2010’s Splinter Cell: Conviction began with the words “the Sam Fisher you knew is dead.” As far as form was concerned, that was true. Conviction almost ended the modern stealth that Splinter Cell refined following the wake left by the Metal Gear series. While hints of stealth were hidden throughout Conviction, the game clearly catered toward the run-and-gun crowd instead of fans of stealth. Some three years later, Splinter Cell: Blacklist returns to form without losing the good ideas that appeared in Conviction. There are more gadgets, more missions, more characters, and more choices for variety than in previous games.
Players can still tag and immediately take out groups of enemies with the press of a single button if they’ve earned through hand-to-hand takedowns by using the Mark and Execute ability like in Conviction, but they can also take the quiet route, using gadgets and distractions to knock out or avoid the opposition all-together, which is more akin to the earlier titles in the series. Blacklist manages to combine the best ideas from all five previous games in the series to make a refined and in-depth experience.
The truly remarkable thing about Blacklist is that players really are given the ability to play the way they want to. There are the obvious paths that would make for a good firefight, but there are also air ducts, ledges, and pipes that allow players to use all three play styles so they can tailor their experience exactly the way they want to. I opted to avoid confrontation as much as I could, so I stuck to shadows and killed nobody. Blacklist offers two distinct play-styles, as well as a third style that is a sort of middle-ground. The first, more akin to the original Splinter Cell games, is the Ghost style. Players who choose to focus in Ghost tactics avoid confrontation and use non-lethal takedowns as they move between cover and shadows when they aren’t hiding bodies in closets. The second, which was frequently exhibited in Conviction, is the Assault style, which utilizes firepower and explosives to kill enemies as efficiently as possible. The third way to play is the Panther style, which combines the two and involves sneaking through the shadows as players kill their enemies before returning to the darkness. Players accrue experience after every mission and get rewarded with points in each play style, though players will earn more experience if they use the Ghost play style.
The controls are rather intuitive for each style of play, with the gadget menu streamlined to a wheel that players navigate using the right joystick in a manner similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Even the controls for the aerial drone called the Tri-rotor are surprisingly easy to use. Switching vision modes requires holding down any direction on the D-Pad and pressing the Y-button, which is a bit odd since the alternate vision modes are one of the most important and iconic parts of Splinter Cell. When not holding down the D-pad, the Y-button causes players to perform an Execute if they marked enemies, so players may find themselves accidentally killing a bunch of enemies when they really just wanted to turn on their night vision goggles. It only happened maybe once or twice, but the ability to manually map the buttons on the controller would have been nice.
On Realistic difficulty, the hardest difficulty mode from Conviction, the combat is brutally difficult, where enemies can mow you down in a second if you’re spotted. While it took only one hand-to-hand takedown to earn an Execute in Conviction, Realistic difficulty can require players to take down up to four enemies. On Perfectionist difficulty, players lose the ability to Mark and Execute altogether as well as the ability to see through walls. Most hand-to-hand takedowns also fail if the enemy is alert. Perfectionist difficulty challenges even the most seasoned Splinter Cell players, this player included. Blacklist manages to be faithful to the slow stealth of the earlier games in a way that I haven’t seen since 2005’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory while still being accessible to new players with quick combat similar to Conviction.
Blacklist also features new varieties of enemies, such as heavy enemies who can only be subdued by a takedown from above or behind, enemies with riot shields, drone operators who send in tiny, explosive recon drones, and enemies with gas masks, making them immune to sleeping gas. Some enemies have helmets that players can shoot off, which will make them susceptible to sleeping gas grenades or darts. The game also features guard dogs, which will sniff out Sam and bark for a guard, no matter how well hidden Sam is. These new enemies require players to think more carefully and predatorily than in past games, with constant awareness necessary, since there is no way to take down a fully armored enemy if they’re shooting you in the face. The plot of Blacklist is very much what one would expect out of a Tom Clancy game (or a season of 24): after attacking Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, a terrorist group called “The Engineers” tells the United States to bring its troops home or suffer more attacks. The Engineers start a countdown to attacks on American cities, bases, and resources. Sam Fisher, hero of all previous Splinter Cell games, apprehensively leads the newly founded Fourth Echelon (after Third Echelon was disbanded following the events of Conviction) in an effort to stop the Engineers with the help former team member Anna “Grim” Grímsdóttir, as well as some new faces such as CIA agent Isaac Briggs and tech specialist Charlie Cole. The story manages to hold itself together rather well with strong characters, superb voice acting, and believable motion capture.
Eric Johnson, known best as Whitney Fordman on Smallville, voices Sam this time around. This replacement is all for the sake of better full-body motion capture, since original voice actor Michael Ironside, being in his early sixties, isn’t nearly as spry as Sam Fisher. Johnson manages to capture most of the subtle humor that Sam displayed in earlier games, but he often sounds more mean than just sarcastic. The younger voice of Sam Fisher is a bit out of place, especially when Sam has conversations with his daughter, whom he sounds the same age as, but Johnson manages to find his own version of Sam that leaves the Sam of previous games more or less intact. This new Sam is less a diehard patriot than he is dedicated to mission success at all costs. For this Splinter Cell veteran, the change felt drastic at first, but this pseudo-vengeance-fueled Sam functions rather well in this new title, and I look forward to seeing more of what this reworked Sam has to offer in future titles.
Players of Deus Ex: Human Revolution may notice the familiar voice of Elias Toufexis, voice of Adam Jensen, returning as Andriy Kobin from Conviction. Toufexis manages to steal the show from the other actors while his Kobin provides comic relief to balance out the seriousness of the story. The combination of voice acting and realistic motion capture makes Blacklist feel like the most real Splinter Cell of the series, with everything down to subtle eyelid movements and twitches rendered in-game. There were some issues of the characters’ mouths not syncing with their dialogue, but it was a minor problem.
Not only does Blacklist have a lengthy single player campaign with a wide variety of levels, but it also has challenge maps for both singleplayer and co-op. Some missions require players to survive waves of enemies, some require players to hunt down all enemies in a manner similar to Deniable Ops from Conviction, and some require players to get in and out without being seen at all. The co-op is less about doing things that require two players, like in Chaos Theory, than it is about splitting the workload up. Split-screen tends to make missions go smoother, but as long as both players have an understanding of which play style to use, it’s fun either way.
Blacklist also features the return of Spies versus Mercenaries, the multiplayer mode where a team of agile, easily killed spies attempts to steal data while a team of slow, powerful mercenaries. Players can play with friends or strangers teams between two and four, and can even have a mixed team of spies and mercenaries. I desperately tried to play Spies vs. Mercenaries, but was quickly shot and/or blown up simultaneously by the opposition. The learning curve is tough at first, but I imagine it would be far more fun learning the game with a group of friends rather than strangers who already have all the maps memorized.
Blacklist also features a metagame called “Gone Dark,” where players must hunt down agents or terrorists by investigating clues on a map in a similar manner to “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” Players receive clues such as nicknames for cities or the currency for a specific country, and they must navigate to that specific location on the map in order to receive the next clue. Most of these clues require nothing more than a quick web search or trivial knowledge, and with new agents and terrorists to find every day, it’s just a fun little distraction in between the lengthy levels that gives a little bonus of in-game currency.
Blacklist could have easily been another cover shooter with walls to climb like Conviction, but it manages to return to the formula of the first three Splinter Cell titles while remaining fresh and fluid. It would not be a stretch to call Splinter Cell: Blacklist the best Splinter Cell title to date. The game is tense, challenging, and ridiculously rewarding. Blacklist is the quintessential stealth game for the current generation, and it surpasses the games it built on in almost every way.