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The Splinter Cell franchise took a different turn with the release of Splinter Cell: Conviction. While the earlier games primarily centered on stealth over action, Conviction removed some features, toned down the stealth and included a bigger focus on action. In my opinion, it is a fun game but it doesn’t really feel like a Splinter Cell title. It did receive some backlash and from what I understand, the developers were aware and aimed to rectify the issues in the next game, Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Developed by Ubisoft Toronto and published by Ubisoft, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist was released for PC, Wii U, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 in August, 2013. For this review, I played the PC version.
Set after the events of Conviction, a terrorist organization known as The Engineers are orchestrating a series of attacks, referred to as the Blacklist, on the United States. They plan to continue attacking until the U.S. recalls all their military forces from the numerous countries around the world. In response, the U.S. recruits returning protagonist Sam Fisher along with several of his colleagues into the newly formed Fourth Echelon, a special operations and counter-terrorism unit which operates out of a plane called “the Paladin”, and they are tasked with stopping The Engineers.
I do like the plot and the way things are presented. That along with the with the music help convey a constant sense of urgency and tension. I also really enjoyed the voice performances, although Michael Ironside does not return to voice Sam which is disappointing. In his place is actor Eric Johnson who I think does a fine job. In fact, his performance is great. However, Sam looks and sounds younger here and the only reason it’s odd is because this is a sequel. We can’t forget Sam has a grown daughter and whenever they talk, that’s usually when I’m reminded of Michael Ironside’s absence. I also feel his personality is a little off. He’s very serious with few wisecracks this time around. Almost like he has no sense of humor anymore. Considering the events of the prior two games, I suppose he’s changed somewhat but even still, I look at and hear this new Sam and something just isn’t right.
Blacklist is an interesting game because it’s a sequel and yet it feels like it could have been a reboot. It’s not a complete return to form but it does blend the classic Splinter Cell gameplay with the new gameplay style of Conviction. I have read that the creative director of Conviction also on worked on Blacklist. The same guy who said Chaos Theory is “hardcore”. If you thought the “hardcore” statement was dumb, you’ll appreciate this. According to an article I found, Ubisoft Toronto founder Jade Raymond said Splinter Cell’s popularity is held back by its “complexity”. Apparently, these games are very “complex” and “difficult to play” and she specifically refers to assessing a situation before acting. Like when you think about what you’re going to do before entering a room.
As for Blacklist, she proceeds to say “we brought back the purest hardcore version, which is, you want to ghost through the level and get through it without killing a single person.” Again, with that word “hardcore”. So what have we learned from all this? Well the series is very complex and Chaos Theory is “hardcore”. And here I was thinking that the players who were turned off by the earlier games just didn’t like stealth or Splinter Cell’s brand of stealth. It’s their marketing speak that bothers me. “Hardcore”, “complexity”, “difficult to play”. It kind of comes across as condescending, although I don’t believe that was their intent. But anyone can see right through the bullshit. The fact is they wanted the franchise to appeal to a wider audience. Why? To make more money. But they’ll never say that. This is a business after all and I get it. Action games are big sellers. So they make Conviction action-oriented, slap the Splinter Cell title on it, prop it up as more “accessible”, and stupidly refer to the earlier games as “hardcore” and “complex”. Then they receive backlash, go figure, so they decide to bring back the “purest hardcore version”, or in other words, the things that make Splinter Cell, Splinter Cell in the next game, Blacklist.
I would consider Blacklist to be a stealth action title with a good balance of stealth and action. The game does encourage both stealth and action-oriented approaches and you are rewarded for both just like in Conviction. You are awarded points for completing certain actions and the different actions fit into different playstyles. However, you are awarded the most points for a pure Ghost style or in other words, pure stealth. You earn money for completing challenges and are scored at the end of each mission. The the higher your score, the more money you earn. Extra money can be earned by finding and hacking laptops in the environments and by capturing specific enemies.
After each mission, you’re brought back to the Paladin where you can interact with NPCs, spend money on plane upgrades and gear, and initiate the next mission. You can use the Strategic Mission Interface (S.M.I.) to view and initiate any available missions, including 4E Missions which can be seen as side missions. Most 4E Missions can be played solo or cooperatively and the S.M.I. is also where you can access the multiplayer Spies vs. Mercs mode which I did not get to try. The 4E Missions come from the different NPCs on the Paladin and are similar to the Deniable Ops missions in Conviction. Briggs’ missions are cooperative only. Grim’s missions require you not to be detected. Charlie’s missions require you to survive waves of enemies. And Kobin’s missions require you to eliminate all hostiles by any means necessary. Story missions are unlocked as you progress through the story and all of them can be replayed.
One thing I really like about Blacklist is the upgrades and gear. The money you earn can be spent to upgrade different parts of the the Paladin which result in gameplay benefits. You can also spend money on gear for Sam and your Spy and Merc characters. You can buy OpSuit upgrades which affect your stats in armor, stealth, and weapon handling as well as purchase goggle upgrades and new gadgets and weapons along with upgrades for them. You can create and save different loadouts and can experiment with all kinds of combinations. Since what you equip does have an effect on stats, what you choose is actually important. This type of customization does add to the replay value of the game and I found the loop of earning money so I could buy new stuff to be somewhat addictive.
