Sam Fisher returns to give a towering performance in the latest title from the best-selling Splinter Cell series. Silent but Deadly never looked so good as the stealthiest operative in videogaming takes on the ‘Engineers’ in Blacklist.
Three long years in the making and packed with more heart-pounding moments than a James Cameron blockbuster, Ubisoft Toronto throws a flashbang into the psyche of gamers the World over as they burst through the locked door of the UK games chart and clear away the competition with a well-timed cacophony of silenced shots to their collective heads, before stealthily ascending the stairs of the Top Ten and rightfully claiming the Number One spot.
Splinter Cell ‘is’ back, and boy oh boy! Does it ever look and play absolutely fan-friggin’-tastic!
Packed to the gunwale’s with more content than you could waggle a Playstation Move controller at, both refreshing loyal to the Splinter Cell traditions whilst at the same time adding more than a mere soupcon of ingenuity and invention with some of the more spectacular new additions to this first-rate franchise, Splinter Cell Blacklist has exploded onto the videogaming scene like a veritable H-Bob as it blows away its rivals and leaves nothing standing save itself and the games legions of devoted fans.
Whether you are a complete novice to the many unquestionable delights contained within any one of the Ubisoft Splinter Cell games which, as the original 2002 title so rightly declared, ‘Redfined Stealth Action’. Or if you a staunch veteran of the series who has been with Ubisoft from the word go, enjoying title after top-notch title with likes of the supremely entertaining ‘Pandora Tomorrow’, or the simply magnificent ‘Double Agent’ right through to the most recent stellar offering of ‘Conviction’, ( and everything else in between ), one thing is assured when delving into the massive guilty pleasures contained within any and all of these genre-defining titles, and that, good readers, is a stealth action shooter experience that may have been imitated and duplicated many, many times over, but never, ever has it been bettered.
It is with a happy heart, then, that we are able to bring you the full review of the latest Splinter Cell title safe in the knowledge that any fears of tampering or tinkering with a format admired and adored by gamers around the globe has, not including new and welcome additions to the gameplay, been left untouched and unspoiled by developers hands.
Blacklist is a ‘Tour de Force’ by any rational players estimations, but when you consider the amount of sequels of much-loved franchises that have left gamers around the World groaning into their hands and reaching for the ‘eject’ button as their shake their frustrated heads in unison at some truly unfathomable decisions by studio’s and story tellers, it makes the admiration for Ubisoft Toronto grow in stature as you tip your cap in respect to the team behind Blacklist who stuck to their guns, and the games’ stealth driven background, as opposed to following the tired examples of every other game developer in recent memory as they try to turn their own titles into some kind of Call of Duty multiplaying cash-cow clone.
Splinter Cell Blacklist enters into the fight for freedom with very big boots to fill after the rip-roaring success of its predecessor, ‘Conviction’, but, after sampling all that is on offer to players in only the opening tutorial mission, it is plain for all to see that even this early on into the game that the outcome never really looked in any doubt.
First off we will explain that we reviewed Blacklist on the Xbox360, and in that regard it was necessary, although not mandatory, to install a ‘textures pack’ by means of an additional second disc. Does it make it difference? Is it any great hinderance, or hassle? Not in the slightest. But just to point something out to any possible detractors we would only say that in this day and age if you are not already in the habit of installing every title you purchase directly into the console HDD, then why not? This is something that should become as second nature as reaching for your controller as you settle in for a gaming session of any length of time. Failure to do so may lead to early termination of your units lifespan. Upon installation of both discs it is now time to prepare yourself for the most entertaining stealth action to be found anywhere in the videogame industry. Bar none!
Following on from the explosive events which occurred in the previous title, Conviction, the elite operative team of Third Echelon has since been disbanded by President Caldwell. The now defunct unit, however, has other idea’s in mind rather than retirement as they morph into the shadowy counter-terrorist unit we now know as Fourth Echelon. Taking orders directly from the Commander-in-Chief, who is granted that wonderful term of ‘deniable plausibility’ thanks to his seeming destruction of the previous covert unit, this small band of dedicated special forces operatives is the only thing which stands in the way of a new series of devastating terrorist attacks aimed directly at the US by a mysterious group who call themselves ‘The Engineers’. It is now up to ‘you’, as Sam Fisher, to step in and put a stop the Engineers before they can carry out their plan of concerted attacks on American citizens and personnel around the globe.
