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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- I did a mental double-take when I realised the original Splinter Cell was released a decade ago. ↩
- 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. ↩
- What surprises me most about it is that Ubisoft Montreal are a Canadian developer. ↩