“New Voice, Same Sam”

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Game Info
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Genre: Action Adventure
Release Date: 08/20/13 (PS3, XB360, Wii U, PC)

 

Splinter Cell: Blacklist feels like an old friend with a new car; or a new friend in an old car. It’s familiar, welcoming veteran players in without scaring them too much with major UI or control scheme changes, but in its guts it’s still trying to make it all fresh again. Some changes show that Ubisoft’s title is maturing by going a little hands-off and not enforcing a particular “type” of Splinter Cell experience.

Beyond the obvious differences, like new voice actors, or the return of the dated but popular multiplayer mode, Spies Vs. Mercs; this game tries to be the best Splinter Cell game it can be, and not get clever with what that means on a fundamental level, something a  few major franchises have trouble doing this late in a series’ life.

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STORY: A group of terrorists calling themselves the Engineers have put a deadly ultimatum on the United States. Remove American troops from all overseas bases or suffer the Blacklist, a countdown targeting both foreign and domestic assets of the US. What’s more, they’ve released the Blacklist to the American public, with cryptic event titles such as “American Consumption,” and “American Blood” announcing their intended targets. A timer lets Sam Fisher and Co. know how much time is left before the next attack begins.

This is the driving pressure of the game, a race against time a tactically proficient group of madmen who have the means and opportunities to destabilize a major world power, and even have the audacity to announce it to the world to just try and stop them.

Sam returns with fellow series regular Anna Grimsdottir (both with new voices behind their faces: Eric Johnson and Kate Drummond respectively) along with newcomers, Charlie (the tech guy) and Isaac Briggs (the untested field agent). The team battles the Blacklist and the Engineers from a flying base called The Paladin, which serves as a one-stop hub for everything the player could want to do between missions, in much the same way that the Normandy did in the Mass Effect series. Players access a Surface-like table (seen below) called the SMI, that will feed them everything from info on the next campaign  mission to what friends are in multiplayer matches and leaderboard rankings.

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The newly formed Fourth Echelon has presidential carte blanche, and is tasked with doing whatever’s necessary to stop these incidents from occurring. Mission locations are nicely varied (and are tied into the plot relatively well with the help of some vagaries) but the goals of the missions can sometimes seem a little familiar. There’s only so many times you can be asked to capture an Engineer leader before you kind of think there could be other productive angles to pursue.

There is a modicum of character development, usually played out over the course of a mission in small cut scenes as Sam must learn to put aside his animosity towards Grim and figure out how to trust the ambitious but inexperienced Briggs. In a fun nod to Conviction, a pseudo-villain also joins the crew and offers an interesting outside perspective to events along with some comic relief.

Overall, politics does little to inform the plot; the game relying on name-dropping hot button issues or throwing around “bad guy” country and organization names just to elicit the most basic of reactions before dumping you into the next exotic locale. They get away with this because the level designs are really well done, and they took full advantage of the different types of environments they called upon, ranging from urban sprawls to tent-ridden deserts.

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GAMEPLAY: Blacklist plays like an amalgamation of the Splinter Cell series. It’s harvested the best controls and streamlined elements from every game in its repertoire and delivers it in one concise package, and most importantly, it does this well. Veterans and newcomers (especially those introduced to the series with Conviction) will find that the game is sympathetic to their particular styles, and in a good show of player understanding, Ubisoft has even implemented in-game bonuses and strategies designed for whichever type of Splinter Cell player you are.

Each level assigns points based on how you perform and the kinds of actions you take. If you sneak around, use a lot of gadgets and don’t kill enemies or set off alarms, you’re classified as a Ghost. Being sneaky and using knife kills and well-timed executions from the shadows will earn you the title of Panther. Loading up on a machine gun and blasting your way through the levels means you’re considered an Assault class.

What’s special about this system which isn’t new or groundbreaking on its own, is that its used in a sneaking game, meaning that the developers don’t want to tell you how you should be playing this new Splinter Cell. If you’re a fan of the original games, you can play a classic, gadget-wielding Sam Fisher and the game will completely understand and what’s more, reward you for it.

Before each mission you have the option of customizing your gear, from aesthetics (like which camouflage to paint your suit) to some actually important details, like what kind of weapon you want, what mods you put on it; do you go for the light-weight stealth suit that won’t protect from enemy fire, or do you go with the Kevlar nano-weave that will keep you intact but make a lot of noise while you move around? Even better still, most of the gadgets, accessories, and suit parts, will inform you of which class (Ghost, Panther, Assault) the gear is best suited for, so as you develop your own natural style, you can buy equipment to match it without having to alter anything.

