The stealth/action genre has a new champion.
Splinter Cell Blacklist is a game determined to do it all. It wants to give the diehard fans the return to classic stealth gameplay they’ve been screaming for, while also giving newcomers a high-energy campaign that will satisfy their cravings for action. It wants to allow players to make their way through the game using whatever playstyle they prefer. It wants to deliver a robust co-op experience that can be enjoyed by stealth and action fans alike. And it also wants to bring Spies vs Mercs back in classic form while expanding in new directions.
Splinter Cell Blacklist wants to do many things, and it succeeds the vast majority of the time.
Ubisoft Toronto may be a new development studio, but it is clearly made up of industry veterans. Blacklist looks and sounds fantastic. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game go toe-to-toe with the best looking games on their respective platforms. I found the PS3 version seemed to have a slightly richer color pallet and cleaner textures than the 360 version, but the differences are marginal.
“Ubisoft Toronto has clearly made the lighting design in Blacklist a priority”
Technical performance on both consoles is solid. The frame rate runs at a consistent 30fps with almost no signs of slow-down. The environments are nicely varied and detailed, and dynamically brought to life by Blacklist’s excellent lighting effects. With light and shadow playing such an important role in a stealth game, Ubisoft Toronto has clearly made the lighting design in Blacklist a priority. The results speak for themselves. Character animations also play a huge roll in any 3rd-person game, and the animations here look great.
On the audio side, Blacklist again delivers a true AAA experience. Weapons fire and explosives pack serious punch, while the many gadgets all produce their own distinct audio footprints (a very important point when it comes to multiplayer). The music is well done throughout, building tension and bursting with energy at all the right moments. I can’t honestly say that I’ve caught myself humming any of the melodies to myself, but the music plays its role well. One small gripe: the surround sound calibration is a bit off at times. You’ll hear footsteps in front of you, only to discover that the guards making all the noise are actually off to your left. These directional oddities are fairly consistent, which is a bit disappointing considering how important audio cues are in a game like Splinter Cell.
The voice acting and performance capture in Blacklist is very well done, and marks one of the game’s greatest improvements over previous entries in the series. I expected to miss Michael Ironside as Sam Fisher, but after the initial shock of a different voice wore off I found myself really liking newcomer Eric Johnson in the lead role. The characters are all brought to life better than ever before, while the interactions and dynamics between them are enjoyable to watch. I’ve never been a huge fan of the plot-lines in Tom Clancy games, but the story in Blacklist is engaging and fun, thanks mostly to the improved character development.
One negative point worth mentioning: Splinter Cell Blacklist does suffer from a few bugs. Most are fairly harmless (I’ve seen character models disappear and reappear during cutscenes), but there are a couple that have direct impact on the experience. I’ve encountered a few scripting bugs during some of the co-op missions that required reverting checkpoints to fix, and even 1 mission-breaking bug that prevents players from progressing if they don’t make it through a specific encounter on their first try. There are occasional spawning glitches in Spies vs Mercs that prevent the player from being able to fire their weapon until they’ve respawned. These problems are not at all common, but can be very frustrating the few times they do appear.
When the first Splinter Cell was released in 2002, it was a stealth game. Players needed to move through missions silently and unseen. Sure, you had guns. But they didn’t work particularly well, nor were they fun to use. This cultivated a hardcore fanbase, while also alienating gamers who found the rigid fail-states too punishing or difficult. In an effort to bring more players to the franchise, recent Splinter Cell games have moved into a more action-oriented design; much to the displeasure of long time fans.
With Blacklist, Ubisoft Toronto has managed to create a near-perfect blend. The hardcore stealth fans have a game they can sneak their way through, while action fans have a great 3rd person shooter to enjoy if they want to. Blacklist is a very complex game, jammed full of subtle and intricate mechanics. This is crucial: everything you can do feels good. Climbing, running, shooting, it all performs tightly and smoothly. To have such a high level of polish on every area of gameplay is a big achievement.
