately on the Wii U it’s only playable online – while other versions are cooperatively playable offline. To get this out of the way – the game performs equally as well as other versions online, but only once you get into a game. Matchmaking, invites and the like are all very difficult to get around, however. In our two day long play tests with different opponents, we could barely invite each other properly and would instead have to find each other in the same game. This was even more problematic in co-op, where it was near impossible to find each other for some reason, so we couldn’t even try it out online. This kind of problem that we’re seeing in almost every third party title leads me to believe it’s a system infrastructure problem rather than a problem with any specific game.
Putting the technical issues aside, there’s a lot of content here. Customisable weapons, armours and the like can be purchased through cash earnings from both the single player and the multiplayer. Side missions are also peppered throughout the game and do a good job at providing the player with unique and different challenges not offered in the main game – although the “horde” survival modes, where Sam has to take down wave after wave of enemies, do feel really out of place. The good thing is that all of this side content feels incredibly substantial – each one takes place in a new and unique environment and doesn’t feel like a rushed level with reused assets. In total, the game will take you about ten to twelve hours to complete, but finishing EVERYTHING the game has to offer will easily push you over the twenty hour mark. In short, it’s an incredibly substantial package.
The presentation for Splinter Cell Blacklist is quite frankly, all over the place. Some of the characters look great – like Sam Fisher himself. But others just looks notably less detailed. In fact, most of the environments look rather drab and technically inferior to what other games offer on the console. This problem persists across all platforms – though it is worth noting that the artistic direction is fine, it’s just the technical achievement of this direction that is lacking. What makes this an even greater slap in the face is how long some of the load times are – they can enter the thirty second mark in some circumstances. To be fair, they’re not all that common, but it is particularly annoying and jarring to have to wait so long to get back into the action.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist has its fair share of technical problems, although almost all of them are superficially related to its presentation. Otherwise, it’s an incredibly well put together game that manages to balance three unique play styles without coming across as a confused game with a dire identity crisis. Those who feel like the franchise had lost its way are easily satiated with the harder difficulties, while those who aren’t as well versed in stealth games can be easily forgiven with the tools like Mark & Execute to help carry them through. It’s a game that, unlike others, does a fantastic job at balancing its different audiences and their respective needs. If you’re looking for a fantastic stealth game, play on the highest difficulty. Even if you’re looking for a serviceable action game, with the right equipment, Blacklist should serve your needs too. I’m excited to see where Ubisoft takes Splinter Cell next – the developers clearly have a better idea of what made the franchise so great yesterday, and have successfully brought it into today.