The legendary Sam Fisher is back and the stakes have never been higher. With America under attack from a terrorist group called the Engineers, it’s up to the grizzled hero and his band of Fourth Echelon pros to bring them in or take them down. Fans will instantly notice that Sam has undergone something of a facelift, with his youthful and muscular appearance only bolstered by the change in voice actor. Despite looking like a battle-worn Commander Shepard, our hero still has all the skills needed to bust some heads and ultimately save the world.
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto, Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Shanghai, Ubisoft Red Storm
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (Reviewed), Wii U, Windows PC
Players: Single-Player, Multi-Player
Genre: Action-Adventure, Stealth
Release: (AU) August 22nd 2013, (EU) August 23rd 2013, (JP) September 5th 2013, (NA) August 20th 2013
Stealth is very much the name of the game in Blacklist, even if it does mix the accessibility of Splinter Cell: Conviction with the big-budget set-pieces of a good Hollywood blockbuster. Darkness typically serves as your best friend as you attempt to pick off a group undetected, before getting the drop on the final few and clear the area. Despite being easily the most satisfying playstyle – appropriately named here as Panther – it’s far from a mandate; indeed, you’ll sometimes have to pass through a stage without harming a single hostile. Mark and Execute returns and is handy in a pinch, though it’s presented more as an option than a required tactic.
Succeeding in Blacklist is all about observing the enemy, sitting things out and striking with deadly efficiency before skulking back into the shadows. Guards will band together and actively hunt for you based on your last known position (indicated by a translucent model of Sam), and this can present a good flanking opportunity when you’re not overwhelmed. Far from being a one-trick pony, the game occasionally tries its hand at a different mechanic, dishing out some real surprises without ever becoming too experimental.
You can upgrade just about every piece of gear you can think of between missions on the Paladin hub, using your hard-earned cash to purchase ridiculously expensive items in the name of slight, mounting gains. Money is accrued quickly, though at no point can Sam become the ultimate death-dealing stealth machine; he remains at all times human with just a few well-placed shots shunting him back to the nearest checkpoint. He can instead be tailored to a preferred playstyle, with a Ghost specialist taking fewer hits than a more visible Assault master.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is very good at keeping things fresh thanks to its snappy pacing and varied settings. Sam travels the globe in search of intel, the Engineers or anything that will prevent the attacks from escalating. It’s a story that begins as business as usual before hitting a dramatic high, pushing the team to its limits and making them question each other’s resolve. You’ll chase down targets from Iraq to London, from sun-drenched rivers to moody streets in the dead of night. It says a great deal that landscapes are kept so fresh given the persistent use of darkness and shadow.
Presentation is anything but a weak point of Blacklist, though we have to question the 9 gig install on the PlayStation 3 version. Even worse, long load times and frequent screen-tearing put a dampener on the game’s otherwise high-end visuals. It’s more of a technical flaw than an artistic one, thankfully affecting the cutscenes rather than slowing down the action itself. There may be instances where objects fail to trigger properly or the sound cuts out, but these moments are mercifully rare.
Fans of Pandora Tomorrow’s multiplayer will no doubt spend a few hours in Spies vs. Mercs – the online mode featured here. It’s an intriguing melding of first and third-person gameplay, where one team serve as the agile spies while mercs go all-out with power weapons from a grounded perspective. While significantly weaker, spies have access to surprise takedowns and gadgets such as flashbangs and EMPs.
Mercs seem to hold the edge overall, with the motion-sensor and flashlight making things just a little too one-sided for a match to always be considered fair. Rounds can last for a fair while too, which is a problem when faced with drop-outs in a game of relatively few players. It’ll have you on the edge of your seat as you switch from hunter to hunted, at least for a while, and serves as a refreshing change to the usual FPS deathmatch types available.
Those who prefer cooperative play have also been catered for, with the second player providing support as former CIA agent, Isaac Briggs. These missions are provided by the characters scattered about the Paladin aircraft and while the majority can be tackled in solo play, it’s clear they’ve been designed with a friend in mind. They can be infuriatingly tough when attempted alone, pushing your skills and patience to the absolute limit. Even so, you’re getting plenty of bang for your buck in what is arguably the most robust instalment to date.
There’s no denying the long hours that must have gone into producing this year’s Splinter Cell. Environments are diverse, detailed and appropriately atmospheric. You’ll hold your breath as foes make their approach, praying they turn before revealing your position. Few games provide that same balance of vulnerability and empowerment, where a slip-up could spell doom but a timely takedown will make you feel like the world’s greatest predator. It’s not without its flaws (and not just on a technical level either), yet it’s easy to forgive such issues when the solid campaign and multiplayer suite are considered. Budding spies are advised to join in the fight against the Blacklist – clearly, there’s life in the franchise yet.
8.0 – Great. An enjoyable experience, fans and newcomers of the genre will be entertained. Any noticeable flaws are largely outweighed by the positives.