The brilliance of Blacklist’s campaign design lies in the way it presents options to the player. The level design encourages creativity. Players who prefer a stealth approach are given the time and space they need to survey each area, watch enemy movements, and find routes around them. Action fans can be equally thorough in their planning; looking for cover, finding ideal places to make a stand against enemy forces. This is extremely rewarding in itself, but the real magic happens when things go wrong. In previous Splinter Cell games, a wrong move almost always meant failure and a return to the previous checkpoint. In Blacklist, the player is able to improvise and change tactics on the fly. You might not make it through each area the way you intended to, but you will feel successful none the less.
“Everything you can do feels good”
Reinforcing the player’s ability to vary their playstyle is an excellent economy system. Players earn points for their various actions in 3 categories: Ghost (undetected, non-lethal), Panther (silent but deadly… sorry, I had to say it), or Assault (Yippee Kay yay mother f$%#@*!). At the end of each mission, your score across each category is broken down for you so you can see how you performed. Your total score is then added up into a cash reward which can be spent on unlocking new equipment, upgrading your weapons, or improving your mobile base to give you extra support while on the field. This means that perfectionists and achievement hunters can easily compete for leaderboard placement or chase personal best scores, while everyone else can mix playstyles and feel rewarded.
While most of the campaign succeeds in providing the player with options, there are a few moments where the open-ended designed is eschewed in favor of a more focused, guided experience. While I understand the intentions behind these segments, they ultimately come across as the weakest points of the game. Being forced into a shootout through a subway train feels horribly generic after the many hours of exploratory and strategic gameplay that precede it. These segments are few and far between, but they do stand out sharply in contrast with the rest of campaign. Still, the majority of Blacklist’s campaign is very strong. All in all it stands as my personal favorite in the franchise.
Splinter Cell Blacklist features a robust set of cooperative missions. These missions are presented to the player as side missions from the members of your crew. While the single-player campaign encourages the player to experiment with different playstyles, the co-op missions are each designed around a particular playstyle. Charlie’s missions are all wave-based survival missions, which lend themselves to a more aggressive Assault/Panther approach. Grim’s missions are classic hardcore Ghost challenges; any detections and the mission is scrapped. Kobin’s missions encourage a blend of Ghost/Panther play, as any detection leads to reinforcements and a more challenging battle.
“Co-op missions add a substantial dose of quality content”
Missions from Charlie, Grim, and Kobin can all be played solo or 2-player co-op. Briggs’ missions, on the other hand, are crafted from the ground up as a dedicated co-op experience. These missions feel more like a true co-op campaign, in the vein of the Archor/Kestrel missions in Splinter Cell Conviction (considered by many to be the highlight of that game). They are larger and more varied, with a wide range of mission objectives along the way. While the single-player campaign takes the approach of “play this mission however you want to”, Briggs’ co-op missions will more often force you in to one particular playstyle or another. One section will require you to move through non-lethally and undetected, while the next area will be a direct shootout. I found the mix to be enjoyable, although I could see some fans being a bit disappointed that they cannot complete these missions using only their preferred tactics.
Aside from a few technical issues (such as the scripting bug I mentioned earlier in this review), the co-op and side-missions are a strong addition to Blacklist. They add a substantial dose of quality content, and give the player lots of opportunity to enjoy the game’s mechanics in a more distilled environment.
Spies vs Mercs (Online Multiplayer)
It’s difficult to describe exactly why Spies vs Mercs is such an incredible multiplayer experience. It’s a very tactical game. It requires teamwork and communication. It is the ultimate game of ‘cat and mouse’ except you are both the cat and the mouse at the same time. It is the Aliens vs Predator game we’ve always wanted but never quite had. It’s a game that makes standing perfectly still insanely exciting. Simply put: there isn’t anything else like it.
“It’s a game that makes standing perfectly still exciting”
Spies vs Mercs is simple at its core. 3 computer terminals are scattered around a map. Players are divided in to 2 teams; the Spies who are charged with finding and hacking these terminals, and the Mercs who must defend those same terminals. Each side has their own unique set of skills, gadgets, and weapons. The Mercs are heavy hitters. Players control them from a 1st person perspective. They wear body armor and carry a range of powerful offensive weaponry. The Spies play very much the way Sam Fisher plays in the campaign. Spies are controlled from a 3rd person perspective, and can climb pipes, scale walls, or crawl through air vents. They are lightly armored, and carry less weaponry than the Mercs. But they are faster, and can get places the Mercs can’t. And they are almost invisible in the dark.
