- Format: 360 (version reviewed), PS3, PC, Wii U
- Unleashed: Out Now
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Developer: Ubisoft
- Players: 1-2 split-screen, 1-8 online
- Site: http://www.splintercell.ubi.com/
Splinter Cell has changed yet again, something that is sure to put a worried face on both fans of Chaos Theory and Conviction. Whilst Blacklist plays unlike either of these games, it’s trying to position itself slap bang in the middle, tempting super spies from either side of the fence. Is the result a master class in covert ops or an intelligence cock up on par with “whoops, we left the launch codes on the bus”? Again, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Sam Fisher is back, mysteriously even younger than he was when he retired from Third Echelon, and now commanding the newly formed Fourth Echelon. His slightly new clean cut look also comes with a new voice actor who puts on a jarringly less gristly voice than the classic Sam we all know. Unfortunately, Eric Johnson’s rendition of Sam Fisher comes off a lot flatter than Michael Ironside’s grizzly hero, and whether it’s down to the writing or delivery of the lines, the whole thing just seems a tad more generic than what we had before.
The story focusses on the Blacklist, a cryptic list of targets that are due to be attacked by a terrorist group calling themselves The Engineers. Under presidential orders, Fourth Echelon steps up to the plate with Sam, new boy operative Briggs (who’s handy as a co-op game mode partner), returning voice in the ear Grim and the cheeky new tech guy, Charlie. It seems more like a setup for your typical summer action flick than a carefully crafted spy fiction, which again, feels far more generic than it could have been.
Thankfully the biggest saving grace is the gameplay, which is hopefully the main reason you’d choose to play a Splinter Cell title. Whilst not quite back to Chaos Theory’s purist mode, complete stealth runs are possible for the most part, doing away with Conviction’s ‘poked beehive’ level of linked AI panic levels. Dart between shadows, climb walls, dash between bits of cover and generally keep your head down to move unseen through each environment. Whilst there is always only one way to exit an area, there are often several ways to get through it, some hidden and others more heavily guarded. This rewards a little planning and exploration before your approach and adds a nice level of replayability too.
Should you get spotted, it’s still not game over. Take out the enemy before they can fire a shot or yell for help and the alarm never gets raised, meaning you can take chances and quickly fix mistakes without the situation getting out of control. You can do this in a variety of ways, with lethal and non-lethal hand-to-hand takedowns returning, as well as suppressed pistols, rifles, tranquiliser-like shock crossbows and more. You can get out of most situations sneakily, or – if you like – rip off your spy shirt and go full-on Rambo through each level.
Every mission rates and rewards how you played it under three play styles: ghost, panther and assault. Ghosts are never detected, preferring to evade enemies or use non-lethal means as a last resort. Assault players on the other hand squeeze into the heaviest Kevlar wetsuit and charge in all guns blazing, completing covert operations with the grace of a rhino in a greenhouse. Sitting somewhere between the two is the panther playing style, the one we can see most players adopting. Panthers utilise stealth, but tend to get around their obstacles by stabbing and shooting them in the dark. All three styles can benefit from the return of mark and execute which surprisingly never feels overpowered, especially when enemies start wearing bulletproof helmets.
Unfortunately there are times where the game feels like it suffers from Call of Duty symptoms, such as ridiculous set pieces that force you down one all-out action route. These include top-down drone strikes and even a bizarrely placed first-person shooter section. These dilute the classic Splinter Cell formula the rest of the game builds up and add nothing other than a little bit of unnecessary padding. Fortunately, there are other game influences that are more welcome.
Ubisoft appears to have turned its new favourite trick to Blacklist, introducing a few familiar elements from its other games. For example, Sam now has climbing animations and abilities similar to a certain hooded assassin, and his new tri-rotor drone behaves strangely like the quad-rotor players relied on so much in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. They feel well incorporated and haven’t been pushed to the extremes, firmly staying below the ceiling of Sam’s feasible abilities.
Multiplayer makes a triumphant return in Splinter Cell: Blacklist, reintroducing co-op play as well as the classic spies versus mercenaries. Co-op has its own mini campaign where Sam and Briggs gang up for some fun story based missioning. Otherwise, there’s a variety of side missions that can be played co-op or solo, but these are a lot more focussed on playstyle than following a narrative. They cover reaching objectives whilst avoiding detection, silently taking out bad guys and surviving waves of attacking forces. To be honest, they feel a little uninspiring and aren’t that great to play solo.
Spies versus mercenaries is just as you remember, but now includes an additional eight player, four versus four mode. This makes things a lot more frantic than the classic two on two, but it’s actually a lot of fun and can lead to a variety of interesting scenarios.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a worthy entry to the series that looks to be getting back on track after the opinion splitting Conviction. However, the variety of play styles on offer makes the game feel very unfocussed at times, especially when it suddenly forces a particular style that goes against everything you’ve done so far. At the end of the day though, it’s an enjoyable action romp with stealth mechanics that make it undeniably Splinter Cell. It’s given us the confidence to believe that the inevitable sequel, given a few refinements, could be amazing.