Thoughts: Splinter Cell Blacklist.

I’m on holiday this week, so do not be surprised if there is no post on the 23rd September. Because I’m ON HOLIDAY.

stealth

Splinter Cell Blacklist can be viewed in one of two ways. On the one hand it’s a surprising return to form after the series nadir that was Conviction, remembering its roots as a stealth-based game and fusing it with Conviction’s movement tweaks to produce what might be the best stealth experience I’ve played in many years. On the other hand Conviction was so terrible that Splinter Cell could only go up from there, and I found myself constantly questioning my judgement while playing it: was Blacklist genuinely a good game, or was I simply so starved for a game that did stealth properly that I was prepared to accept what is, past those stealth-based elements, a very unpleasant game in terms of both tone and story?

After some thought, I’m leaning towards the former. Blacklist is a good game. But it’s good in spite of its non-stealth side, which makes zero contribution to the game’s success, and it could have been so much better if they hadn’t continued the recent trend of Splinter Cell games having batshit neocon fantasy plots that make the average episode of 24 look like fucking Shakespeare.  We will deal with that towards the end of the review. First, what Blacklist gets right.

As the umpteenth game in the now-venerable Splinter Cell series1, Blacklist places you in control of covert agent Sam Fisher and his extra-legal team of Fourth Echelon incompetents. They are secret, they are silent, and they are utterly useless at their jobs thanks to the terrible writing in this game making them seem like hormonal teenage screwups who make impulsive decisions on the spur of the moment, because the Plot needs something to happen now and the only way to do it is to have Sam or his friends do something completely illogical and counterproductive to the mission. (Shit, I said I wasn’t going to talk about the plot yet.) The Fourth Echelon is the US government’s last line of defence against terrorist groups that seek to do the country harm, and so this band of buffoons jet-sets around the globe, dropping Sam into various hotspots so that he can infiltrate them via third-person stealth gameplay.

infiltration

Now, Blacklist looks a lot like Conviction. The cover shooter elements of that execrable game have made it through intact, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed between the two games. However, the nice thing about Blacklist is that it subverts the usual cover shooter gameplay and makes it work for Splinter Cell instead of adapting Splinter Cell into a cover shooter. Being behind a piece of cover is of limited use in a gunfight (on Realistic, anyway) because Sam will die in one or two bullet hits regardless of where he is.  Instead, cover is a way of remaining hidden from patrolling enemies. You’re harder to spot in cover, and by pointing the crosshairs at a suitable piece of cover and pushing space you can get Sam to shimmy from cover to cover while keeping a low profile.  Cover therefore becomes a route through a level rather than a random collection of convenient waist-high barricades; it’s possible to ghost a level completely simply by utilising cover intelligently along with an excellent sense of timing.

Not that I ever managed that, despite trying very hard. The guards in Blacklist strike a pleasing balance between having to adhere to the rules of the system – like cover arbitrarily making you harder to spot to the point where they ignore Sam’s glowing green goggles peeking over the top of it – and acting in a reason ably intelligent manner. They occasionally deviate from their set patrol paths to do guardy things like checking locked doors, and if they catch a glimpse of you out in the open they’ll come to investigate even if you weren’t fully spotted. The longer Sam remains in their vision range and the closer he is to them, the more likely it is they’ll raise the alarm. I’m not going to call them stunning achievements in AI or anything, but they have been admirably well-pitched so that they’re just annoying enough that evading them is a challenge.

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You don’t have to evade them, of course. You can just shoot them in the face (on most missions, anyway) if that’s what you want to do. If you do that, though, you’re going to have two problems. The first is that Sam is rather vulnerable to being pierced by hot pieces of lead moving at high speed; if he’s wearing a stealth outfit he’ll crumple in the aforementioned one or two shots. The second is that Blacklist will not outright stop you from murdering your way through a level, but it will make its disapproval clear by giving you less points at the end of it; combat kills get the least, silent kills where you remain undetected get more, non-lethal stealth knockouts get lots, and the most points are given for enemies that you manage to completely evade while leaving them alive and untouched. In this way Blacklist encourages you to do what Splinter Cell does best and make full use of the stealth gameplay without straitjacketing you too much; you have enough latitude to make mistakes and/or remove particularly irritating guards via the brute force solution of a bullet to their skull, but the points hit for doing so is large enough that this is an undesirable outcome. It’s always worth trying to do things non-lethally if at all possible.

