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Splinter Cell Blacklist Review: Story Ruined, Gameplay Excellent
Sam Fisher’s teeth look incredibly real in Ubisoft’s new iteration of the now-aged franchise, Splinter Cell Blacklist. They have a slightly faded beige tint to them, like he’s a man who has drank too much cheap field coffee, chomped on one too many out-of-date US rations. When the player is prompted to launch a preventative mission against the new British-led, global terrorist threat of the “Engineers,” we get a good look at Sam, mouth half open, musing on whether to launch or not.
Unfortunately, the only part of Splinter Cell Blacklist I got fully immersed in, the only bit I enjoyed to the fullest, was the bit where we couldn’t see any of Fisher’s face. The bit where those surprisingly realistic, slightly gross teeth are not on show. Because, to be blunt, this is not Sam Fisher.
It’s in one of the game’s last levels that Fisher, at last, wears the full-face mask, special-issue balaclava. The balaclava he only wears once in the whole game. And it’s the fact that we can’t see that we’re playing the new, inexplicably young Sam Fisher which makes the level one of the best in the game.
Splinter Cell is a series which began more than ten years ago, all the way back in 2002. For all these years, we had the one protagonist: the stoic, old and gaunt black-ops agent Sam Fisher. He was voiced by one man: Michael Ironside. Sam Fisher’s bulking form wasn’t exactly agile. Players would heft through levels, weightily climbing onto pipes to creep over terrorists, very slowly avoiding bad dudes or knocking them out, using precision and pacing to conduct hair’s-breadth espionage. All the while, Fisher would grunt about the stuff he was seeing, or mock his superiors: the other supporting cast, people like Anna Grimsdottr the data analyst.
So in Splinter Cell Blacklist, these characters are back. But it’s not really them. Sam Fisher has a different face. He has a different voice. He has a different figure. He looks about fifteen years younger. Despite the looks he still somehow has a twenty year-old daughter, whose conversations are an absolutely pointless addition to the game. She adds nothing, all the chat does is waste the player’s time. It doesn’t influence the story anything. In gameplay, he is very agile and quick; not the ponderous, cautious man of the original games (this change was present in Splinter Cell Conviction but was more believable). Anna Grimsdottr also has a different face, a different voice, a bigger bust.
I couldn’t help but ask myself- is there any point in bringing these characters back after such a facelift?
Indeed, in gameplay, Splinter Cell Blacklist is excellent. I’m an individual obsessed with stealth games– I think I’ve played almost every “stealth” genre game you can get- and I endorse Splinter Cell Blacklist fully as an entry.
The giant criticism of gameplay in Ubisoft’s previous attempt in Splinter Cell Conviction, was the lack of choice which the gamer was presented with. Indeed, you could either kill guys effectively and finish the level, or you could kill guys clumsily and finish the level. There was almost no capacity to avoid bad guys or deal with them non-lethally. Also a lot of the series’ seminal spy gameplay was gone: there was very little hacking or stealing or avoiding lasers. Gameplay was based entirely on the good, but one-trick-pony, Mark And Execute system, where you can tag up to four enemies or destructible objects, which you can shoot instantly in one row after you take a guy down close-combat style. A notoriously arbitrary yet highly effective system to simulate a special agent’s combat ability. That’s practically all there was to Conviction- you could kill guys, or throw gadgets like electronics-killing EMP grenades, but these were very limited in use. You couldn’t even hide dead bodies from their teammates.
In comparison to Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, my favourite of the games (and indeed my favourite stealth game ever) this was insulting.
Thankfully, while Mark And Execute system is back in Splinter Cell Blacklist, unlike Conviction it’s supported by a plethora of other smaller mechanics which would make a Chaos Theory fan salivate. An excellent inventory system is in place, where you hold the D-pad and are given access to lethal or non-lethal hand-to-hand takedowns, gadgets from sleeping gas grenades to a tri-rotor UAV.
Before the game’s release, developers at Ubisoft constantly waxed lyrical about the freedom of choice the game would provide. That players can go Assault on levels, which is killing enemies while they know you’re there; Panther levels, which is killing enemies silently and without being seen; and Ghosting levels, which in perfect stealth game style, means bypassing all enemies, or knocking them out if necessary, without leaving a trace. I initially thought all of the developers wanglings about this was just gimmick, just buzzword talk.
