Developer: Ubisoft Toronto / Publisher: Ubisoft / Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC / Release Date: August 20, 2013 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language]
During prior preview sessions with Splinter Cell: Blacklist, I was convinced that this latest installment in the series would be a gameplay compromise between Splinter Cell: Conviction and all the games before it. Now after several additional hours with the single player campaign and the multiplayer modes, Blacklist actually feels more like a refinement of Conviction.
In Conviction, efficient killing rewards you with the Mark & Execute option, a semi-automated ability to dispatch a couple enemies with freakish ease. While you can still shoot through objects at times, Ubisoft tried to minimize these magic bullet tricks in Blacklist. In fact, the Execute prompt does not appear unless targets are at a practical distance, which addresses what ended up becoming a huge exploit in Conviction.
Playing through four chapters (and a stage-setting prologue), we have a better picture of the globetrotting breadth of Sam Fisher’s and Fourth Echelon’s objectives. You go from Middle Eastern urbanity to something more rural to a modern American metropolis in the span of an hour. The objectives will be familiar for most any stealth operatives: track down a VIP, shut down a poisoned water system, escape with a hostage, etcetera. You can expect the usual plot twists but don’t be surprised if you also see Sam Fisher call an audible when planning an upcoming mission, something that members of Fourth Echelon may not be cool with.
A new implementation to the series, Blacklist gives you the option to choose what victims to spare or kill, where the victim could be anyone from the primary target to an unlucky guard. These opportunities appear about once per chapter, adding some interactivity and variability to the cutscenes they appear after. When I asked Ubisoft’s Patrick Redding about the depth of these decision trees, he said your choices don’t lead to anything significant to the narrative, but will certainly reflect on your overall profile, whether you’re a merciless killer or a pacifist.
Continuing my run, the last story chapter I got to play was partly in a contemporarily designed mansion in Paraguay. The chapter played like one of those “if it’s not one thing, it’s another” level designs, leading me to replay sections multiple times. If it wasn’t the dog spotting me, it was the enemy concealed in the distance. Firefights with as few as two enemies can be lethal without Mark & Execute available, so you’re pretty much a goner if a vicious dog is chewing away at Sam’s arm.
There’s a sense of franchise cohesion between Tom Clancy’s brands when playing Blacklist. Using drones is reminiscent of last year’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, as is the strong tactical appeal of being organized and communicative during a co-op mission. Silencers armed and headset mics at the ready has that Rainbow Six/Advanced Warfighter compulsion to get you in that tactical mindset and speak with an overly calm and quiet voice.
Alas, I believe the sign of a great franchise is one where many kinds of fans love different installments in the series in their own way; everyone may not like every game, but your wide range of fans still guarantee that someone will have fun with the latest release. Which is why I sympathize with Ubisoft on trying to find a middle ground with Blacklist to please fans of different Splinter Cell games. There are those who loved the strong stealth emphasis in the early games who found the Mark & Execute mechanic introduced in Conviction a dumbing down of the gameplay. Then again, that same feature won over new fans.
Personally, in this new Sam Fisher adventure I have not enjoyed the scarcity of ceiling pipes, the thickness of the heavies, and the possibility of diluting your skills if you try to be both stealthy and aggressive in one playthough. However, I’ve wholly enjoyed the around-the-corner kills, the improved Mark & Execute scheme, and the realistic sense that die hard “classic” Splinter Cell fans can still clear this game undetected on their first try. And seeing a non-rogue Sam Fisher suit up in official gear is very much appreciated. Whichever fans Blacklist caters to, we’ll find out when the game ships on August 20.