Why are points important? Well, this is where we come to a part of Blacklist that I think some people are not going to like very much, and with justification: points are converted into a cash reward at the end of a mission which Sam can then spend on better/upgraded equipment. I’m in two minds about this; it does provide a tangible reward for players who don’t just shoot their way through the game, but it also places unnecessary restrictions on players at the start of the game because they won’t have the full range of stealth options open to them. The opening level of Blacklist is a much more simplistic hide-and-seek simulator than the later missions, and this is a shame because otherwise I feel that Blacklist is a game that really appreciates the importance of gadgetry to stealthy gameplay.

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This is what a lot of stealth pretenders get wrong, I feel: Thief isn’t one of the best games ever just because it had a light gem and shadows to hide in. No, Thief is a classic in large part because it gave you a wide variety of tools and items which could be used to bypass guards and bad guys without them ever seeing you. Blacklist has a slightly different emphasis; there are very few gadgets based around outright avoidance, but if you want to non-lethally dispose of an entire level’s worth of goons while remaining undetected Blacklist most definitely has you covered.  There’s shock mines that disable anyone walking over them, noisemakers to lure guards into the shock mines, and – my favourite – a sticky camera that makes noises and can dispense sleeping gas on cue. Sticky EMPs can be used to temporarily shut down drones and electronics, and you can deploy your own drone to surveil the terrain ahead.  Most useful of all, Sam’s goggles can be upgraded to see through walls and pick out patrolling guards in Predator vision, which isn’t quite as overpowered as it seems and functions more as a handy crutch for not being taken by surprise than it does a full-on God mode.

Blacklist isn’t averse to kicking those crutches away, mind. There are several special guard types that confound your gadgetry in one way or another, like the drone operator who jams your goggles or the armoured guard who is immune to electric shocks and sleeping gas, rendering the vast majority of your arsenal useless and forcing you to somehow get the drop on him so that you can perform a stealth takedown2. This prevents players who have unlocked all of the gadgets from just KOing every guard in the level with their extensive array of toys and provides some welcome variety that keeps you on your toes. Less welcome are the segments where the game says “Fuck stealth,” and just tosses you into a fight against alerted guards via a cutscene with no escape options available. These segments happen maybe once during the first eight hours of the game, and then three times more in its closing third, almost like they were running out of ideas and had to pad things out with some tedious gunplay. There’s nothing quite as bad as Conviction’s Iraq level since you can always at least use some of your stealthy toys to aid in the quick disposal of the bad guys, but it’s really annoying that Blacklist gives you the option to customise your loadout via its bizarre shop system (pay $65,000 for a pair of stealth trousers) and then chooses to subvert that choice with forced combat.

sonar

This is probably the most annoying thing Blacklist does in gameplay terms. Otherwise it’s a solid and polished stealth experience whose only real flaw is that the levels are rather too linear – but then this is Splinter Cell, not Thief, and Splinter Cell has always done stealth this way. There’s a co-op mode which is fantastic fun, and the much-lauded Spies vs. Mercs asymmetrical multiplayer also makes a comeback; as far as gameplay goes Blacklist is the best title in the series since Chaos Theory, and the quality-of-life improvements brought on by an additional seven years of interface improvements mean it’s arguably better.  As excellent as Blacklist is, though, it’s perpetually struggling with the weight of the hefty millstone that is the game’s plot, which is just beyond bad. It’s a deeply unpleasant neoconservative wet dream that even Tom Clancy himself would reject as being too far-fetched; there’s extravagant quantities of torture, a terrorist leader with magic powers that let him hack the planet and constantly evade capture because the plot says that can’t happen until the end of the game (exactly the sort of bogeyman real covert agencies wish existed because it’d justify their bloated budgets), and a laughable attitude of we-know-best from Sam and his friends where they actively disobey direct orders from the President and execute high-ranking members of the US government because “it’s the only way”. Not only is the game’s plot more awfully written than even the worst series of 24, but it strikes me as spectacularly misjudged given recent revelations of what our actual intelligence services have been getting up to behind people’s backs3.