A simple setup, but one that leads to incredibly tense situations. Just walking through the environment in a Spies vs Mercs match can be down right scary. As a Merc, you are constantly shifting your gaze from side to side, looking up in to every corner of the room, checking every pipe or duct, dreading the moment when a Spy comes leaping out of the shadows to take you down. Playing as the Spies can be equally frightening. You skulk along in the shadows, slowly making your way to your objective, praying that the Merc patrolling below you fails to look up in your direction until he’s within your reach. Never before have I played a multiplayer game that can make walking across a room this exciting. But then, someone hacks a terminal, and things get really interesting.
In what I consider to be a stroke of genius, hacking a terminal in Spies vs Mercs leads to a compelling combination of events. Once a terminal is hacked, all players in the game receive a notification on their HUD that informs them of the location being attacked. All other terminals lock down. The Hacker Spy must stay alive while the hack completes, without traveling out of hacking range. This means that every single player in the game will be rushing to a single location on the map. Everyone involved knows exactly where their enemy is going to be. From there, it becomes a game of chess. Will the Spies try to ambush the Mercs at the various entrances to the terminal room? Or will they allow the Mercs to rush in, then follow and attack from behind? Will the Mercs march in as a group, or spread out and enter the area from all sides? Will they anticipate the Spies’ tactics?
These encounters are some of the finest moments of multiplayer gaming I’ve ever experienced. No exaggeration, no hyperbole. It’s that good.
“some of the finest moments of multiplayer gaming I’ve ever experienced”
Building on the strong Spies vs Mercs foundation, Ubisoft as created a list of different modes and variations. Some of these modes offer default loadouts for both teams, while other modes allow custom loadouts. This adds another layer of strategy to the game, in the form of a rock/paper/scissors meta-challenge. Players must co-ordinate with their teammates to deploy complimentary combinations of gadgets and abilities, while also countering the tools being used by their enemies. Both sides will tweak and adjust loadouts as the match progresses, in response to the other team’s tactics. It’s a great dynamic that enhances the experience nicely.
While Spies vs Mercs is a fantastic game mode at its core, there are some hiccups with its implementation. As it currently stands, there is virtually nothing in place to prevent players from quitting mid-match. It is quite common to see players leave a match within the first couple of minutes if their team is off to a rocky start. A connected problem is the fact that online host-migration rarely works properly. So if one of the players who quits happens to be the host of the match, everyone in the game is booted back to the lobby. In effect, this can lead to situations where players feel punished for playing too well. If a match isn’t really close, you can almost guarantee that it won’t get played all the way through.
Unfortunately, blow-out matches are also fairly common. Spies vs Mercs is a very challenging game mode, with a steep learning curve. It requires detailed knowledge of the maps, your gadgets, as well as teamwork and coordination to be successful. Something as simple as a team with headsets playing against a team without headsets can lead to a virtual bloodbath, which can compound the other issues.
That being said, Spies vs Mercs is an incredible experience. The problems with matchmaking are a nuisance, but the good moments are strong and frequent enough to keep me coming back for more, and more, and more…
If you’ll indulge me for a moment: there is a strong movement in modern videogames towards creating “interactive narratives”; games that explore storytelling and world building in amazing ways. And that’s great. However, this focus usually comes at the cost of mechanical finesse, depth, and polish. So to have a game like Splinter Cell Blacklist arrive at a time like this is a real joy. A game that is mechanically rich and refined, deeply technical, and challenging. There is nothing in this game that feels half-backed or unfinished, which is saying a lot considering how much content it has to offer. There are a few small bumps in the road, but Blacklist manages to please the stealth purist in me, while removing the hurdles and brick walls that have prevented some gamers from enjoying previous entries in the series.
– Nevin Douglas / CruelLEGACEY