By all logic, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist should be a satirical comedy.
It’s a good thing then that that’s exactly what the sixth game in the Splinter Cell series – a game with four trademarks front and centre in its title – is.
Sam Fisher is gruff, and the change in voice actor to (Smallville alum) Eric Johnson continues that most noteworthy of character traits apace. Anna ‘Grim’ Grímsdóttir, the levity of her banter with Sam sadly banished during Splinter Cell: Conviction, lives up to her nickname. Even new characters, CIA stick-in-the-mud Isaac Briggs and geek stereotype Charlie Cole, are duller than grey clouds over a Perthshire village.
It’s not all doom and gloom in Blacklist’s cast of characters; Elias Toufexis (otherwise Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s Adam Jensen) is gloriously sardonic as put-upon arms dealer, Andriy Kobin. By the numbers antagonist, Majid Sadiq is made significantly more memorable by virtue of Carlo Rota’s performance, though it’s tough not to see him as Morris O’Brian in 24.
And that’s the crux of Splinter Cell as a narrative concern; the series started a year after 24 arrived on TV screens, and has mirrored that show’s increasingly unbelievable, relentlessly amoral progression.
Splinter Cell has been at its best when Sam Fisher is tackling information terrorism, and that’s where we find Blacklist. A terrorist group of hackers and mercenary soldiers are attacking the United States through its infrastructure in a high-stakes and very public campaign to spread panic. What else can Sam Fisher and his super stealth squad do but adopt the ridiculous moniker of Fourth Echelon and take to the skies in a Batcave with wings to hunt said terrorists?
Blacklist’s story is dumb. Big, stupid and dumb. I’d wonder if (writers) Richard Dansky and Matt Maclennan didn’t realise how ridiculous the whole thing was if it weren’t for Kobin constantly pointing it out. Early on, Sam ducks into an alleyway to change into his hero costume; I honestly couldn’t tell if Ubisoft had their tongue firmly planted in their cheek at this moment, but it was pretty hard to care through the laughter.
“I did not give you the fifth freedom to engage in a personal vendetta.“
– President Caldwell
Thankfully, Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s mechanics are anything but ridiculous. The game plays much like Conviction in its third-person cover-based shooter framework. However, the new system uses an amalgam of the series’ old, hardcore stealth and its newer, action-based, panther style. The trick, it transpires, to avoiding chucking the Blacklist ball exclusively into either the stealth or action buckets is two-fold; the level design and the scoring system.
Thinking back over the history of stealth games, level design is everything. Level design made Dishonored seem smaller than it ought and Splinter Cell: Conviction seem like stealth room beads on a corridor string. Level design also makes Blacklist sing.
The co-op side missions point out when/where alternate paths exist with big, bold lettering painted on gates and “Dual Boost” locations. Tackling missions solo, however, it’s easy to miss the myriad routes through an environment. The usual hatches, overhead pipes and window ledges are all present and correct, but I was shocked at how little of the levels I saw on the first playthrough. When replaying the first mission proper, for instance, I found two balconies – one external and one internal – that bypassed otherwise very difficult sections. Two whole groups of enemies that can be entirely circumnavigated to the point of never knowing they were there. It takes a confident developer to produce entire sections of game that a number of players may never see, and Ubisoft Toronto are definitely that.
It’s also important that Sam can access any area (co-op routes aside) from minute one of Blacklist. There are no character ability or equipment gates on particular paths/areas, instead upgrades are focussed squarely on facilitating player creativity and increasing effectiveness. If you want to go toe-to-toe with enemies then more powerful weapons and heavier armour will help. If stealth is your preferred style then a non-lethal crossbow and light, quiet armour will give you options. However, the player is never told that a certain action, ability or route is off-limits. Because of this, Blacklist becomes about planning your movements and testing systems to see what’s possible.
The open, un-gated nature of the missions means that it’s entirely possible to compare player performance, safe in the knowledge that a higher jump, a longer warp or a remote hack device does not separate one from t’other. To that end, Splinter Cell: Blacklist includes a scoring system and platform-specific leaderboards.
Having seen Hitman: Absolution make such a mess of an ostensibly similar scoring system, it’s a relief that Ubisoft got it so right.
Points are awarded for actions that fall under each of three separate play-styles: Ghost, Panther and Assault. What the scoring system does allow for is a stratification of these actions. Killing enemies whilst detected is the bottom rung, and up above remaining undetected and employing non-lethal tactics is the new gold standard – undisturbed. ‘Undisturbed’ is the term Blacklist pops up on screen each time a section is cleared with enemies left… you guessed it, undisturbed. Well, who am I to turn down such an implicit challenge in a stealth game?
Hopefully, what that video shows is that Blacklist is Splinter Cell resurgent. Bracketing player actions into play-styles is a nice visual indicator of the flexibility at the heart of this game’s mechanics. Even on such a small mission as Billionaire’s Yacht, the options at the player’s fingertips are exciting. Crack the game up to Perfectionist and it’s not the gleefully punishing stealth experience that Chaos Theory on Expert difficulty was, but it does give pause for thought.
All the game’s missions are accessed through a mission map (it’s called the Strategic Mission Interface, but let’s not dwell on that). This includes access to side missions in strictly solo, solo/co-op, strictly co-op and (abominable) horde flavours as well as an odd meta-game and the multiplayer modes. My first taste of Spies Vs Mercs came at the hands of Cane and Rinse’s Darren Gargette.
Honestly, it’s tough not to imagine every new player being wiped across the floor by the Level 30 players that were running amok from day three onward, but that doesn’t dampen the impact of SVM.
Suit up as a spy and it’s Splinter Cell’s unmistakable feeling of being simultaneously both predator and prey. There’s nothing quite like hacking a terminal and hiding, only to wait with baited breath for the mercs to hunt you down. What I wasn’t prepared for was the experience of playing as a mercenary. Mechanically, it’s an entirely different experience that takes some adjusting to, but the unnerving feeling of being a powerful hunter, as well as a vulnerable target is exactly the same.
I haven’t put as much time into Spies Vs Mercs as I would have liked to, Darren Gargette’s Quick Rinse should help set the scene for this impressive twist on multiplayer gaming.
Asymmetric multiplayer has been around at least since Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow introduced Spies Vs Mercs, and many aspects of it crept into Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed multiplayer mode in Brotherhood, but it still feels fresh and exciting. Which is unsurprising, because that is very much the feeling that Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist gives in spades.
With the action-focused Splinter Cell: Conviction and Hitman: Absolution, I had started to fear that the stealth game series upon which I cut my teeth had gotten away from me. What is most pleasantly surprising about Blacklist is that it demonstrates with confidence that the old, patient stealth gameplay and the new, action-stealth hybrids are not mutually exclusive – in fact each has something to learn from the other.