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Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist

Release data : 20 Aug 2013


Splinter Cell: Blacklist review is a stealth game of the robust, rule-based kind, where each environment is a puzzle waiting to be cracked. You slip snake cameras under doors or use sonar vision to get the lay of the land. Then, you pick a route and use the gadgets you've brought with you to eliminate each guard in order. Blacklist has more of old Splinter Cell in it than Conviction did, but it's not a perfect revival of the series.
It'd really like it if you saw it that way, however. Sam Fisher has been plucked out of retirement, shaved, given some moisturizer, and plonked in charge of Fourth Echelon, a younger and sexier take on the spy agency from the original games. 4E roams the world in Paladin, a spy plane that enables Sam and a gang of new and old sidekicks to breach international law wherever and whenever they please.
On a minute-to-minute basis, the level design is an issue. Having a range of gadgets to use means less if you don't need to use them at all, and Blacklist's linear series of arenas rarely need to be manipulated as carefully or on as large a scale as in Splinter Cell of old. Realistic difficulty changes this somewhat, removing Conviction's 'mark and execute' feature – which allows you to tag groups of enemies for later elimination – as well as axing midsession resupply caches and reducing the usefulness of sonar goggles. Being forced to rely on your noisemakers and sticky cameras more is great, but it doesn't prevent environments from feeling narrow and stagey. When you come across a climbable pipe, you know that a developer somewhere expects you to climb it – and that it'll probably lead you conveniently over the head of that armoured guard you couldn't figure out how to get past.
Awkward, hand-holdy sections like this are the game's other great weakness. There's the obligatory bit where you escape from a burning building, and an early mission begins with a sniper section where you must eliminate enemies in the right order to allow Fisher to progress. Logically, you might assume that if you screw up then the subsequent stealth section will become harder. Not so – you have to repeat it until you do it perfectly.
Optional side missions unlocked by speaking to Sam's crew are playable in solo and co-op modes and present you with open areas that promise to fix the campaign's problems. One set, where you're asked to clear areas of enemies before progressing, offers a good balance of stealth and action and rewards creativity. Another set, however, resets you to the start of the mission if you're ever detected. There's no checkpointing, and Blacklist has no mid-mission save system. This turns features that should be positive – like the guard patrols that vary from run to run – into crushing negatives. Flawless stealth is an exercise in gruelling trial-and-error.
Every mission in the game can be repeated for points, which are assigned based on your performance in one of three categories: Ghost, Panther,and Assault. Ghost means slipping by undetected and non-lethally subduing guards you can't avoid. Panther is similar but you're allowed to kill people, and Assault is for people who would rather be playing a shooter. But Blacklist leans on its scoring system to provide you with consequences for the way you choose to play: the main narrative doesn't respond to your choices at all. Lethal or non-lethal is a high-score decision, rendering toothless the infrequent moments when you're asked if you're willing to spare a life.

Different maps emphasise different strategies. Hiding in the shadows is an option in some, while others place the spies in situations where direct confrontation is more likely. It's a much more organicfeeling marriage of game mechanics and level design than Blacklist manages in singleplayer. I enjoyed sprinting across a room with gunfire pinging at my heels, knowing that I was buying 20 seconds of respite for my hacker friend. There's a real sense of danger, and it's a world away from Sam Fisher trudging down a riverbed, putting men to sleep with his infinite ammo crossbow.
Two sets of tech problems are worth bearing in mind. The first is the controls: this is a game that was designed to be played with a pad, and its heavy use of context-sensitive actions and radial menus make keyboard and mouse play fiddly. The second problem is Uplay. Ubisoft's proprietary launcher is necessary even if you own the Steam version, and in my case it refused to allow me to connect to the game's online service until someone from Ubisoft fiddled with my account in order to fix it. Then, Uplay deleted all of my saves. I had luckily taken manual backups, but could only restore them by disabling cloud saving outright. I recommend you do the same, if only to avoid having the problem in the first place.


Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review is far from terrible, but it's not the classic that Chaos Theory was and it learns the wrong lessons from Conviction. That said, this is the strongest the series has ever been in multiplayer, and for that reason – and for the few missions where its stealth pedigree clicks into place – it's worth peeking into its darkened corners.

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