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Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review

Posted by Stephen del Prado On Monday 30 September 2013Comments Off

Available on 360, PS3, WU and PC l Published by Ubisoft l Developed by Ubisoft Toronto l Classified MA15+ l Supports 1-10 players

REVIEW IN BRIEF > Sam Fisher is back with a new voice and face to help deal with the same old terrorists practically begging for a sneak attack from behind. Between the main story, co-op and online modes, there is plenty here on offer to keep players busy for weeks on end, provided they don’t mind experimenting with their play style and getting some friends on board for the ride.

REVIEW IN FULL > With Blacklist, Ubisoft has perhaps delivered the most comprehensive Splinter Cell package yet. Many players complained that the series had lost its way with previous entry Conviction, as Sam Fisher spent more time running and gunning than sneaking and climbing. Rather than fully retreat to the series’ customary dark corridors and conveniently placed ceiling pipes, the developer has instead taken an approach that results in Blacklist having more in common with Deus Ex than Metal Gear Solid. A number of levels are quite open (and well lit to boot), ever a challenge to the enterprising spy. This catch-all approach, which is no doubt intended to draw players from the original trilogy whilst holding onto the player base from Double Agent and Conviction, generally caters to both loud and quiet approaches to the situations thrown at Fisher in each environment.

…the developer has  taken an approach that results in Blacklist having more in common with Deus Ex than Metal Gear Solid.

The storyline is exactly what players will expect from a Tom Clancy title. It combines intrigue and geopolitical commentary to craft a tale that is remarkably current given recent events in Syria. A group of terrorists calling themselves The Engineers have unleashed an attack on a US military base to deliver a message: the US must withdraw all troops on foreign soil, or more attacks will follow. Enter Sam Fisher and his ragtag bunch of covert operatives, now calling themselves Fourth Echelon. From aboard the Paladin, a cargo plane which doubles as a base of operations, they’re tasked by the US President with putting a stop to these terrible events. While this all sounds straightforward, many of the missions come off as little more than contrived excuses to jetset around the globe and provide the player with an array of diverse environments.

Unfortunately, Michael Ironside doesn’t reprise his role as Fisher, with actor Eric Johnson stepping into the part. The new character model looks close to twenty years younger than the version found in Conviction. As a result, Fisher’s interactions with his twenty-something daughter feel slightly awkward. The supporting cast fares no better as hardass communications analyst Grim, IT wizard Charlie and former CIA operative Isaac Briggs come across as cookie cutter clichés. A complete lack of character development throughout, coupled with an anti-climactic ending, means that of the many elements found in Blacklist, the story is definitely the weakest.

Contrasting against this less than stellar performance is the gameplay, which is some of the best to be found in the series so far. Blacklist controls tightly and provides a variety of challenges (as well as ample ways to overcome them). Making a return is the Execute ability from Conviction. When charged, it allows Fisher to target up to three enemies and take them out all at once in a short bullet time sequence. While this feature is rather neat to begin with, it becomes apparent that it is not as overpowered as it initially seems once armoured enemies begin to make an appearance. To complement the campaign, the members of Fourth Echelon each have a set of missions to offer Fisher. These tend to be more focused on co-op play, with the missions offered by fellow operative Briggs being co-op only. While it’s certainly possible to complete the majority of these solo, players will get the most out of them with a friend online or on the couch. Aiding this is the SMI (Strategic Mission Interface), a fantastic system that allows smooth switching between online and offline modes.

In all missions, Blacklist divides player actions into one of three play styles. Ghost is the stealthiest approach designed to appeal to series veterans, promoting sneak attacks and sticking to shadows whenever possible. Assault allows the complete opposite, encouraging players to kit Fisher out with heavy armour and go in guns blazing. Panther falls in between, being a mix of stealth and assault tactics. One of the best features of the Splinter Cell series is the way difficulty levels alter the gameplay to the point that the difference between Rookie and Realistic can feel like totally distinct experiences. This is compounded by the aforementioned variety of playstyles on offer, meaning that there are numerous ways to tackle missions in Blacklist. Before starting a mission, players can customise Fisher’s loadout with Charlie providing suggestions as to what gadgets and weapons would be most beneficial. At the end of the day, however, the level design ensures that no gadget is ever truly vital to a mission, which means it’s often better to tailor the loadout to personal preferences. Unlocking new equipment is as simple as spending the credit earned after every mission. While it does give a small sense of progression, it feels underwhelming as Blacklist doles out the cash at incredible rates.

It goes without saying that a microphone is absolutely essential for teamwork. Silent partners will be spending more time on the respawn screen than on the map.

Making a spectacular return is Spies vs. Mercs, the much beloved multiplayer mode that first appeared in 2004’s Pandora Tomorrow. Asymmetrical in design, this mode sees a pair of spies attempt to hack a series of terminals, while the competing mercenaries attempt to shut them down. The kicker is that spies are played from a third person perspective and geared for stealth while mercenaries are played from a first person perspective and built for assault. Matches tend to play out as tense games of cat and mouse, with the power balance shifting numerous times throughout depending on the competence of the players. It goes without saying that a microphone is absolutely essential for effective teamwork. Silent partners will be spending more time on the respawn screen than on the map. One issue, sadly common to many multiplayer games not named Call of Duty, is a rather small pool of players online. Compounding this issue is a poor matchmaking algorithm that can end up pairing first time players with others up to 30 levels above them, although this could easily be fixed in a patch.

As with many recent Ubisoft games, Splinter Cell has a companion app available on both Android and iOS. As well as providing benefits in the form of transferable credits and equipment, Splinter Cell: Spider-Bot also happens to provide some stealth puzzle gameplay on the go at zero cost, a step up from the very static companion app used to promote Far Cry 3, one of Ubisoft’s other flagship franchises. This cross-platform promotional approach is one that hopefully continues to pay off for Ubisoft, given that the majority of gamers are also smartphone owners.

Without a doubt, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a solid package for any fan or newcomer to the series. The variety of solo, co-op and multiplayer modes and missions provides plenty of opportunity to sneak and/or shoot around the globe, depending on a player’s preference. Despite a disappointing storyline, it provides some of the most diverse gameplay to be seen in the series yet and, in a year full of top tier releases, shouldn’t be overlooked.

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