Appointed as the commander of the President’s personal top-secret anti-terrorist operation and tasked with stopping a threatening guerrilla group known as the ‘Engineers’, Sam Fisher’s return in Splinter Cell: Blacklist is made to feel like his most important mission yet. The fact is that with much of the industry’s hype going to newly announced, next-gen Tom Clancy project The Division, the latest title in the now-legendary Splinter Cell series risks being lost in the pile of high-profile releases. With an awkward summer release date just weeks before iterations of the juggernaut Grand Theft Auto and FIFA franchises, Blacklist seemed destined to be overshadowed.
Sam Fisher’s latest isn’t exactly triple-A lacking the ambition of most of the current-gen releases that have arrived this year. What it succeeds in is focus; gameplay is tight, enjoyable and offers enough variety to convince you that you are in fact playing a bigger game.
Blacklist doesn’t look poor in any particular sense, but environments are fairly bland and issues with textures popping are a little to frequent for a game arriving in 2013. The locales on offer, which range from all-too familiar military compounds to the occasional forest greenery, look less-than spectacular. It’s not that the latest Splinter Cell has taken any steps backwards in terms of its presentation from 2010’s Splinter Cell: Conviction, it’s just that it hasn’t really taken any steps forwards.
The story on offer is one of the better efforts in the Splinter Cell series. The threat of ‘The Engineers’, a terrorist group who give the US government a series of non-negotiable ultimatums, is always imposing and is driven-home by a surprisingly interesting cast of characters. Sam Fisher himself, whilst relatively well-voiced, is the same all-too serious poor-mans Solid Snake. His buddies for this operation do at least have some personality to them which makes cut-scenes interesting to watch rather than things that merely get in the way of the action. This is a stereotypical action-game though, so don’t go expecting and The Last Of Us type emotional maturity, but considering its genre Blacklist actually does rather well.
Importantly for a game of this nature, gameplay is king in Blacklist. Whilst some greater mission variety could have been employed, the sheer number of ways to approach each mission is admirable. It’s not just the two ‘stealth’ and ‘guns-blazing’ approaches that most games which claim to offer variety deliver here – you can use an assortment of remote-controlled tech, scale buildings and generally use your brain to approach different situations.
This is important because it goes some way to hiding the game’s otherwise linear nature. Levels offer variety and scope to an extent, but they’re far from massive. Stealth works similarly to Conviction, with a functional cover system allowing you to sneak up on enemies. Alongside that are useful touches – for example when you’re spotted and disappear back into shadows, your last known position appears so that you can flank guards and plan your next move.
The mark and execute mechanic returns allowing the player to tag up to three targets in one swift motion before taking them out with a single button press. Whilst it works fine and succeeds in making you feel like a government super-spy, this ability can feel a tad too easy at times. Often the tight situations you find yourself using it in are the most tense and thrilling, so Splinter Cell diehards will be pleased to know it’s turned off on the highest difficulty to provide the ultimate challenge.
What really surprised me about Blacklist was the multiplayer – which proves in many ways to be the games greatest asset. Spies vs Mercs make its return and it makes for brilliant fun. The Spies play much like Fisher himself, hiding in the shadows and taking out enemies hand-to-hand, whilst playing as the mercs sees the camera shift to first-person to create a Call of Duty-like feel. Whilst the first-person mechanics can be a bit sketchy at times, this variety in multiplayer gameplay is extremely welcome and makes for brilliant tug-of-war type matches across the game’s relatively standard selection of modes.
Put that alongside a solid co-op segment, which sees two online players work together to complete missions similar to the ones in the single-player campaign, and you have a deceptively large package in Splinter Cell: Blacklist. It’s a game that’s first goal is to appease fans of the long-running series, but if you’re willing to look past some presentation issues you’ll probably enjoy Blacklist‘s precise focus on gameplay over anything else. It’s not revolutionary, but Splinter Cell: Blacklist is worth playing if you have the money to hand.