The Engineers have drawn up a scheme to cause as much pain and confusion to the US as is Humanly possible, and whoever so’s name appears on their database is in for a torrid time of it unless Sam Fisher and his crew of dedicated ant-terrorist agents can put at end to their scheming. But first, they need to know who is being targeted. Now that the story is set and you have an outline of the mammoth task in front of you, its time to don that black ‘tac suit’ and grab your night vision goggles as we get deep down and dirty with the ‘Boys from the Blacklist’.
Splinter Cell has, historically, always been a very strong title graphically, regardless of the generation of hardware its games have been designed for. Ubisoft Montreal has always maintained an immensely high standard for the Tom Clancy inspired titles, and Blacklist is no exception to this traditional rule of thumb. Whether or not you chose to install the additional content on the textures disc is, at the end of the day, up to you, but even if you don’t then it is plain for all to see that the Splinter Cell franchise is clearly a labour of love for the talented team of men and women that make up the Canadian branch of the gaming industry giant.
Naturally the game looks even more polished in its full twin disc version than its un-textured sibling, if such as thing is possible, but for those players lucky enough to be enjoying the Ubisoft flagship on an HD TV, then all we can say is be prepared for some jaw-dropping visuals with some truly incredible clarity. For the purpose of all of our GmP reviews we conduct said play tests on a Samsung 7 series and we have to say that it is when you witness all that the ‘Montrealers’ have devised for your digital delectation then it is more than likely that a balaclava may be needed to be support your jaw during play to combat the amount of times your gaping jaw will dangle loosely on its hinges as you stare almost incredulously at the stunning images on your screen.
Crystal clear and with lines so defined you sometimes forget that what you are actually in control of is a digital representation of a Human, as opposed to being in command of a fully functioning undercover agent, Blacklist simply outperforms any other stealth title of this or any other generation of videogame. The entire production just oozes quality from every artificially created pore, and the gameplay is silky smooth not only throughout the entire Solo campaign, but also during the many alternative modes on offer to players such as the outstanding Co-oP and Merc -Vs- Spy sections.
Now to the ‘meat of the main course’ after the appetizer of the sublime visuals. After an amazing initial reception at E3 2012 many fan’s of the Splinter Cell series of games were worried that the game was making too many moves away from the core gameplay that has been the backbone of the franchises undoubted success, often citing such things as the emphasis on more open gun play in ‘Conviction’. These fears, however, we can certainly allay as we guarantee to you all here and now that if what you wanted to see was Ubisoft return Sam Fisher to his stealthy best, then you will in no way be disappointed by the outright covert atmosphere that resonates from the entire Blacklist plot and gameplay.
Don’t get us wrong, if you want to enter into the missions, scenario’s and situations like some kind of Call of Doody fanboy, or a Battlefield ‘hero’ then by all means be our guest. Just don’t come crying to us in the comment section and on Twitter asking why you suddenly find yourself out of ammo and gadgets and surrounded by lethal enemies after taking only two steps away from your opening check point. If open warfare and all guns blazing is what you are looking for from Ubiosft then we highly recommend that you do as we all do here at GmP, and that is count the days feverishly as we stare longingly at our office calendar in the hope of one day counting down to the next Rainbow Six launch.
Blacklist is not, repeat ‘is not’ that kind of game in the slightest. You wanted stealth? You wanted subterfuge, underhanded, dirty tricks and gadgets and gizmo’s that would leave Q Branch looking little more than Dixon’s on a Bank Holiday bargain basement sale, then prepare yourself as Ubisoft deliver in spades your wish list. Blacklist is so much more than a mere twitch shooter clone. This is a game that could have been released at any given moment in Splinter Cell history and had its fans stand up in a rapturous ovation as they chant in unison, their pointing fingers of scorn aimed firmly at devotee’s of titles such as Hitman, even, whilst treating them to a football terrace-like chorus of “We are top of the league” and “you’re shit and you know you are!”
But what’s more, they would be right! Blacklist could well have been called ‘Back to basics…er, ‘list’ and it would have hit the nail so squarely on its head that said nail would need immediate cranial surgery for massive blunt force trauma to the skull and a bleed on the brain. Nothing that we have seen from any stealth based title this entire generation has come even close to Blacklist for the masterly blend of stunning graphics and simply scintillating gameplay. It is, quite frankly, head and shoulders above its rivals.
