Review by DouglasFett
Splinter Cell: Blacklisted Review
I write this as a retroactive review. Five years on, Splinter Cell Blacklist is still the latest Splinter Cell title. Sam Fisher hasn’t made an official appearance in his own series since 2013, aside from a cameo side mission in Ubisoft’s major franchise revamp of Ghost Recon, 2017’s Ghost Recon Wildlands. The longest gap between Splinter Cell titles was four years, between 2006’s Double Agent and 2010’s Conviction. The latter was followed by 2013’s own Blacklist, and with 2019 around the corner and no comment from Ubisoft on the series’ future, Blacklist is looking to be the last Splinter Cell title for a while.
But, that’s not so bad! Five years later, BL is still a very enjoyable game. Ubisoft, despite their faults and overall lack of integrity, managed to breathe life into a dying franchise. One wonders if they’ll be able to do it again with another game, but we’ll see how that goes. How does BL stack up after so long? What did it do right, where did it go wrong?
The game follows shortly after the events of Conviction, wherein Sam and his buddy Victor now work together in Paladin 9 Security. Their work as private security is a little vague, but they still end up working for the U.S. gov’t. Set in 2011, the game begins with a terrorist attack on a U.S. Air Force base that Sam and Victor are working at. Victor and Sam are both wounded, and the player immediately takes control of Sam to fight back against the unknown group of attackers.
After some plot hashing, the player, as Sam, is given control of Paladin 9, with the express orders by the American President (Patricia Caldwell) to root out the terrorists who committed the atrocity. Sam isn’t alone in his mission though. Returning regular is Anna Grimsdottir (revealed in Conviction to not be the nice little nerdy hacker she appeared to be previously in the series) who is Sam’s right hand intelligence advisor as well as rival. They butt heads a lot, but no matter, they both want to protect America from this new terrorist threat. Also joining them is Charlie Cole, Anna’s new annoying hipster hacker assistant, as well as Isaac Briggs, former CIA officer turned Splinter Cell operative working for Sam. Together, they and the crew of the Paladin 9 form Fourth Echelon, successor to the early Third Echelon which had been dismantled in the previous game.
And who are the terrorists? A group known only as the Engineers, a highly coordinated, organized, and disciplined bunch of (mostly) Arabic Muslim terrorists who are hell-bent on driving America out of the rest of the world, by using the blacklist: a list of target cities in the U.S. they plan on attacking with NBC (nuclear/biological/chemical) weapons, unless the U.S. meets their demands. Leading them is a cold, calculating bugger that soon becomes aware of Paladin 9 and her crew…
The story is your high stakes game of saving the world from ruthless terrorists in shiny Hollywood style, complete with drama, main characters arguing, and the bad guy always getting the one-up on the good guys. Following Conviction¸ the SC series has become very Hollywoodized in its storytelling approach, complete with high adrenaline thrill rides, intense music, and furious action…not exactly the norm for the franchise…Moving on.
Following the homicidal nature of Conviction’s gameplay (where no matter what, you killed everybody), BL returns to older Splinter Cell models by giving the player freedom of choice in how they approach a mission. Whether you want to go silent, loud, non-lethal or lethal, the choice is yours. Blacklist, for all it’s strange faults, may be the most fine tuned Splinter Cell game ever (gameplay wise), and that’s coming from a hardcore player of the first game (which was, is, and always will be, the best game in the series). The fact of the matter is, if you want go to quiet and stealthy, you can do it smoothly and effectively without it turning into a clusterf*ck. In many games past, simply trying to knock out an enemy would in some cases spook everybody, who would then find you and unload full magazines into Sam, without the player ever having the chance to run and hide for dear life.
