Posted: December 21
Splinter Cell Blacklist is the best Splinter Cell effort since Chaos Theory, and one of the best pure stealth games I've played in years.
Traversal is a dream. Sam moves fluidly and intuitively. You feel like a cat prowling around these levels, stalking enemies, and darting quickly to and fro outside their paths of patrol. Sam Fisher's hand to hand takedowns are superbly satisfying, particularly the deadly variants with his karambit knife. The choreography there is spectacular, and unlike some stealth games such as Human Revolution, the takedowns never get old. The game is also designed in a way that rewards you for your playstyle, no matter how decide to play. Want to play ghostly, never touching enemies, and never leaving a trace? Me, too! You get a lot points for that, which you can use to unlock better gear and weapons. Want to take down every single enemy you come across, alternating between fighting, popping off a couple of shots, then throwing down a smoke grenade and disappearing into the shadows? They give you quite a few points for that, too. Want to just go balls out and play the game like you're John Rambo, throwing incendiary grenades and fire an unsilenced heavy gun? Totally viable way to play the game, and, yup: They give you a boatload of points for that, too. This game has succeeded in allowing the player to drift between full stealth and action shooting in a way that many stealth games have tried over the past couple of decades, but few have succeeded in doing. It does exceptionally well at allowing you to play the game the way you want, and seamlessly transitioning between different styles. I's an amazing accomplishment, and it's the biggest reason why this is such a good game.
The replayability I touched on is another asset of the game. Sam Fisher is so customizable that this game could also be described as having RPG features. You can customize all of his gear and weapons to help him better perform either at stealth or combat. You receive money for accomplishing things like takedowns or disappearing after alerting enemies, and then use the money to purchase pants, better goggles, better guns, and more. It does more to allow you to play the game the way you like, and that's something I can always get behind, especially from a company as typically reprehensible to consumers as Ubisoft generally is. It also creates a ton of replayability and does a lot to keep you coming around. Just look at my stats: I've put 60+ hours into this game and have replayed it several times. That's more than I've put into any Splinter Cell game since Chaos Theory.
A big part of the success here is how bad ♥♥♥ you feel while playing the game. I mentioned how strong the hand-to-hand takedowns are, which is a big part of it. Another is the mark and execute feature that's been carried over from Conviction, which I absolutely adore. It functions in this game as an excellent "Oh, ♥♥♥♥" tool to use if you're about to be spotted by an enemy. Check out the surroundings, mark the enemies, and commence sneaking. Take a wrong turn and get spotted? Hit the button and Sam instantly takes out anybody within range that you've marked, bailing your dumb ♥♥♥ out and giving you another shot to keep sneaking. It's a great way to incorporate a kind of undo button into a genre as unforgiving as stealth. I'm not sure whether the developers purposely intended for the feature to be used in this fashion, but it works great, especially considering that you can now use mark and execute at extremely long range when equipped with sniper rifles, which is a neat feature.
I've played several Ubisoft games the past few years, and none have run very well aside from the Far Cry series. This game, happily, runs like a dream. It looks great, too. Textures are excellent, and motion capture for the actors is terrific. I do think the game loses quite a bit without Michael Ironside, though, and I question why Ubi even deigned to put Sam Fisher in the game to begin with. The justification was that they needed a younger actor to do the motion capture, which is understandable. But Sam has to be in his late 50s by this point. Why not just reboot with another character altogether, and relegate Sam to the Lambert role of the older games? Ironside is an excellent voice actor, and the series is worse off without him.
Anybody who has read my reviews in the past knows that I have a big problem with checkpointing in stealth games. There's nothing more frustrating than sneaking through nine tenths of an area, getting caught at the very end, and dying, only to be put right back where you started and having to follow everything you just accomplished again. It's unbelievably frustrating, and it has no place in modern video games that could easily provide a free save feature. If you don't like save scumming, then don't do it. I don't. But not having free saves is a terrible design choice and it harms people who play the game on the hardest difficulty, which I frequently choose when playing stealth games. This game, sadly, does feature checkpointing, which is one of my few complaints about the game. However, the checkpoints are frequently very manageable, which does some mitigating to the repetitiveness caused by their presence. They are still annoying, though, and I have no idea why game designers continue to use them.
The story is another weak point with this game. It's your typical Call of Duty-esque American military story, with the gruff hero saving the world from the sneering villain. I thought Conviction actually had a really great story, but unfortunately this game doesn't continue what they shot for with that one. Gone is pretty much all of the Tom Clancy flavor out of the series that was present in the first three games. This is all Hollywood action movie, which is disappointing, but doesn't matter much in the long run since the game plays so fantastically.
I also found the music wanting. Chaos Theory had what I consider to be the best soundtrack in any video game, ever, and this game lacks Amon Tobin's stunningly beautiful score that that game featured. Tobin did such a great job with Conviction, despite having only two songs present in the game, that I would linger on that game's menu just to listen to the excellent menu track that he composed. The fabulous sound design in Conviction does not return, either, but it's manageable here. Seriously, Ubisoft, Amon Tobin is a god. Bring him back, please. We miss him.
Another complaint I've got are the stupid first person shooting segments of the game. I can see the value of using them to break up the pacing and add something different, but come on, people who buy Splinter Cell games buy them for stealth gameplay. If I wanted a shooter, I'd play Battlefield. I'd rather Splinter Cell sticks with its strengths.
The multiplayer and co-op features in this game are some of the strongest since Chaos Theory as well, and I'd be doing a disservice to the game if I didn't mention them. I don't play much competitively, but I had a blast with the co-operative segment of the game. I only wish it were a bit more meaty -- It's easy to blow through all of the co-operative levels in just a few hours.
Overall, you could do way worse than Splinter Cell Blacklist. If you're looking for a pure stealth experience, this is your game. It looks great, it runs great, and it plays great. It's got great replayability. The minor nitpicks I have with it do nothing to really damage the experience. This is a great game, and it's a promising return to form for the Splinter Cell franchise. If you're a fan of the stealth genre, you'll adore it. If you're not, it's still worth playing, as it's a solid game even when played just as a third person shooter with some stealth features.