The Solo campaign reinstates Sam Fisher as the character to play if you are looking for a title to test not only your gaming mettle, but also your grey matter, decisions making skills and tactical nous. One of the new inclusions to the proceedings will also task players with not only working out how to tackle their Human counterparts, but now potential operatives are also charged with taking care of the dreaded ‘drones’. So, you may feel like you have the guards movements and patterns down to a ‘tee’, but what to make of the artificial intelligence housed inside the remote drones is quite another story.
The gameplay itself, analysing it from the ‘ground up’ so to speak, is that welcoming familiar sight of a dark and brooding third-person action adventure game that just happens to have some shooting in it. We describe it in this way, as opposed to merely labelling this master class in videogame design as little more than a third person shooter, something Blacklist most certainly is not.
Concentrating on Sam’s dogged determination in tracking down and the disposing of his assigned targets, rather than personal issues and family problems involving his daughter, Sarah, and her kidnap last time out, Blacklist has come full circle as Ubisoft return the series to the very thing that made it so great in the first place, its core tactical gameplay and stealth pedigree. That’s not to say Ubisoft Montreal have totally foregone the ‘Human Touch’ in Blacklist as Sam is still able to contact Sarah throughout the entire Solo campaign with intermittent phone calls home during missions breaks and briefings.
This is actually a rather ingenious way of keeping the player grounded to the reality that Sam Fisher is still ‘just a man’, and not some super hero or indestructible half man-half machine cyborg. It allows the player to form a more emotional connection between this hardened killing machine and his more day-to-day role as a loving parent who wants nothing more to build a safe environment for him to raise his daughter in. It almost seems apt that the location of the handset Sam uses to call Sarah is sited in the ‘infirmary’ where the logo of a large medic styled cross is emblazoned upon the wall, and this clearly indicates that giving Sam this much-needed connection to his family is almost part of the man’s healthcare, in that this lifeline to his child is his centre, and his focus for staying fit and well both mentally and physically so that he may continue to fulfil his role as a father.
Of course, a game steeped in the latest military hardware and technological wizardy has to have a few surprise goodies for the gaming public, and once again Blacklist never fails to impress. Bursting at the seams with all of the ‘usual suspects’, such as the sticky camera, ( now upgradable with plastique and stun capabilities ), the standard issue flashbangs and smoke grenades as well as the unsung heroes of the gadget world: the noise makers, players will be more than pleased to now see some spanking new additions to Sam Fisher’s arsenal of available gizmo’s.
We couldn’t help but mention, of course, the wonderful Tri-Rotor drone which players are equipped with fairly early on in the game. But then, depending on how you approach your initial play through of Blacklist is to determine, pretty much, just how early all of these, and a whole host of other, technological marvels become available to you. But more on that in a moment.
The Tri-Rotor has to be one of the more interesting ‘new toys’ for Sam to play with. Its capabilities are upgradable, as are most of the tools and weapons at Sam’s disposal, but even though its range is somewhat limited to only relative short distances it is, nevertheless, an essential piece of kit in various missions and sections of the Solo and Co-oP campaigns.
The firearms on offer to Sam vary from pistols to SMG’s, shotguns and sniper rifles to the eponymous assault carbines such as the G36C and other such instruments of lethality. Players are able carry two of any weapon types, although not two of the same, as they construct and customize their rigs prior to each mission, dependant, of course, entirely upon what Sam is required to do for that particular objective.
Each weapon has its own set of attachments and add-ons, such as silencers, as well as a good range of beneficial bonuses in the form of high grade parts and ammunition. Sam’s fetching ‘tac suit’ is also fully customizable with everything from the basic colour of the uniform right through to Kevlar Weave’s, night vision goggle sonar upgrades as well as stealth or assault choices for your preferred style of play being on offer.
This brings us nicely to the heart of the game, that being the way Sam handles the problems and objectives in his own inimitable style. Of course, the silent treatment will undoubtedly always be the safer, and best, option in any Splinter Cell title, but there are now three paths that an operative may choose when approaching his or her mission in the form of the Ghost, Panther and Assault play styles.