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On the actual missions, Conviction’s cover-to-cover mechanic has been brought back, allowing quick and stealthy moves through the battlefield. In addition to this, Sam can free-climb as well as anyone, using pipes along the ceiling to sneak over enemies or climbing along the sides of buildings or cliff-faces to circumvent particularly heavy security. Sam’s trademark goggles are back as well, in two modes. One is the traditional night-vision, the other a sonar mode. In the early stages, sonar is merely a series of pings highlighting enemies in the distance, but you can upgrade this feature to include the abilities to track footprints, see through walls, and track enemies even between the pings, turning it into a versatile tool for the tougher later missions.

The player can also upgrade the Paladin’s facilities to give in-game bonuses, such as unlocking new weapons to buy, or by improving the plane’s on-board radar, thus highlighting enemies on a mini-map when you’re on the ground. Most of the upgrades pertain to the campaign though a few will offer minor bonuses in the multiplayer modes as well.

The levels were consciously built for multiple strategies and avenues of attack and it shows. Air ducts and side passageways are everywhere, and a thorough player can get through the entire game without killing a single enemy (barring a few choice exceptions). Several times in my play through (I was a lethal Panther class) I would discover side doors or hidden passageways that would allow me to sneak around my enemies and dispatch them while they tried to surround my last known location (another hold over from Conviction) showing a silhouette where the enemy last spotted you.

This is important because the AI does not slouch. Even on the easiest difficulty they can still put you in a compromising position and even with some of the higher-end upgrades, Sam is hard-pressed to survive a straight up fight, especially with the armored enemies later in the game who take more than one headshot to go down.

For the most part the game play was smooth and engaging, its controls natural and never really providing any kind of hiccup in the way I wanted to play. On screen prompts (for doors and the like) helped keep things in perspective while not interfering with the ambiance of any particular level.

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GRAPHICS: With a varied set of locations to visit, the graphics had a lot to work with, and they had to make the sweaty, arid deserts as interesting and engaging as the asphalt-gray riddled city streets and building walls. They succeeded. Attention to detail in little things like debris along small alleyways and the litter off major roads matches nicely with the fallen leaves and leftovers of an overseas encampment or a dust insurgent base in the mountains of Iraq, nevermind the claustrophobic piping in a major industrial complex, ripe with criss-crossing shadows to hide yourself in.

Unfortunately, the graphical consistency kind of stops there. Cut scenes waver between the gorgeous visuals you see in these screenshots and some flimsy depth and detail that seems to plague a great many games since the launch of the current gen consoles, and for the first time since the announcement of the new systems, I actually felt like a chunk of what I was seeing was dated.

Sam and Grim’s character models look great, but its when the animations start to kick in that things get a little iffy. Stiff lip-syncing doesn’t do them any favors and they don’t feel like naturally moving living beings, but more like the kind of robotic automatons we get from non-motion-captured animations. And when it comes to Briggs, his entire character design feels flat and uninspired, his eyes vacant polygonal orbs that only simulate the barest of emotions. These  were the main concerns that seemed to jump out at me, as the rest of the game (as you can tell by the screenshots) looks great, and the varied environments create very different feelings of tension throughout the campaign.

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Thankfully, these locations are populated with a wide variety of enemy design types (though interestingly one particular bad guy model starts to inundate the final third of the game). Each unique location required unique terrorists to populate it. Guys in full combat gear wouldn’t do so well in the urban mall area as the blue-collar looking terrorists they had. Luckily Ubisoft addressed this and each level has a particular flavor to it, going down even to the dress of the terrorists.

For the majority of the game I had no issues with frame rates save a few exceptions. There were about four moments throughout the campaign were the game (mostly cut scenes and one in game moment) stuttered to the point of annoyance. One sequence about halfway through the game actually froze on me, forcing me to reset my PS3 to get it back, but beyond that extreme example, nothing worse happened. This was all after a day-one patch too. Occasionally, the game would have to catch up its rendering to the moment and it would create a noticeable lack in quality for a few brief moments before everything matched up.