But I was wrong. Possibly Splinter Cell Blacklist’s biggest strength is that the promise is come true: I spent more than 23 hours on the game’s singleplayer offerings alone, trying to Ghost every level without being spotted. And for the most part – about eighty five percent of the game- it was brilliantly possible. There are plenty of nicely secret paths through levels, some of which are hard to find, and sneaking past enemies is almost as thrilling as it was back in Chaos Theory. (Chaos Theory’s realism and close-quarters stealth is still just slightly better than Blacklist’s.) Some of Splinter Cell Blacklist’s levels are surprisingly huge too, and exploration is rewarded with points at the missions end. Despite the great stealth, even combat is pretty good– the Mark And Execute system is pretty smooth and nice when you have to kill people. As a purist stealth player, though, Ghosting levels on Perfectionist difficulty is my way to go (Perfectionist has no Mark and Execute and you can’t use sonar to see enemies through walls.)
Behind all the great stealth gameplay, there’s a great customisation and gadget-selection screen before your missions begin. I love that this innovation has made it into a Splinter Cell game. You can choose whether you want your Ops Suit to favour silent footsteps or weapon accuracy and range; you can customise what guns and gadgets you use, or even in a series first,you can customise Sam’s legendary night-vision goggles. Including sonar or not, and brilliantly, what colour the triple lights are. I went with red. Which looks absolutely badass.
Yet the customisation brings the initial problems of story and character reinventions into new light. If we now change Sam to fit our playstyle, is there any point in it being Sam Fisher at all?
Indeed, the terse and restrained Sam Fisher of the old games is gone. Splinter Cell Blacklist’s writing is absolutely horrific. It’s some of the worst writing I’ve seen in a triple-A class game in years. Even when you ignore an awful story full of gargantuan plot holes and one dimensional characters, the actual dialogue is just painful to behold.
A conversation early in the game displays everything which makes it suck. Sam grabs a villain up against a wall, and the most cliché’d dialogue you’ve ever seen commences. Here’s a verbatim transcript: “No more games, Jadid. Blacklist, talk.” “You goddamn Americans. Always playing cowboy.” “Quit stalling.” “You’re too late.”
“Always playing cowboy”?! Who says that? Sam isn’t playing cowboy at all- cowboys don’t talk, they just shoot. The fact that we’re hit by a barrage of stereotypical one-liners doesn’t help, Sam telling the man to “quit stalling” even though he wasn’t stalling. This is the stuff we have been seeing in about ten films and twenty videogames every year, for the past decade. There’s no originality. I actually laughed when he said that. Lines which have been said verbatim, in every generic Hollywood blockbuster since the eighties. In a videogame series which used to have a pretty strong ultra-real, serious gothic techno-thriller vibe to them. Splinter Cell Blacklist’s writing is godawful.
In spite of the awful writing and the ultimate ruination of the Splinter Cell universe, Blacklist as a videogame is a resounding success. The stealth gameplay is great, the missions are relatively long, intricate, and very varied. There are even nice side-missions which get you good monetary bonuses- though the side missions aren’t the level-specific masterpieces of challenge which Chaos Theory’s were. Spy Versus Merc multiplayer gameplay has also returned triumphantly; it doesn’t have quite the slow, tightrope tension of the original multiplayer mode, but it’s a refreshing and well-executed change from most multiplayer offerings these days.
Splinter Cell Blacklist‘s only real failing is that we are forced to play a character who has clearly become obsolete. If the player could create their own superspy, or better, if Sam Fisher was replaced with a younger, new protagonist (like his partner Briggs) while Sam became a supporting character voiced by Ironside, the game would be a brilliant Splinter Cell game as well as a good stealth action game. As it is, buy Splinter Cell Blacklist for a strong stealth experience, close to Chaos Theory in quality, which has a few warts on it’s huge face of content and replayability. Enjoy. Hopefully they’ll fix and reboot the story by the next game.