That being said, despite there being a loud option (unsuppressed weapons, frag grenades, etc), the game fits into Ubisoft’s play model that they adopted years ago across all their franchises, and that is freedom of choice. As I noted in my Chaos Theory rewrite, the beauty of that title was that Ubisoft had finally allowed players breathing room, by allowing them to choose loadouts, as well as eliminating linear based levels (which had plagued the prior two games in the series). Blacklist is no different. The player has at their disposal three modifiable loadouts, a plethora of firearms (suppressed and unsuppressed) whose attachments (scopes, magazines, etc) can be changed, numerous gadgets (flashbangs, proxy mines, a mini-drone, etc), as well as an array of uniform options which allow the player different levels of body armor, gadget and magazine space. A new addition to Sam’s arsenal, besides the handy-dandy drone (which can shoot sticky shocker rounds, emit radar pulses, as well as detonate on command for devastating effect), is the crossbow. The bow can fire non-lethal sticky shocker bolts (into a puddle of water can incapacitate multiple foes), as well as non-lethal gas rounds. Even Sam’s classic tri-focal goggles can be swapped out for different styles.
Picking up from Conviction as well is the mark and execute feature, which allows the player to insta-kill up to three enemies (within weapon range) with their pistol or main weapon. Regardless of weapon, three marks is the max. When it comes to style of play, Ubisoft actually broke down three distinct styles of normal gameplay that the series had fostered. These are ghost (non-lethal takedowns, never being seen), panther (lethal albeit silent kills), and assault (loud, open combat). Regardless of how you play, the player is rewarded for whatever styles of play are used throughout a mission. However, having more points in one style grants greater in-game monetary rewards. Using in-game currency, the player can purchase aforementioned weapons, gear, weapon attachments and uniform pieces.
In addition to the wildly replayable story mode (which is something I haven’t been able to say of a Splinter Cell game for well over 10 years) are various coop modes. Your various team members (Grim, Charlie, Briggs, and the arms dealer turned Fourth Echelon prisoner Andriy Kobin) offer a variety of missions that can be played alone or with another player. Grim’s missions are more of your classic Splinter Cell, don’t be seen, don’t be heard, don’t let the enemy find a body, one alarm and the mission is over (somewhat as a carry over from Conviction’s infiltration mode). Charlie’s missions are the successor to Conviction’s Last Stand game mode. Fortunately there’s no EMP you have to worry about, rather you just fight off 20 waves of bad guys. Briggs’ missions are your two-player coop only missions which continue the tradition of dedicated coop missions since being introduced in 2005’s Chaos Theory. Finally, Kobin’s missions are the successor to the previous title’s hunter mode, wherein you sweep through each level eliminating enemies, and if you’re detected, more enemies appear.
Sadly, Conviction’s face-off game mode is absent, but is instead replaced by the classic Spies vs Mercs game mode made famous in 2004’s Pandora Tomorrow. While the classic SvM returns (2v2), additional modes have been added as well, allowing up to 8 players (4v4) to play. These new modes see either spies trying to hack terminals, mercs trying to defend the terminals, and lastly, all out death match between two mixed teams of spies and mercs. Like the story mode, players can modify loadouts of their respective spy or merc with armor, pistols, main weapons, gadgets and vision modes. That’s all well and good, which leads to my next point…
The new Spies V Mercs is really quite a pain in the a**. Like any MP experience, there is a steep learning curve, and despite various glitches, the MP has one glaring issue: respawn time. No matter what, your respawn time is 17 seconds. Yah, you read that right. Seven. Teen. F***ing. Seconds. It cannot be altered, changed, edited, nothing. You might be saying to yourself, “oh well maybe it was a penalty for an accidental in-game suicide.” No sirree bob, when another player kills you, you will respawn in 17 freaking seconds. Now tell me, of all the MP games YOU have played, what’s the usual respawn time? 5, 10 seconds, somewhere in between? For those lucky games where you can change it up, you might even be able to come back in less than 5 seconds. Well, not here. It’s a long 17 seconds that’s agonizingly painful to watch. And when you’re a new player, that 17 seconds is punishingly maddening when all you’re trying to do is get back in to learn how to play. It hampers those who are trying to get better at the game while rewarding the elite players.
