I’ll admit it: I’m a Tom Clancy buff. Sure, his literary works may border on the generic and his recent tales do tend to bleed together, but I do enjoy the no holds-barred, mindless action that he brings to the table. When it comes to games, however, the man (or the people that look over his brand) can usually do no wrong. Sure, the Tom Clancy games don’t usually get the recognition that other military games do, but their high-quality products will engross you in a world that is both familiar yet different, while offering up gameplay that will make you want to play to the end. Usually.
While the previous games were excellent in their own right, they were often criticized for moving the franchise away from its stealth action roots and towards gameplay more reminiscent of a third-person shooter. The latest game in the Splinter Cell series, Blacklist promises to bring choice back to Sam Fisher’s repertoire by introducing different gameplay styles, paths, and methods for Sam to accomplish his objectives. Unfortunately, the result is an unbalanced game that, for everything it does right, tends to do an equal amount of things wrong.
The most radical change that Blacklist introduces to the series is the ability to choose your play style. You get to choose between Ghost, Panther, and Assault. Ghost requires you to play the game as stealthily as possible, avoiding encounters whenever possible and finding the path of least resistance. Panther is a mix of both Ghost and Assault, and has you hunting your prey from the shadows and dispatching them with lethal force. Most Splinter Cell veterans will be familiar with this style of gameplay, as it has been the series’ standard to date. Lastly we have Assault, which means you leave your non-lethal armaments at home and walk out of the shadows with guns blazing.
Another new addition is the new ‘Killing in Motion’ mechanic, which allows Sam to dispatch groups of enemies by tagging them (as in Splinter Cell: Conviction); it has a leg up on its predecessor, since now this can be done while moving. Used correctly, this mechanic is great for clearing guards; however, it can be easy to ‘waste’ it on only a couple of guards. Also, the mechanic does tend to make some sections of the game incredibly easy, to the point where all you have to do is make a couple of stealth kills and then clear out a room of three to four guards in a fraction of a second. This style of playing might irk fans of the older, more methodical Splinter Cell games.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist also marks the return of the ‘Spies VS. Mercs’ multiplayer mode from Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. In this online mode, one team takes on the role of heavily armed mercenaries, and the other side plays as Splinter Cells. Each side has a specific objective to complete and must compete with the other side’s off-setting abilities to reach the goal. All in all, Spies VS. Mercs is a surprisingly fun and deep multiplayer option that’s definitely worth sinking your teeth into. The game also features both a local and online co-op mode so you and a friend can take on the world’s terrorists together. It is unfortunate, however, that the Wii U version only features online co-op (no local), while all other versions come fully featured (though you can play off-tv and use the Gamepad touchscreen to handle your inventory).
One last major gameplay change revolves around the mobile (see: giant airplane) command centre that Fourth Echelon uses to quickly respond to global threats. This globetrotting leviathan gives you access to your co-op missions, your deeply customisable inventory, and, more importantly, the all-new upgrade system. You see, while in the game you can earn cash, which can then be spent on upgrades for both your base (which gives you support in the missions) and your gear (to change your core attributes). All in all, this new mechanic is a strong addition to the series, though I’m not sure why the government would give out tens of thousands of dollars just because you climbed a few pipes during a mission.
Despite all these changes and new gameplay styles, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is still predominantly a ‘stealth’ game. You’ll still be stalking enemies from the shadows, taking complicated paths to avoid detection, and remaining as quiet throughout as possible. In fact, the game’s stealth elements make playing the game in Assault nearly impossible. Sam can be killed by just a couple of bullets, the enemy AI is smart enough to call for reinforcements and reanimate disabled allies, and most enemies are armed to the teeth with machine guns, grenades and all manner of spy-splattering gear. The best course of action to avoid frustration is to play the game as a ‘Panther’, as it gives you the best of both worlds and gives you a decent chance to survive through the level.
The story is pretty much what you would except of a Splinter Cell game. The world is threatened by terrorists, blah blah blah. Only Sam Fisher can stop them, blah blah blah. Yes, it’s entertaining, but in the same way as a Michael Bay film: things look pretty and then blow up. Don’t get me wrong, these kinds of ‘popcorn’ games are a great distraction from the games that attempt to be literary works of art; just don’t expect any depth to the story.
On the visual front, the game looks gorgeous. Environments are detailed and pop to life with all sorts of neat lighting effects, and the all-important contrasts between light and shadow are well defined. The character models are also quite sharp. The environments are varied and (gasp) colourful (a nice change of pace from the traditional Splinter Cell color palette of black and dark grey). All in all, the game does look quite good; sure there are a few hiccups here and there, but it’s definitely nothing to scoff at. It’s just too bad the game falls apart on the technical level with a whole host of framerate drops, loooooooong loading times, and clipping throughout.
The soundtrack is your typical Tom Clancy fanfare that would feel right at home in any big, explosive Hollywood blockbuster. It sets the mood well and keeps you on edge during the tense moments. The voice acting though…well, it could use some work. All the actors sound like they’re just reading lines, and put no emotion into their script. And don’t even get me started on the asinine decision to remove series’ vet Michael Ironside as the voice of Sam Fisher with someone who sounds 30 years younger than the character he’s playing.
One area where Blacklist does eclipse its predecessor is in its length. While Splinter Cell: Conviction clocked in at roughly eight hours, Blacklist puts up a solid 12. The game also offers a fair bit of replayability thanks to optional levels, co-op missions, and, of course, the option to tackle the different gameplay modes. Not to mention the game’s online modes, which the developers are supporting with extra DLC. One area where the game could use some fine tuning, however, is in the difficulty range, as Blacklist is an exceptionally easy title. It’s nowhere near the challenge presented by earlier games in the series.
The Splinter Cell franchise has always been one to lurk in the shadows (figuratively of course). Each game in the series has innovated the genre and brought something new to the table in terms of stealth action games. However, for the first time ever in the series’ now long running history, a game seems to emulate instead of innovate. Don’t get me wrong, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a very good title that definitely stands on its own merits, but is also the most ‘generic’ title in the series, and doesn’t add anything to the series or genre that moves it forward into the next console generation. It’s really for fans only.
This review is based on the Wii U version of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. The game is also available on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.