What’s really great about Blacklist is that everything works pretty well. It retains the faster pace and action-oriented approach of Conviction but you typically have the option to sneak and climb around in the shadows and evade enemies. The gunplay looks and feels great and you’re given plenty of tools to knock out, misdirect, distract, and engage foes. Takedowns and weapon kills fill up your execute gauge which enables you to mark targets and execute or neutralize them in rapid succession, a feature introduced in Conviction and Blacklist brings back the ability to lure enemies at the press of a button.
Stealth works much like it did in the games that precede Conviction. The key to remaining undetected is to stay quiet and out of sight and you can pick up and move bodies again. Sam’s goggles can be upgraded to include Sonar vision which can detect enemies through walls unless you’re playing on the hardest difficulty, Perfectionist. You can switch between lethal and non-lethal takedowns and use weapons and gadgets to kill or knock out foes. Each gadget is ideal for a specific playstyle but you can equip any combination and much of the equipment should be familiar to series veterans. You’ve got your frag, flash and smoke grenades along with incendiary and sleeping and tear gas grenades. You can set up traps with proximity mines and proximity shockers, and distract foes with sticky noisemakers, sticky EMPs and sticky cameras which unleash sleeping gas again and can be upgraded with flash and explosive charges. You can now equip one of multiple crossbows that can fire and switch between different bolt types like sleeping gas and sticky shockers. One of the new standout gadgets is the Tri-Rotor which is a flying drone that can be used to scout areas and neutralize foes. I found it comes in quite handy in certain situations.
While Blacklist brings back a lot of what makes Splinter Cell, Splinter Cell, it does not feature the same type of non-linear level design that’s on offer in Chaos Theory. The environments here are more in line with those in Conviction – primarily linear with the player moving from one area to another. However, also like Conviction, most environments offer plenty of ways to get around and solve problems. You can climb through windows, sneak through shafts, climb pipes, and find all kinds of routes through an area. While I prefer the design of the levels in Chaos Theory with their interconnected areas and such, the level design in Blacklist does work well and allows for different approaches.
Blacklist does come with many missions and takes you to different locations around the globe including Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, Cuba, Australia, England, and several states across the U.S. 4E Missions are designed with coop in mind and even include features that require more than one player but they’re all doable solo, with the exception of the coop only missions obviously. As for the story missions, you’ll have complete typical Splinter Cell objectives like retrieve information, plant things, disable things, etc. The campaign does come with a few set pieces like when you have to defend an aircraft and van and one mission puts you in the shoes of Briggs at certain points and these segments play out as first-person shooters.
Blacklist does feature a decent variety of enemy types and also sees the return of dogs which can sniff Sam out. You’ll be up against typical soldiers and goons but there’s also clearly defined types that pose different threats. Heavy Infantry troops are heavily armored but can easily be taken down with takedowns from behind among other sneak attacks. Drone Operators can jam Sam’s goggles and as the name implies, they operate drones. Snipers can spot Sam at long range, even in the dark, and Commandos can spot him in the dark and through smoke.
Most enemies can be found patrolling or standing around so you’ll need to be mindful of you’re surroundings and where they are. That is if you’re trying to sneak. If you prefer to shoot your way through, you’ll want to bring the appropriate gear. You’re typically outnumbered and Sam can die quickly especially if his OpSuit is suited for stealth and lacks armor so having a general idea of what kind of approach you want to take before starting a mission is probably good idea. Although, there are segments that will require you to leave hostiles untouched, meaning you need to evade them and a few situations kind of feel like they encourage combat but most of the time, I felt like I had a choice between stealth and action.
When it comes to the presentation, much like Conviction, I think Blacklist looks pretty slick. The environments are diverse and detailed and the visual effects are nice. I really like the audio work in this game. The sound effects are on par with previous titles but I feel the music here in combination with the way the cutscenes are presented gives the game a cinematic quality. Blacklist features a lot of music that makes situations feel tense including during cutscenes even though I felt it sometimes comes across as humorous because of how dramatic some of the tunes are. On the technical side, I did not encounter any issues. Although, I should mention that before I started playing, I did consult the game’s PCGamingWiki page and applied some fixes.
Personally, I think Blacklist is the best Splinter Cell game since Chaos Theory. I actually played this once before on Wii U and remember enjoying it. I figured now that I’ve played all the main titles that precede it, I might look at Blacklist differently this time. But, no. I genuinely enjoy this game. I am disappointed that Michael Ironside didn’t return to voice Sam and I do think the actor in his place is an odd choice. Not that he did a bad job but I feel his performance just isn’t right for the character. As for the gameplay, I had a great time. This is a Splinter Cell game that gives you plenty of options and reasons to return. Although, it is a bit different than Chaos Theory which I still feel is the pinnacle of the series. However, I can’t say I dislike this more action-oriented direction. It’s just that Splinter Cell established itself as stealth series and Chaos Theory perfected that formula. So I can understand why Conviction alienated certain fans. Blacklist brings back a lot of the good stuff and I think it all meshes well with the action.
I would absolutely recommend Splinter Cell: Blacklist. I think the developers succeeded in making a more accessible Splinter Cell title with Blacklist as opposed to Conviction which, to me, just felt like a different game. Blacklist at least feels like Splinter Cell. Ultimately, Blacklist is a solid stealth action game and a pretty good Splinter Cell title. Definitely check it out.