Each of these three main ‘styles’ will require a slightly differing approach to the others in that Sam is required to complete certain tasks and mini-objectives, such as locating a ‘Dead Drop’ to recover a USB left by a contact to grant further insights for Fourth Echelon from the data they recover. There are also the opportunities to earn many a bonus in each of the styles by locating and hacking lap tops, finding and then ‘Bagging & Tagging’ an HVT, or ‘High Value Target’, as well as in play requirements such as bypassing guards without killing them, or completing levels without anyone ever knowing you were even there to earn the ultimate Ghost award for being a perfect unseen agent.
As we mentioned earlier there are many upgrades Sam can purchase from his fellow team members as you progress along the games storyline, but for those operatives with a little more stealth savvy than most, then they will soon discover that far from being the usual linear style of Splinter Cell, Blacklist is by far and away the most option friendly and almost open world styled title in the series. Sam is now able to interview NPC’s, ( not wanting to litter the review with spoilers we will omit names and scenario’s ), and glean information from them from which you may take part in special side missions that may, or may not, be of benefit to your cause as time goes on. These can be anything from outright wave spawning survival types to sneak-fest ‘hack-a-thons’ were Sam must enter and exit a location to obtain information, crack a database or steal vital files without so much as a turn of a head from a passing Doberman Pincer guard dog.
Players may also fully alter and arrange Sam’s ‘tac suit’, as well as the outfits sported by their avatars in the Mercs and Spy camps. Split into sections gamers may decide to ‘mix and match’ the best parts of, say, a stealth set up tunic, complete the stealth boots and gloves, and top it all off with an assaults troopers trousers and the colour enhanced night vision goggles.
All of the varying upgrades and skills are purchasable from the members of your Fourth Echelon team, from department head ‘Grim’, the feisty femme fatale with the no nonsense approach to power shoulder pads. Then there is also the newcomer to the group in quartermaster ‘Charlie’, a ‘hacktivist’ recruited into Fourth Echelon after they learned of his skills care of his online boasting, and finally there is ‘Briggs’, another all action kind of guy who is an outstanding marksman and a back up/extraction man for main hero Sam.
Without wanting to ruin the surprise for Splinter Cell fan’s there is also a ‘blast from the past’ in the shape of an NPC that will be more than familiar to those players intimate with previous games in this sizzling series. But that is all you are getting!
We couldn’t finish the upgrades list without mentioning the cracking collection of fully customizable options for the Splinter Cell flying fortress ‘Paladin’. This high-tech aircraft is already brimming with more instruments panels and computers than an E3 expo, and has some of the most amazing touch screens that are so large it is reported that Samsung have been in talks regarding a possible collaboration.
Tweaking the on board systems of Paladin will allow players to gain further data via the enhanced radar and tracking systems, but there are also more, ahem, ‘restrictive’ upgrades, shall we say, that will allow for not only greater customization of the aircraft and its attributes, but also players will gain access to Black Market weaponry and hidden missions.
So, then. At last, you have your suit set up just the way you wanted it , so much so that you even have the colour scheme and goggle lenses matching your current objective surroundings. You have your primary weapon and back up all kitted out and ready for action, and you are carrying more kit than a Maplins travelling salesman. Now comes the ‘really’ tough choice facing all Splinter Cell Blacklist players, what mode to play first?
Do you kick everything off with a swift bout of the Solo campaign, and then wait until you know what Blacklist has in store for you before you return for a second walk through on ‘Realistic’ difficulty setting and then go for every side mission, mini-objective, bonus pick up, laptop and dead drop location?
Or perhaps you decide you want to forego the Solo section, ( a strange and somewhat baffling decision, but one that is on offer to you, nonetheless ), and opt instead to take on the entire challenge of all that the Solo story line has to offer, only with a friend or partner in either local, split screen or online Co-oP? Something that, we have to say, is an absolute ‘pearl’ of a mode with everything that you have in the Solo mission, but with the added incentive of Co-oP only missions, hidden area’s and objectives that are only ever accessible when two players are in the game zone.
Alternatively, you could decide to jump right in at the deep end and go for a round or four of the truly magnificent multiplayer with the marvellous Mercs -Vs- Spy’s. This online only action mode is where players from all across the globe will come together and display their silky stealth skills as either one of the heavily armed, and equally heavily armoured Mercenaries, or as the hack-tastic Spy’s, complete with some of the coolest looking tac suits and gadgetry in the entire game.
The choice may well be yours but no-one ever said it was going to be an easy one.