As previously mentioned, the game is more of a Hollywood action thrill ride, complete with drama (Sam and Grim fight a lot), goofballs (Charlie Cole is meant to be the comic relief but is a hipster hacker nerd that has no place in a SC title), evil bad guys (no complaint there – the main villain is presented surprisingly well), and intense action (the game can easily devolve into a third person cover based shooter if the player deviates from a covert stealth approach). I mean what’s there to say about this? Maybe the SC series needed a good swift kick in the butt. SCC too was very Hollywood, and after three years of waiting maybe the series needed some revamping. After all look at the story. There is no Third Echelon anymore, now it’s Fourth Echelon and it’s headquarters is a big flying plane. No Lambert, no ‘good feels’ vibes coming between Sam and his support team while he’s on an op. The mentality of older SC titles has been lost, and it died between 2005’s Chaos Theory and it’s horrible sequel, 2006’s Double Agent. Grim isn’t the nerdy hacker she used to be, having since been revealed in SCC to be a hard nosed, pistol toting, cold blooded mole. Still though, one wonders when Ubisoft will bring some sense of modesty back to the storyline of the SC series.
As a small aside…what is the deal with Ubisoft’s obsession with hipster hackers? Assassin’s Creed: annoying hipster hackers plug Desmond into the Animus. WatchDogs: You play as a brooding hipster hacker. And now Splinter Cell: An annoying hipster hacker works at Fourth Echelon and offers the player advice on what gadgets and weapons to bring along for each mission. Since when did Charlie Cole, this little hacker f*ckface, get it into his head that he knows anything about operating? If Sam needed advice on what to bring into the field, he might ask Briggs. And while we’re on the subject of strange random s***, Ubisoft wouldn’t be Ubisoft if they didn’t drop random awkward mini-games haphazardly into their franchises (Assassin’s Creed Revelations den defense anyone, or perhaps Double Agent’s helicopter piloting?). In one level, players take control of Briggs for a short while. Instead of the usual 3rd person perspective, the player is forced into FPS mode, despite Briggs being in 3rd person during his coop missions. Again...Ubisoft randomly put players into FPS mode for part of a level, despite the ENTIRE series having always been 3rd person. This may not seem like a big deal, but the stealth 3rd person mechanics of Splinter Cell are part of the building blocks for the series. You drop it randomly and insert first person Call of Duty in, especially 3/4 of the way into the game...yah, it's going to be random and haphazard.
And what about Sam? Michael Ironside always voiced him with a measure of humanity and dry humor, despite the character’s violent nature of his work. Well, that changed too. Michael Ironside was replaced by a vastly younger actor, some hotshot who voices the character with the aura of a cold, angry, seasoned operator. Michael Ironside’s Sam instead was a cool, calm and collected, grizzled old vet who at least didn’t take himself so seriously, and who also had a sense of humor. Sam himself even looks younger, late 30s/early 40s, despite now supposedly being in his late 50s or early 60s. The sometimes lighthearted, feel good nature that persisted throughout the early series between Sam, Grim and Lambert (and the occasional field runner for Sam) is gone completely, instead replaced by overly dramatic tension and hostility between Sam and Grim. In addition to Michael Ironside being replaced, Grim’s voice actor (who had a charming Canadian accent) was replaced too.
Lastly, there is something to be said for the inclusion of loud weapons. Now I know, beginning with 2005’s Chaos Theory the series began allowing the player to have fun with unsuppressed weapons. It was that change that slowly turned the series from “stealth only, weapons optional” to “loud third person cover based shooter, stealth optional.” While I appreciate the developers for making the gameplay more fluid and the stealth mechanics more user friendly compared to the rigid nature of past games, one does somewhat miss the ‘one alarm’ auto-fail mechanic. After all, these are deniable operations. Sam and his cohorts aren’t supposed to exist. Yet, throughout the game, Sam interacts with various civilian or military characters nonchalantly, and they don’t question who he is. In one instance, Sam is arrested by a Police Officer. In another, he makes contact with a Special Forces group fighting the engineers. That same level, he also links up with firefighters fighting a blaze caused by the terrorists. Like, what the s***. He’s not supposed to be known to anybody, except maybe very select figures in the DoD, JSOC, or the President. But, alas.