It’s a pretty game to look at, as long as you’re out slinking around the mud and roads of the world. Back on the Paladin, the current technology begins to show its age, which doesn’t do it any favors. This begins to compound with the next point in Sound.

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SOUND: The performances are solid, but the lack of Michael Ironside driving the gruff determination of Sam Fisher is noticeable. Eric Johnson does a good job delivering his lines, but there’s going to be a definitive adjustment period as years of gravel-laden threats and quips are replaced by something that feels a little more, at best, stereotypical, and at worst: forgettable. There are a handful of moments where its clear Eric Johnson is trying to channel Ironside’s delivery to create some kind of continuity and that, in its own way, undermines the game’s new voice actor by drawing attention to the change.

Beyond all the milspeak and technobabble that is the expected litter of a Tom Clancy game these days, the game becomes a background symphony of engine noises, gunfire, and irrelevant and overheard bad guy conversations.

Each level has at least one or two pairs of bad guys wasting time by chatting about something that in some cases, feels really unnecessary. Sure, these are people too, all with their reasons for being terrorists or wanting America crippled, but the juxtaposition between that end-goal and some of their random banter is too much at times. As has been pointed out in other publications too, though, there is a definitive drop in the number of “Fisher!”s spat out by bad guys in this one.

Though in combat, their action dialogue becomes tight and at times surprising, but in this example, in the good way. They shout out orders, they verbalize where they last saw you and will repeat to their comrades who come running to join them that they think you’re still in the vents. They’ll talk about where those vents empty out or where you might go to escape. All of it is relatively inconsequential as far as your planning is concerned, but it makes all these moments much more real and adds a natural sense of tension to the experience.

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REPLAY: Spies Vs. Mercs is back, and the asymmetrical multiplayer mode is still in its prime. Accessible through the SMI in the main storyline, multiplayer modes (including co-op and competitive) are always available between campaign missions. Money earned in the campaign can be used to buy upgrades to both your Spy and Merc avatars in multiplayer, so there’s an integration of both single player and multiplayer components, with successes in one bleeding over to the other.

The straight death match modes seem like they’d be lopsided, with the heavily armed Mercs gaining the one-up on the speedier Spies, but you’d be surprised with how balanced they’ve managed to work the team vs team battles. Spies, using their extra navigational abilities (and bigger viewing window thanks to a 3rd person perspective) can easily out maneuver their limited FPS-based foes, and with some one-hit moves  in the way of take downs, they don’t need to rely on superior firepower to knock out even the  most heavily armed of Mercs. Overall, even the non-objective team death matches are a wild amount of fun in this new Splinter Cell, and proponents of bringing back this fabled multiplayer mode will find it’s been treated with as much care and attention as the overall game itself.

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Co-op missions allow you and a friend to complete small series of side-missions doled out by one of your fellow members of Fourth Echelon. They can be performed split-screen on one console or over the internet. These missions (specific to Briggs, Grim, Charlie, and some other folk you meet) offer interesting insights into their histories, motivations, and views aside from the main plot. Completing all the missions for a given character unlocks high-end bonuses for Sam and your Spies and Mercs. For example, finishing all of Charlie’s missions will unlock powerful gadgets, while helping Grim will give you more suit upgrades.

Finally, without spoiling anything, post-campaign, some alerts remain on the SMI’s terror countdown, hinting at further material to come, potentially expansions to continue the story established by Blacklist, so getting to the bottom of the events behind the Engineers’ plot might not close out this particular chapter in Sam Fisher’s career after all. Only time will tell, but with the competitive and cooperative multiplayer options, there’s a fair amount to do after beating the game beyond just going back through the storyline to try for a bigger, better score, though there’s always that. Bonuses await those who can master the Ghost, Panther, and Assault classes by maxing out the particular level’s available points in their respective categories.

 

Letting run-and-gunners and ninjas alike play to their own styles, bringing back a fan-favorite multiplayer mode and balancing elements from past games goes to show that Ubisoft isn’t just arbitrarily fixing things that don’t need it. And despite the odd moment of weakness, be it lackluster storytelling or plastic-looking graphics, this taking the best of the series and bringing it together shows that Splinter Cell is not abandoning its origins. And that’s good news for any Sam Fisher fan.

This review is based on a retail copy of Splinter Cell: Blacklist for the PS3. Singleplayer took 7 hours to complete and I spent 5 hours in multiplayer matches including competitive and cooperative game modes.

Written by R. Burke Kearney