All this stuff comes to a head at the end of the game and ended up leaving a really bad taste in my mouth after I completed Blacklist; not only is this a shame because Blacklist is mechanically great, but the last mission is genuinely fantastic Mission Impossible stuff and the standout example of the game’s level design. The game could have ended on such a high note, and instead I sat through Blacklist’s seventeen minute-long credits sequence (they pull the AC3 trick of listing literally everyone who works at Ubisoft or any Ubisoft subsidiary) boggling at just how stupid and nonsensical the ending was. Not only are the politics of this game nasty, but they’re not even coherent. As far as I’m concerned this really does drag Blacklist down from being a good game to merely being an okay one; you might be able to overlook it more than I could, and if that’s the case I can wholeheartedly recommend Blacklist as the best modern stealth game currently on the market. Similarly if you liked previous Splinter Cell games you’ll know more-or-less what to expect (especially if you played Conviction) and should definitely pick this one up at some point because it’s the best one yet.  Otherwise it drops into “buy only if on sale” territory because you’ll be skipping through the cutscenes like crazy and turning the single-player campaign into a series of isolated stealth vignettes; this is the least offensive way to play Blacklist, but it’s hardly satisfying and leeches out enough of the goodness to make me ask that initial question about whether or not Blacklist is, in the end, A Good Game. 2,000 words later and my answer would have to be a grudging “Yes,” but I’m not happy about it.

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  1. I did a mental double-take when I realised the original Splinter Cell was released a decade ago.
  2. Or get a crossbow with sleeping gas bolts, in which case Execute’s auto-headshots will take them out by knocking off their helmet with the bolt and leaving them vulnerable to the gas.
  3. What surprises me most about it is that Ubisoft Montreal are a Canadian developer.
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21 thoughts on “Thoughts: Splinter Cell Blacklist.

  1. Darren says:

    I hate it when games try to encourage you to go the non-lethal route (see also: Dishonored, Human Revolution). I prefer my morality when it’s actually a decision I make. In the older Splinter Cells, I avoided enemies when possible but, if I couldn’t, I usually silently killed them and hid their bodies. It made sense to me; that’s fewer potential threats both now and in the future, and I don’t see why Sam Fisher would care about the lives of terrorists/enemy operatives/whatever.

    I think this was best illustrated in that bit from Chaos Theory where a U.S. plane has been shot down and Sam can either proceed with the mission and let the pilot burn to death in the wreckage or disobey orders and save him. There’s no reward for your choice, and both sides of the argument have merits. That’s what more games need, not incentives to be the nice guy regardless of the situation.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Are you arguing that decisions shouldn’t have consequences for the rest of the game? In many ways Dishonored’s morality system was fairly lenient – you could kill a few people and still get the low chaos ending. I agree that a morality system needs to be well thought-out – in Deus Ex 1, most punishments for killing were meted out by individuals with agendas (and some characters even praised you for killing), which was an interesting way to do it. Decisions had long-term consequences, but ultimately the game itself didn’t judge you for the choices you made.

      • Darren says:

        Dishonored wasn’t terrible in this regard, but it was a relatively binary good/evil meter when you got down to it. Killing a lot of people made Corvo into some kind of sociopath, while not killing people made him a saint. I wouldn’t necessarily mind so much, but it was possible to rack up a lot of kills if you flubbed the stealth enough to get into a lot of fights, which is very different from going out of your way to massacre anyone who crosses your path. Nevermind the fact that the non-lethal kills for primary targets were arguably more horrible than a quick death would have been.

        For me, the best morality system in a game was from Dawn of War 2: Chaos Rising. Here, being good means upholding the ridiculous, uninteresting Space Marine code of honor (not using evil weapons, pursuing difficult optional objectives, etc.) while being evil starts off with using evil weapons and taking shortcuts before sliding into an about-face. It was interesting because there really was no reward for being good. The only reason to be good was because it was morally right (setting aside the absurdity of WH40k morals) while being evil got you access to tons of powerful weapons and brand new skills to use in combat. That’s a genuine moral choice: betray your (or the characters’) values and get lots of new toys to play with, or be good for the sake of being good.

        We just need a game with more real-world relevance to step up to the plate.

        • Gap Gen says:

          Well, in Dishonored most of the people you’re sneaking past are just policemen, rather than the terrormen. So it makes sense that you’d want to try to avoid killing them, since most of them aren’t in on the plot (and you can kill many of the people who are without losing low chaos). I agree that for a special ops team stealthily killing people probably isn’t seen as a bad thing if it gets the job done.

