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]
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a carefully layered experience. One layer is the triumvirate of play styles that studio Ubisoft Toronto invites you to experiment with. Another layer is a literal world of options on what to play, whether going solo, coop, and against your friends. Dig further and you find stylistic consistency with the rest of the Tom Clancy game universe. And of course, there’s the grizzled Sam Fisher who, with the help of the newly formed Fourth Echelon, faces yet another terrorist threat. It’s these layers that turn Blacklist into a veritable covert ops lasagna, and a delicious one at that.
The blacklist where the game gets its title isn’t used in the popular sense of targeting individuals. Rather, it’s a list of terrorist-organized attacks targeted at various parts of the U.S. socio-economic infrastructure. With Fisher back working for the U.S. government and the all-business focus on each mission, Blacklist feels like a complementary follow-up to Sam’s rogue adventures in Splinter Cell: Conviction.
While it is a less personal story than his previous outing, developer Ubisoft Toronto still manages to portray this slightly older Sam Fisher as sometimes cranky, sometimes stubborn. It’s hard to blame him considering what he’s gone through these past 11 years. Still, it is surprising how he falls into immature moments of playing the blame game with his team.
Splinter Cell: Conviction was the introduction of the divisive ‘Mark and Execute’, a takedown mechanic that temporarily grants Fisher an instant kill ability. Its return in Blacklist implies it’s a fixture in series from here on out. That’s a good thing because ‘Mark and Execute’ version two is more refined and less exploitable. There’s added pressure now that Sam’s field of vision and distance to the marked targets is slightly more realistic. He can still shoot through solid objects from time to time, but considering all the stealth and combat challenges in a given area, such glitches feel more like gifts than an exploits.
The only other notably glitches come in the form of periodic screen tearing during the cutscenes. They’re minor inconveniences especially in the context of these well-acted character interactions and facial capture that’s on par with what L.A. Noire pulled off.
It might not seem like a big deal, but the typographic and UI similarities between Blacklist and recent Tom Clancy games like Ghost Recon: Future Soldier give these properties a welcome degree of consistency that might as well feel unified.
For as much as the series has evolved, Ubisoft Toronto and Splinter Cell: Blacklist very much respects its old school stealth-centric fanbase. This is conveyed through the game’s point system and any area where the objective doesn’t involve eliminating all alert hostilities. All play styles are welcome though it is refreshing to not have that compulsion to eliminate every enemy on-site. Any action against a foe yields some points, but staying completely undetected yields the biggest rewards, which you trade in for a multitude of enhancements.
Assuming your first few hours of playing Blacklist is devoted to the story, the progressive ramping up of challenges parallel the tools and upgrades you can earn to meet those challenges. Whether it’s sleeping gas, an armor-piercing sniper rifle, or crossbow with electro-shock ammo, what you bring to the field will determine whether a room of half a dozen guards will feel intimidating or feel like a playground. And while not a revolutionary feature, the ability to spend resources on equipment that can be used both in story and co-op makes jumping between the modes a fluid experience.
Blacklist’s cohesion goes well beyond points and upgrades. A flying HQ isn’t only Fourth Echelon’s base of operations, but it is also the player’s highly organized Strategic Mission Interface (or SMI) to choose any and every available mission and mode. Your menu is also Sam Fisher’s menu and that adds a lot to the immersion.
Like many other prior Splinter Cell co-op modes, the one in Blacklist delivers that sense of mission-completing gratification due to staying in sync with an equally skilled friend. It’s easy to fall into that Rainbow Six mindset, where you talk in covert ops jargon at low volumes even though the enemy can’t hear your voice. A handful of these side missions can be played solo but since there are no discernible differences between solo and co-op, and with no AI partner as backup, going by yourself becomes a more challenging playthough.
This comprehensive design of putting all the modes in one organized world map also extends to the addicting adversarial multiplayer, Spies Vs. Mercs. Familiar versus modes modified for the Splinter Cell universe, these matches include an item extraction mission and the obligatory Team Deathmatch.
Every mode excels in delivering tension (especially when timers are winding down), but it’s never more apparent than with the hacking objectives. After a team member initiates a console hack, he has to stay within a few dozen yards from the console and survive for a 100 seconds. The multi-layered design of these levels offer many short term hiding places. You would be darn lucky to survive by staying in one spot the whole time. Still, you are as well-equipped as the enemy. It’s one thing to stay hidden, it’s another to spam smoke and flash bang grenades to draw attention away. The biggest rush comes from taking on the hunters; even if you’re the target, that doesn’t mean you can’t be bold and stalk the stalkers. Blacklist offers some of the best experiences of video game hide and seek.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist both rewards players for focusing on one infiltration style while also encouraging experimenting with others. This kind of play-as-you-like approach isn’t new, but it’s hard to think of another game that means it with such certainty as Blacklist. ‘Mark and Execute’ only enhances this game’s comprehensive multi-mode design. These refined features help make Splinter Cell: Blacklist a fitting current gen-exclusive swansong for Ubisoft, while also priming the series for whatever the company has planned next for Sam Fisher and Fourth Echelon, assuming the publisher continues to trust this formula.