Take the Co-oP Mode as an example. This can be played on or offline, LAN or split screen connected. The sheer unbridled joy of the partnered part of Blacklist comes with the feeling of a ‘job well done’ that you get at the end of an objective as you watch your points tally rack up and your rating hit dizzying heights thanks to the perfect team work performed by you and your partner.
Don’t get us wrong, though, with greater rewards being available in the Co-oP Mode there is no doubt that there is also greater risk involved. Enemies are tough and ruthless in their pursuit of intruders, and make no mistake, if they even get a whiff of your aftershave then they will not give up the pursuit until one of you is being zipped into a body bag . The emphasis during all of the Co-oP missions is, undoubtedly, ‘teamwork’. Success without it is highly unlikely, particularly in the higher difficulty sessions.
In a nice touch Ubisoft have also made certain segments of the Co-oP Mode just that little unsettling, as just when you get used to having your team mate there at your side, and just as you get used to relying on them watching your back, just as you watch theirs, an objective may require that one or the other players may have to venture off into the uncertain night whilst the other guards, or clears a path, with one of the drones. This sudden sensation of loneliness and solitude can be disturbing, to say the least, in that the AI during the Co-oP story is by far and away superior and the enemies much tougher in Co-oP than in the entire Solo version.
Now we come to the multiplayer. That twisting, turning hot bed of bad tempers and frustration where gamers the world over throw tantrum after hissy fit as their long-suffering families have to listen to them howl obscenities at the screen in their teeth-gnashing ire.
We would begin this section of our review with a small warning to those players who read the above statement with a wry smile as they recognise traits from their own behaviour. That warning reads like this:
“Splinter Cell Blacklist is NOT a twitch shooter, and therefore those quickscoping, Halo-bouncing, corner hugging tactics that you use in every other shooter will not work here. So when you are screaming sentences such as ‘The system is too unbalanced! at the TV screen, what you should be doing is learning to play ‘this’ game better, instead of trying to force alien tactics on a format that bears no similarity to the title you are attempting to transport them across from. This is ‘Black LIST, not Black Ops!”
Leaping into the fight on Xbox Live we were greeted with a full lobby in literal milliseconds, and we have to say that it was a blessing that the game was not populated with a gaggle of foul-mouthed racists spitting venom at every player in the room. But then again, the same can be said, pretty much, for most of Ubisoft’s multiplayer titles, Rainbow Six always was a breeding ground for the more serious gamer who enjoyed the challenge, not the chat.
So, then, into the first online match we go, and we kick off the proceedings with a round of gameplay that left us all with smiles a mile wide, thanks in no small part to the updated version of the classic 2-on-2 mode of previous Splinter Cell titles, that now see’s four players on each team with Spies trying to hack terminals and the dreaded heavily suited Merc’s trying to prevent them at all costs.
The premise may, in fact, seem a little simplistic to some, but that is why it works so very well. You have two teams, you know what you must do, now just get out there and get on with it. But don’t forget to take your sack full of upgrades and goodies for good measure. Once again players will find that everything that was upgradable and that could be tinkered with in the Solo and Co-oP Modes, can once again can be played with in the Multiplayer Mode.
All of this amounts to a staggeringly good title that is full to the brim with top drawer quality. The first and second playthrough’s of your opening Solo campaigns alone should keep you going for a good 16+ and 18+ hours should you decide to up the difficulty in your second session and to attempt to locate every item and compete every mission. Add on top of all of the single player perfection the unadultered bliss that is the Co-oP Mode and what you have is more of the same top-notch action, only bigger, longer and most definitely uncut.
The replay factor was already reading off the chart by this time, and that is even before we add the massively popular multiplayer to the melting pot, just for good measure. So, you see, good GmP readers, Splinter Cell ‘is’ back, and as we said at the beginning of this lengthy tome, ‘the return to form was never really in any doubt’. Ubisoft have done a magnificent job in recapturing the Splinter Cell essence, that Je Ne Sais Qua that the original titles all had, and bringing it bang up to date with Blacklist. Everything about this game just screams out ‘quality’ at players from every direction, and you should show your support for this job well done in a retail purchase that is worth every penny of the asking price. This could well be the shooter Game of the Year for an audience tired of twitch type titles and are looking for something just that much more thought-provoking and in-depth. Splinter Cell blacklist scores a perfect 10 out of 10.
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Version Tested: Xbox360
Rating: 10 out of 10