After all is said and done, nearly five and a half years after it’s launch, what can one say about Splinter Cell Blacklist? Ultimately it brought the series back online, so to speak. Conviction helped a little in bringing the series back into focus, but was otherwise shabby. That game’s story mode was trash, and it’s only saving grace was the multiplayer coop, which was challenging but addicting. SCB finally brought the story back to Sam working covert black ops for America, complete with a slick ninja suit and nifty gear and gadgets.
Now, what about the fact that Ubisoft hasn’t released a new game since? What of the future of Splinter Cell? Many fans are probably losing their minds about it, but any seasoned gamer who knows Ubisoft knows this is a good thing. Too often throughout it’s history, Ubisoft has burned out every single one of it’s major franchises, including Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and most definitely the beloved Assassin’s Creed. One can’t oversaturate a market with a new title for the same franchise every year and expect it to be high in quality. A good developer retains franchise integrity by allowing the development team enough time between each title to properly build a new game, instead of throwing together scraps at the last minute. Look at Cd Projekt Red and The Witcher series. Ubisoft, hopefully, has learned their lesson the hard way, and knows not to burn out their franchises with shallow titles every year.
What does this mean for Splinter Cell? One can hope it means Ubisoft will respect the series, and launch the next title with integrity. Bring back Michael Ironside. Go back to the pre-Hollywood SC. Still retain it’s fluidity and action to appease both hardcore stealth players as well as ‘shoot em up’ players, but drop the “high stakes thrill ride” act. Personally, and this may sound odd coming from a hardcore fan of the 1st game, but I sincerely hope Sam Fisher retires. He needs to be with his daughter, and he’s getting too old for players to believe a guy his age can scale sheer cliff faces with parkour skill. That being said, I hope something of the Mercenaries! ilk is adopted. Choose from one of a handful of pre-made operatives (maybe British SAS, Israeli Mossad, American Green Berets, etc etc) to play through the game with, but still retain the ability to modify loadouts. This is not a new concept; besides being present in Pandemic’s old Mercenaries! games, the new Rainbow Six Siege has a whole plethora of pre-made operators to choose from. All Ubisoft needs to do is take that formula, translate it to SC, give the player various operatives to choose from, record voice lines for each guy or gal, give them custom loadouts the player can modify, and boom you’ve got a new generation of in-game Splinter Cell agents. Retire Sam, maybe have him fill Lambert’s shoes alongside Grim, and there ya go.
Anyway. Blacklist! What does the game offer, so many years after it’s release? For starters, the game has a massive replay value. While the levels are generally linear simply going from A to B, they are open, allowing the player breathing room for how to tackle each area. This is helped with the massive variety of weapons, gear, and kit options available to the player. I know whenever I make a new kit loadout for Sam, I want to try it through the whole game, which never seems like a chore because each level is diverse and different. Simply put, that freedom of choice presented to the player (that Ubisoft has perfected across it’s franchises for many years) is what draws players back to the game again and again. And did I mention the vast array of coop modes? Sure, the Briggs mission are the only side missions that require coop, but everything else too is just better with a friend. Charlie’s missions (akin to Gears of War’s horde mode) are exceptional to play with a buddy, Grim’s stealth missions albeit challenging require finesse and teamwork from both players if they want to get through them all.
All that said, for all the game’s faults, but for all it does right too, Splinter Cell Blacklist earns a 4.5/5. While the series will never return to it’s pure stealth roots or the charm it once had, thereby dividing the series into separate trilogies (2002-05, 2006-13), one finds SCB makes great strides to retain both modern gameplay while still living out stealth fantasies for the hardcore players.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist (US, 08/20/13)
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