          I agree that perhaps game morality systems could be less binary, though, or at least less gamey. But doing something like Deus Ex where choices have consequences but they’re mainly in your social interactions rather than in a good/bad-o-meter is hard and requires an excellent writer who has access to game design considerations.

          • Darren says:

            Like I said, part of my complain with Dishonored is that it’s tied to something that the player may not be intentionally doing. High chaos Corvo is as likely to be a bumbling oaf as a murderous nutjob.

          • Gap Gen says:

            Right, but he’s still creating chaos. I mean, this is partly why it’s a “chaos” system and not literally a good/bad system, even though granted I assume that’s implied.

          • Darren says:

            But the chaos ending is quite explicit that Corvo is some kind of psychotic murderer. I understand it’s unlikely, but it is possible that an unskilled player will get the high chaos ending without intentionally having slaughtered everyone along the way. It’s the difference between Jason Vorhees and Mr. Bean, and the game has no ability to identify this.

            I like the chaos system for the most part. I just would have preferred it if the game didn’t tie that into the protagonist’s characterization.

          • innokenti says:

            “But the chaos ending is quite explicit that Corvo is some kind of psychotic murderer.” It really really isn’t! The Outsider (and it’s the Outsider’s perspective we are narrated) labels him as a cleansing power, cutting through a rotten Empire. That’s a very different judgement than ‘Corvo is psychopath’.

            And an unskilled player isn’t limited to just killing. In fact, killing ain’t all that easy in Dishonored either (which is why I like it). You can’t easily take many people on, and need to rely on traps and running away.

            I don’t think you can really be a bumbling incompetent. If you manage to complete the game, you do have some semblance of a skill level, and non-lethal takedowns aren’t that hard to diversify into (you can beeline for sleepy-darts working on aware opponents very early).

          • Darren says:

            @Innokenti:

            That seems a little different than the high chaos ending I saw (and I’ve seen both high and low chaos). In the high chaos ending I got, the boatman turns against Corvo for his monstrous acts (and later dies), Corvo has to dismantle the conspiracy one conspirator at a time, and Emily becomes some sort of cruel queen who rules with an iron fist.

            In low chaos everything is peaches and rainbows and everyone recognizes that everything is wonderful, except for the conspirators, who mostly just did themselves in before Corvo even got to them.

            Now I can’t quote the narration–you’ve clearly got a better memory of the game than I do–but that’s a stark difference in tone and outcome.

          • innokenti says:

            No, those are the same bits I was talking about…

            I suspect there are various ways to take the tone. And to be fair unlike the Daud-based DLC, the core Dishonored plot isn’t too great despite some brilliant world-building etc. It’s certainly possible I took away different (or the wrong) emphases there. I did definitely think the low chaos ending was unnecessarily rosy in a lot of ways, considering that Corvo could have got there by doing very unpleasant things to get rid of the targets.

    • Hentzau says:

      Another way of looking at it would be that it is legitimately harder to knock people out — and make sure they stay knocked out — than it is to kill them. At first you only have a limited supply of non-lethal stuff and it’s noticeably harder to hit with than a bullet. You have like forty of those, and it would be just *so easy* to shoot the guards in the head with a silenced pistol instead of going through the faff of luring them into a trap that allows you to dispose of them in an undetectable fashion. So it’s only right that the game rewards players for not taking the easy road and making full use of Blacklist’s gadgets.

      Crucially this is only a mechanical encouragement that takes place on a metagame level. The game unfolds the same way whether you’re lethal or not. Now, the plot is completely shit either way, but I’d argue that removing the moral “reward” of a good ending or a high paragon score of whatever and just giving the player generic StealthBux instead (that they could earn anyway by doing co-op missions or multiplayer or replaying the campaign) is probably the best way of doing it.

      • Darren says:

        But why do we need a reward like that to begin with? I can’t recall who it was, but there was someone who pointed out that it used to be that being good/evil/lethal/nonlethal/whatever in games was mostly a matter of choice; it was something you could do, not something the developers felt they needed to specifically encourage you to do.*

        In Chaos Theory it was harder to knock someone out, too, but it was something I did for the fun of it, because I felt merciful, or because the character had said/done something that made them seem like they were perhaps deserving of some sympathy.

