Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review

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Sam Fisher returns in what is perhaps Ubisoft’s most ambitious Splinter Cell title in the franchise to date with Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Continuing the trend for stealthy action and brutal take-downs, Fisher must as part of a counter-terrorist organisation bring down a terrorist group known as The Engineers who are performing timed attacks on America and their government! Of course it’s not without its hiccups and surprises, but the latest adventure is a military driven plot that takes a lot of patience and perseverance.  Stealth fans should be excited by Blacklist which is available in stores right now!

Splinter Cell: Blacklist kicks off the story with quite a brutal introduction as cut scenes depicting death and violence form part of the basis for your future missions. It has more of a dark and deep undertone than the previous Splinter Cell Conviction released in 2010 as Fisher now joins the Fourth Echelon in a bid to save the United States of America from a string of terrorist attacks which are “The Blacklist”, hence the title! It is an action-packed high-tech filled to the brim assignment selection as you command your team and hunt down enemies from different corners of the world before the countdown ends, but it reminds me somewhat of a Ghost Recon game only without going all in guns blazing. Similar level design to Ghost Recon only with a full squad replaced for just one Secret Agent, putting a lot of pressure on Fisher as he slowly unravels the plot from its gloomy outlook based on events that escalates after the happenings of Conviction; can you even remember that far back? A few changes are in place in terms of pecking order as Fisher now reports directly to the Madam President and additionally leads his own team, but aside from looking a little older, greyer; his assassin-esque killing skills are still second to none. The familiarity of the Splinter Cell you know and love is present, but the missions and story are more what you would expect from a hardened war based first person shooter.  It’s dark, gritty, deadly and annoyingly difficult for your average Call of Duty gamer if you’re not familiar with stealth tactics – you’re going to find the cross-over a little different than what you’re used to.

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A lot of emphasis and one of the main core areas of the game is the Paladin; your flying aircraft that houses all of your weapons, Intel and information relating to every mission in the game whether it be co-op, solo, online –you name it, this beauty is the key central area that will piece you into the story and perhaps better regarded as an interactive menu system, or a lobby with its own integral importance over the whole of Blacklist with a life of its own. Dependent upon how well you perform in the missions and earn your cash, the Paladin can be upgraded too by purchasing upgrades to the cockpit, crew quarters, cells and cargo bays in return for extra in-game benefits and enhancements. Different members of your team are placed within different areas of the Paladin, and walking around, talking to each will present you with different options. It’s as if a game menu now has a life of its own, but a great concept and each team member offer their own co-op missions chosen by interacting with them. However, you will mostly use the SMI tool, a central screen to reveal the next major mission of the games campaign as well as being able to filter the types of missions available to you. From here you can play online, campaign solo/co-op and any side missions.

One of the other noticeable changes to Splinter Cell is that new gameplay styles have made an introduction in Blacklist where you are encouraged to not always hide in the shadows or stealthily creep around corners of alleyways like a ghost. Stealth gameplay now has the added oomph with lethal and brutal tactics thrown in to alternate the gameplay and add more energetic action scenes to get your heartbeat racing against your survival techniques.  Chapters play like a typical action-movie to keep you on the edge of your seat, with the dramatics right in the power of your own fingertips. Survive by the skin of your teeth or die trying, because Blacklist is quite a feisty challenge where there is little room for failure. With Ghost style tactics you can aim to remain undetected for most of the duration of the chapters and using non-lethal techniques; this will score the most points in the game as it is by far the most difficult stance to maintain. Panther play style is where you would stalk and kill enemies whilst remain undetected, but using lethal takedowns and silenced weapons. My preferred play style is Assault where you can face the enemies in open combat using explosives and loud weapons to flush out hostiles in the area. The game naturally picks up your playing style and awards you based on how you performed various actions with cash, score and appropriate leaderboard placements to see how you rank up against your friends list and LIVE players. Since I have touched on the subject of awards, you can also earn exclusive extras from ShadowNet – the Blacklist social tool that will allow you to view challenges between your friends among many other features for those with internet access. From here you can beat your friends to unlock more cash and see how they compare against you.

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Due to each mission of the campaign not unravelling fluidly and is instead becoming a Paladin selection process, the game comes across more Arcade style than anything for the campaign missions due to the scoring and focusses heavily on the co-operative features too.  It’s certainly a title that offers more longevity when played with other players over Xbox LIVE rather than solo. Each mission start will show you a brief, a screen where you can customise your loadout gear ranging from Gadgets, Goggles, Op Suits, and of course weaponry. Gadgets include high-tech gear such as EMP’s, Camera’s, varied grenades and explosive devices whereas Goggles alter your sight in difficulty from Night Vision to Sonar Pulsing to see enemies through walls. Op Suits vary your stealth and gadget holding quantities and weapons selection processes is rather straight forward. What I will add about Splinter Cell: Blacklist is that it feels too unnecessary heavy on the customisation front with a ton of unlocks, ton of selection processes and then even more for every new item purchased with in-game awarded cash. I didn’t like at all how it felt most of the time was more about how I looked and what I was carrying over just being able to start a game. There are so many, many, many choices to choose from that you could just end up not bothering and going with a standard customisation option. Considering the aim of the game is to remain in stealth as much as possible – having to think about all the customisation options and upgrades and further unlocks is too confusing.

