Sam Fisher is back. After sticking it to Third Echelon in 2010’s Splinter Cell : Conviction, gaming’s most recognisable super spy has reunited with his old unit – And he is a company man to the bone once again. Sam, alongside the newly rebranded Fourth Echelon, must race against time to prevent a series of Terrorist attacks across major American cities, a plot referred to only as the Blacklist. A shadowy organisation calling themselves The Engineers are claiming responsibility, and Fourth Echelon are both the first and last line of defence as the deadline for each new attack on the Blacklist draws closer.
Let’s get this out of the way first – I loved Conviction. It may have received a rather chilly reception from Splinter Cell fans, but for all of the wrong reasons. It was fantastic balls to the wall action game that stripped the series’ formula down to its very core, rebuilding it from a skeleton with a new set of rules. No longer was the player restrained by tank like controls or cumbersome gadgets, and Sam was unchained… and angry. Freed from the leash of his CIA masters, the player was finally able to utilise his abilities in the most brutally efficient way imaginable as he sought revenge for the death of his daughter. Although it left purists crying foul due to the lack of emphasis on stealth and a new-found focus on predatory action, it breathed new life into a franchise that was starting to stagnate. It was an action game that dared to think outside of the box, and rewarded those who were willing to give it a chance. Blacklist is much the same, refusing to apologise for the numerous changes that Conviction brought to the table, and only making their inclusion even more important. It takes these changes – the pacing, the fluid controls and the furious action – and runs wild with them. The best things about Conviction are combined with the stealth and gadgetry from the earlier games, creating one of the most compelling stealth/action hybrids in recent years.
One of the most striking things about Blacklist is the sheer amount of content on offer. After a fairly plodding introduction detailing the first attack on the US by the Engineers, the game finally starts to pick up when Sam and crew meet on board The Paladin – Fourth Echelon’s airborne HQ. From here, you are free to pursue new leads on Engineer activity across the globe with the aid of some very Tom Clancy-esque technology. Whether you want to tackle the main story missions, or just participate in one of many covert ops that emerge as side missions, it is entirely up to you. This kind of freeform approach to a campaign is similar in some ways to what we saw in strategy masterpiece X-COM last year, and makes the campaign feel very dynamic and alive, as the side missions are always relevant to what is currently going on in the story. They can also be played cooperatively with a friend, meaning there will always be a reason to revisit them. In addition to these story centered side missions there are several co-op and head to head multiplayer modes, including the outstanding Spies Vs Mercs mode from Chaos Theory making a triumphant re-emergence. The game is also rife with collectables, though they are addictive to obtain rather than a chore, and various upgrades and equipment to buy for both Paladin and Sam.
The levels themselves are classic slabs of Splinter Cell, with the occasional set-piece mission to push the story (and a completely random first person shooter segment for no discernible reason). We trot across the globe from Iran and Estonia to England and the USA, sneaking through small playgrounds filled with patrolling guards, multiple routes and pathways, and lots of ways to go about completing your objectives. Sam is able to incapacitate enemies once again, and also has the ability to move and hide bodies and use shadow and light to his advantage, making this feel like a real stealth game rather than just a fragment of one. That said, the game rarely forces stealth upon the player – it just wants you to try it. Are you bad at stealth? Load out with grenades and an assault rifle, and blast your way through the resistance. Are you lacking the patience to sulk through the shadows? Equip a silenced rifle to take down enemies quietly and pounce at them from the shadows, whittling down the enemy patrols just enough so that you can get through more efficiently and still retain the fantasy of being an elite Special Forces Agent. These styles of playing (Known as Ghost, Panther and Assault accordingly) reward doing what is organic for the situation you find yourself in rather than what the game dictates is necessary. The freedom to do things your own way is liberating, especially after the one note brutality of Conviction and the laborious skulking of Double Agent. These approaches, however, can sometimes be hindered by the controls. You are very likely to get into a sticky situation from time to time due to the context sensitive requirements for certain actions being very twitchy at the best of times. I frequently found myself vaulting out of my cover and into the line of sight of my pursuers when I had intended to slip by to the next piece of cover unnoticed.
The diversity of the missions is only held back by the convoluted story, which directs the course taken in the levels far more than is necessary. The characters and their relationships have an air of authenticity, but the story itself feels more like an entire season of 24 condensed into a video game. Main villain Majid Sadiq (coincidentally played by Carlo Rota, a former cast member of 24) is sometimes a threatening presence, but his overall depth as an antagonist is far too shallow for him to be anything other than a one-dimensional caricature of an Arab terrorist. In fact, the whole story has a one-dimensional black and white approach to telling tales of Governmental good versus rebelling evil. One mission was even set in Guantanamo Bay – a sickening endorsement of CIA sanctioned violence in which you are forced to break in to the infamous detention centre purely so you can torture and gain intelligence from a prisoner. It was uncomfortable to play, and toes a very fine line between video game logic and plain old bad taste. The fact that Fisher has the right to exercise the “fifth freedom” – AKA the ability to break the law at the highest levels in order to preserve it – seemingly endorses the current behaviour we are seeing from the actual NSA in terms of suspicion-less mass surveillance for the sake of what they believe is the “greater good”. After something like that, and given that Sam Fisher is, for all intents and purposes, an NSA Agent, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Edward Snowden was the final boss.
Supporting characters from the franchise make a welcome return, including Analyst and sometimes Field Agent Anna Grimsdottir, and all round asshole Andriy Kobin – the latter of whom seems to have switched from a slimy arms dealer to a bumbling provider of comic relief. However, as many hardened SC fans will be aware, the biggest shake up in the character department comes with the introduction of a new Sam Fisher. Canadian actor Eric Johnson lends his voice and motion capture to the role, replacing Michael Ironside, the only actor ever to have portrayed Fisher. Johnson is obviously trying his best to fill some pretty big shoes, but it’s just not enough to carry the weight of such a foreboding character. With the change of voice also comes a change of personality, and one so large and abrupt that it feels as though you are playing an entirely different person altogether. Ironside’s controlled rage and grim tones were always a hallmark of what Fisher was about, and with those traits gone, Sam is reduced to another GI Joe.
Ultimately though, gameplay will always take precedence over such things – and I daresay that Blacklist has nearly perfected the Splinter Cell formula. Marred slightly by a troubling political stance, an awful quick time event ridden final boss battle and some clunky controls, Blacklist is otherwise a true heavy hitter of its genre.
– Sam Drower. He’s on Twitter @samdrower