        Most damning, Chaos Theory gave you all of its toys (including many that you mention in the review) right from the start! It didn’t turn them into carrots on a stick, it just let you play a master spy right from the go, in whatever manner you felt was best.

        *Obviously plot-important decisions are a different beast, but ideally there are no “right” answers that optimize outcomes.

      • innokenti says:

        It’s the metagame rewards for in-game action that clearly privilege one way of doing things that’s the problem.

        Compare and contrast Alpha Protocol, where you got some metagame rewards for doing things a certain way, but all paths carried decent bonuses, without giving you more rewards for a certain path. Likewise, XP was based on objective completion, not how you took anyone out.

        Also, its enemy injury/hospital bills/death/orphans tracker was amazing.

        • Darren says:

          To be 100% fair on this issue, I would understand if there were some mechanical reason why the game would dole out more points for certain approaches.

          Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines gave you more experience points for non-combat approaches to quests, but since that game had unavoidable combat and experience was used as a currency, the game HAD to give you more so you could continue investing in non-combat skills while remaining capable of survival.

          Incidentally, Bloodlines (with the fan patch) would make a good candidate for a Thoughts or In Praise Of, Hentzau. Just sayin’.

          • Hentzau says:

            Alas, time constraints make writing more than one thing a week very difficult at the moment. It’s why your questions in the Ask Hentzau box have gone tragically unanswered for months. Bloodlines is an excellent candidate, though.

            Regarding your other stuff I think there’s a strange overlap between making a game reactive to what approach a player chooses to take and actively influencing their decision. You cannot have one without the other, even if it’s only on a subconscious level; a player will actively prefer outcome B over outcome A so they’ll go with the approach that gives them outcome B. Blacklist is very overt in the way it influences you; I like it because it’s not ever a binary “Gotta do it this way or this way with no middle ground” and you can use any mixture of abilities and approaches to get through a level, but reading this discussion I’d have to agree that this is more a reflection of the increasingly straitjacketed nature of modern games and it’s definitely not ideal.

          • Darren says:

            @Hentzau: Get off your lazy ass and respond to my trivial questions in no less than 2500 words!

            More seriously, it’s your blog, and I know in retrospect at least one of those questions was poorly phrased, so take your time. And, if I’m being honest, I prefer your rage-filled rants (a la SimCity) over well-reasoned criticism, so no rush to go play good (if flawed) games. Here’s a freebie to stoke your anger: having finally been able to play Diablo III (on console) I didn’t think the plot was as bad as you made it out to be!

          • Gap Gen says:

            You should do what I did when I did outreach which is to just copy and paste from Wikipedia.

          • Hentzau says:

            @Gap: You assume that that’s not what I was already doing. Hitting Ctrl-V takes a lot of effort!

            @Darren, re your last comment: I wish I could fire people from commenting on here. :P

            (No joke, I’m actually looking forward to the D3 expansion because when all is said and done I did have a hell of a lot of fun with it.)

          • Gap Gen says:

            Incidentally, you should sign up for this: http://imascientist.org.uk/ – It’s pretty good fun if you can take time off work to do it, and you have a 1 in 5 chance of winning £500 for an outreach project.

    • innokenti says:

      Yeah, I prefer the rewards to be objective-based if they have to be abstract.

      Mind you, I think Dishonored and Thief do it best – all rewards are in-game. Dishonored does have the omniscient scorecard in tracking ‘Chaos’ but there is no monetary or power benefit to it. You find money and runes because you find them, achieving objectives is just achieving the objectives.

      That leaves the majority of the judgment in my hands. And yes, Dishonored also tracks Chaos, but that’s not a morality meter in any way – the outcomes that you get are coloured by the actions, but the ‘complete Chaos’ ending in fact spins it into a ‘positive’. I think the low chaos ending was perhaps a touch saccharine but…

      And Dishonored is full of the interesting decisions about lethal and non-lethal elimination of your targets and a number of other things. There is an outcome, but no pat on the back. As it should be. (And Knife of Dunwall/Bridgmore Witches is even better)

  2. Hentzau says:

    P.S. even though I haven’t had time to really get involved with the discussion this has been a very high-class comment thread. Trebles all round.

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