Gameplay is very familiar in not only the stealthy requirements where you are sneaking around external and internal environments with close quarters combat at busy intervals too as per previous Splinter Cell titles. Some new touches likes killing enemies from an overhead plane reminded me of Modern Warfare, whilst flying a drone to capture Intel was very familiar for Black Ops and Ghost Recon lately. Dogs are another hazard due to being able to sense you from long range and alerting guards and with any action game you can climb, drop, cover, shoot and explore the chapters at your own will. Although it’s a predetermined set path to your objectives, the amount of exploration and multiple paths take away any linear impression – especially with more verticality in Blacklist on offer than what was experienced in Conviction! I actually found the gameplay and the action to be quite intense and suspenseful in that you feel a real need to remain hidden, but you are also so overwhelmed with difficult AI when spotted that getting overrun with hostile guards is all but a mandatory experience! It’s as if the game is pushing you to use the Killing in Motion feature where you can mark off multiple enemies and execute them in one simple button press to down them all in a quick succession. The story itself though is rather grim and brutal as Fisher follows a trail left behind by The Engineers and is caught on their warpath with an aim to stop the Blacklist attacks; with bloodied scenes and horrific torture depicted in the cut scenes it’s a mature plot with an aging secret operative.

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Visually and graphically, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a mash up of dated and impressive sights. The opening chapter of Libya more or less introduced the stealth dynamics and gave you a taster of better things to come. Some chapters look more polished than others, but there is no consistency in their design – the Libya chapter looked dated compared to modern games of today. However, by the time you visit Iraq the game starts to shine and show off some of its impressive lighting techniques balancing the areas between light and dark offering up mixed routes to your objective. The cut scenes are movie quality in their presentation, but Fisher himself doesn’t seem to pass off the aggressive alpha-male tone as per the previous titles in the franchise; he’s looking older, meaner, and leaner but his voice doesn’t fit the character despite the model being highly detailed. He’s changed, but I’m not over convinced it’s for the better.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s winning formula is in its devotion to co-operative gameplay that it almost pushes the solo campaign into the beyond. With 14 unique co-op missions divided into segments and the return of Spies vs Mercs in a long while, it’s certainly no game to be played alone. Spies vs Mercs allow you to compete in up to 8 player matches where the aim of the game is for Mercs to defend Terminals whilst Spies try to hack them, it is the Splinter Cell equivalent of Capture the Flag only the capturing part is a lot longer on timing. Spies are played in a third-person perspective and Mercs have a first person perspective view with stronger weapons. Classic Spies vs Mercs mode is per the old game type last seen in Splinter Cell: Double Agent prior to Conviction and only 2 vs 2 player, but in Blacklist mode this game type has been updated and modernised for 4 vs 4 players with the ability for extra customisation options and separate classes and additional loadouts for each faction. Customisation is once more overfilled and overdone like the campaign choices; I do not like the impression of a totally insane amount of options to choose from as I’d rather just pick different weapons compared to how my outfit may look with my goggles and gloves and so on so forth. As fun as Spies vs Mercs is in the modern Blacklist mode, a full 6 vs 6 player match would have been epic, but it just is not meant to be.

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Before letting you unleashed with the big boys, Multiplayer is not fully operation until you reach a Rank 5 which can be achieved by playing in the Training Grounds section with all the other newbies like little recruits. Once you have got the feel and taste for the gameplay both Classic and Blacklist Spies vs Mercs unlocks as well as Extraction (defend and attack intelligence), Uplink Control ( 3 vs 3 area control) and 4 vs 4 Team Deathmatch games become available which should keep you rather active on the servers if not fully restrained from the campaign full stop!

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a great game with a more mature campaign that is both brutal and disturbing with a plot that could rival the intentions of Modern Warfare. Although the setup is hell-bent on forcing you into co-operative gameplay it’s still enjoyable solo albeit a frustrating mix of stealth vs action where staying alive sometimes is near on impossible. The challenges to be faced within Blacklist are outstanding – it really is a fantastic story that develops on you. At first due to the dated visuals and the lack of familiarity with the Paladin, once you get more into it and aware of your options you’ll be drawn into the missions on a path to hunt down The Engineers and save the lives of Americans through travelling different parts of the world.

A grand job for a new Splinter Cell title and most definitely an improvement on the last! A little less intimidating customisation screens would have been preferred, but  an overall enjoyable gameplay experience with a welcome return to Spies vs Mercs in the multiplayer settings.

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