It’s a cool clear night on the riverfront in Istanbul, Turkey. Sam Fisher hangs from a balcony awaiting an opportunity to administer death from above to an unsuspecting guard. Keeping to the shadows, Fisher slides along the railing to get into position. The guard chooses to pause momentarily to take in his surroundings. It’s the last decision he will ever make. In mere seconds, Fisher descends from his perch, delivering a crushing body blow to his prey and knocking him to the hard concrete. Without hesitating, Fisher’s blade neatly finishes the job, ending the guard’s patrol. To avoid detection, the body is tossed over the nearby guard rail into the water below, hiding all evidence of the encounter. Fisher again becomes one with the darkness and advances toward his mission goals.
Sam Fisher is back in Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. This latest Splinter Cellinstallment takes Fisher to Chicago, Tehran, London and beyond in order to take out a terrorist organization threatening the USA. These terrorists, known as the Blacklist Engineers, are demanding that the United States withdraw all its troops from its many outposts around the world. If the USA doesn’t comply, the Engineers will continue attacking various Blacklist targets, effectively ending the world as the inhabitants of the USA know it. Sure, the plot is passable and permits some kind of continuity in the game that drives Sam and his Fourth Echelon team to get the job done for the sake of their nation, but I’ve seen better stories on Spongebob Squarepants. If you turn on any basic cable channel and catch an action flick, chances are you’ll see terrorists threatening the USA and some elite person/group using the best tech available to hunt them down and save the day. You could argue that Blacklist‘s plot doesn’t really need much more substance since the real meat is present elsewhere in the game, but you’d think someone in the creative think tank would’ve been able to come up with something less forgettable.
Bad guys never look up
With that said, the worst is out of the way. The gameplay is the real gold, and the more you play the more you like it. When I first started playing this game, I wasn’t sure whether I liked the game or if it was just another average experience. If you only dedicate an hour to it, you might leave the game feeling that way. But I found that once I started really getting into the different ways you can approach each mission, each section and each take down, things just keep getting better. The building blocks are there for any play style you prefer and it is up to you to take advantage of the resources to mix and match as much as you prefer to tune the game to your liking. Would you rather go in guns blazing or stick to the hidden paths and shadows? Do you want total lethality in your arsenal or would you prefer a no-kill style? How much customization would you like to put into your suit, gear and gadgets, if any? There is ample opportunity to customize your loadout to your heart’s desire or just use basic weapons to jump into the action. To make a long story short, you get a lot of choices.
Blacklist offers incentives to try out all the different ways to play. Whether it’s in the form of an accomplishment or just a big wad of cash, you are encouraged to try all the gear, find clever paths around the levels and get creative with your kills. You could theoretically spend the first third of a level moving totally undetected and knocking enemies out, the next third surprising enemies and killing them and the last third burning through ammo and chucking frag grenades, bringing the entire enemy force down on you at once. Heck, half the time it’s more fun to screw with the enemies than it is to actually accomplish objectives. I still get a big kick out of picking up a body of a downed foe and throwing him over a ledge onto the head of some poor guy below. Popping off a couple unsilenced shots and then shrinking back into a hiding place to watch the chaos ensue is always satisfying as the enemies go nuts searching for you. Depending on the mission, you will sometimes be restricted to a certain level of stealth. For example, your teammate Grim enjoys giving you missions where detection leads to immediate failure. Kobin (that jerk who pretended to kill your daughter in a previous installment) dishes out missions with more freedom. Charlie, this douchey tech guy on your team, gives you horde-esque missions where you sometimes have to go all in to survive the waves of enemies.
Terrorists have no problem shooting their comrades
Stealth games get a lot of flack from gamers who are used to the Call of Duty style of gaming. “It’s so boring,” they say. “Not enough action,” they complain. Stealth gamers knock the fast-paced shooters for being too chaotic or lacking strategy when mindlessly pulling the triggers and running around. Now both camps can coexist and enjoy the game together – literally. The side missions discussed above can be done alone or with a partner online or locally (except locally on the Wii U). The online multiplayer offers a variety of modes, particularly the fan favorite Spies vs. Mercs. Spies vs. Mercs is a two on two mode in which one team, acting as heavily armed mercenaries, defends terminals from stealth hackers, effectively creating a handshake between stealth and high energy shooting games. During coop missions, one player can sneak up on enemies from the shadows while the other distracts the enemies with haphazard tactics.
When looking at the settings, models and textures in the game, it is obvious that attention to detail was a priority. The environments are varied and rich, moving through office floors, river canyons, bombed out buildings and quiet, sleepy towns. Keeping in mind that the story takes Sam all over the world, the level designers had to get a good grasp of what a convincing locale would look like in an Afghanistan village, a Chicago department store or a mansion in Paraguay. The action is fluid is well-rendered. Each explosion, take down and headshot looks great and sometimes you might find yourself just staring at random things in the level, admiring the craftsmanship. Taking into consideration the different versions that are out there, if you’re looking for the best possible graphics, your best bets are PC or Wii U. The PS3 and 360 versions will be impressive themselves, but they simply can’t keep up with a great gaming PC or the more powerful U console. The only tradeoff when playing the U version is that the loading times are atrocious.
Sam Fisher is… Batman
The sound aspect of this game is well done and I have nearly no issues it, but there are some mildly annoying and/or humorous things I’ve encountered. For example, veteran Splinter Cell gamers will notice that Sam Fisher doesn’t sound like he has in the past. A swap of voice actors has changed all that. While the new voice actor is good, he does sound a bit young to be playing a guy who is in his forties with salt and pepper gray hair. Also, the enemies in non-English speaking nations such as Iran or Afghanistan will often switch from chattering away in their native tongue to English at random. I feel that this detracts slightly from the overall experience. Two guards will be chatting in Arabic and all of a sudden they’re alerted to my presence and will shout something like, “I am going over here to check something out!” What? It’s like they only speak English when it involves how they’re coordinating my hunt. It would be better if their comments remained in their normal language so I’m not aware that they’re about to conduct a thorough search, split up or direct their friends to certain areas so I know to avoid them. I’m doubting that every terrorist on Earth knows English well enough to inform their enemy of their exact intentions.
The controls are very fluid and satisfying, especially on the Wii U version I played. The touchscreen allows you to cycle through gadgets and weapons quickly without having to bring up the item wheel. The 360 version allows gamers to use Kinect to say things out loud to attract enemies to their position without using Fisher’s predetermined taunts with the controller, which I think is a clever way to integrate Kinect in a way that isn’t flailing your arms around and pulling muscles. You can, however, get yourself into buggy situations when the environments and controller disagree. For example, I was once trying to climb around the corner of a building to get to a better vantage point, but I got stuck and the controls would no longer respond, causing me to restart the level. Only occurring once, it was still very frustrating since I had to repeat everything I just did.
There is very little to complain about this game. It’s all just… good. So good, in fact, that I would strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys first-person shooters, third-person shooters and stealth games alike. Don’t let its classification deter you. Splinter Cell: Blacklist can be played however you want – alone or with friends. Barring the lame story or the odd bug that every game is bound to have, you’re sure to have a solid, enjoyable experience no matter which platform you buy it for. Now stop wasting time and go climb some pipes and hack some terminals!