You can’t please all the people all the time, but if you’re Splinter Cell: Blacklist, you’re going to take a damn good swing at it. Those unimpressed with Conviction’s neutering of the franchise’s stealth mechanics – and who wasn’t? – will be happy to hear that most are reinstated here, and for the trigger happy, that game’s improved shooting and cover systems are also present. Such a foundation should make for the best Splinter Cell yet, but a poorly-told story and some gameplay niggles leave that crown on the head of Chaos Theory for now.
Despite some missions forcing the player to pull the trigger – including the odd FPS and on-rails jaunt – it’s clear that Blacklist is primarily a stealth game. It only takes a couple of bullets to put Sam down, he’s has regained the ability to hide bodies and whistle to distract guards, and stealth actions give higher amounts of experience than shooting options.
That’s not to say that action is out-and-out discouraged though. The way hostiles are dealt with – if at all – feeds experience points into three skill trees, one of which allows for heavy armour, grenades, and assault weaponry. The game’s shooting feels good, even if being able to line up headshots from behind cover then quickly pop out to pull them off feels like cheating.
Conviction’s Mark and Execute returns, which allows automatic headshots on pre-selected targets after just one stealth takedown on the game’s normal difficulty. This ability is somewhat stifled by henchmen in helmets later on, but it’s best to ignore it altogether.
In fact, anything below Blacklist’s perfectionist difficulty should be cast aside by those familiar with the series, as the large vision advantages conferred by its third-person view coupled with those afforded by Fisher's future tech combine to make things much less compelling. Sure, gadgets such as the x-ray sonar or skills like Mark and Execute can be ignored, but that’s easier to do when they’re not available at all.
Sadly, on harder difficulty settings the AI – the lynchpin of any stealth title worth its salt – doesn’t appear to get any smarter or faster than its default awareness state of “somewhat oblivious”. Things that should put enemies on high alert such as bodies, torches, and guns falling to the floor mere meters to one side of them don’t even merit the turn of a head. Indeed, the enemy vision cones seem particularly narrow, as if someone replaced their eyeglasses with blinkers as a gag.
On top of that, should the player attract a guard’s attention, the latter will simply spray the player's last known location with lead, conduct a brief search, then shrug and give up even as he steps over the bodies of his comrades. There are obvious gameplay reasons why this needs to be the case on normal difficulty, but more cognisant, persistent AI for those after a steeper challenge would have been welcome.
Fortunately, Blacklist’s excellent level design partly compensates for the dumb enemies, but it cannot hope to solve some other AI hiccups. One particularly galling example: enemies are almost incapable of shooting Sam if he’s hanging from a balcony and they are standing above him. They know he’s there, but can only watch helplessly as he yanks them one by one skull-first into its metal railing.
Hilariously, if Sam hasn’t been spotted prior, nearby guards won’t even be suspicious when this happens, and perhaps even more ridiculously, an unconscious body can be “hidden” at the bottom of the ocean or tossed off a cliff and no kill penalty will be applied.
Unfortunately, Blacklist is also slightly let down by Fisher’s occasionally imprecise controls. He struggles to turn on the spot, moving about in cover without exposing a leg is fiddly, and the content-sensitive action detection is very imprecise and will see players attempting to close a door end up flicking the light switch instead.
Fisher also has some curious habits: he stands tall after a successful takedown from a crouch position, prefers to open doors and expose himself to the next room immediately rather than do so from one side, and he can shoot over his left shoulder when crouched in cover but not if standing in the same spot. The end of cutscenes also tend to leave him out in the open and thus detected unless the movement stick is immediately – and I do mean immediately – jammed in the direction of some cover.
Yet somehow, despite the above and a veritable laundry list of smaller, more finicky complaints there isn’t space to detail here, Blacklist remains eminently fun – great, even. Running between pieces of cover on the rooftops of an abandoned mill at night while lightning periodically arcs overhead is a rush, and a mid-game escape from a military building in Iran and the subsequent train yard level are also highlights.
It’s also still delightfully tense sneaking slowly up behind a guard while praying he doesn’t turn around to resume his patrol in the next five seconds, and in circumstances like this, many will find themselves holding their breath without realising it. Many will also be able to forgive the simple AI and the cover system quirks, and just luxuriate in some top-notch sneaking.
The thrill you get from shooting out lights and clambering up pipes, then avoiding mines, cameras, and alarms before patiently hunting and incapacitating, foes is powerful. Similarly, the glee when an incredibly brazen, timed-to-the-millisecond move between masses of patrolling guards succeeds is hard to match.
Blacklist’s extensive armour, weapon and gadget customisation, and skill upgrades are also to be applauded, as are its large selection of co-op missions and Mass Effect-style ship layout. That series’ character development and in-depth interaction is completely absent though, with petty and frankly ridiculous in-team scraps trying to bring extra drama to a story that simply needed a more bait-laden hook.
Things are rosy on the multiplayer side. Spies vs Mercs has returned, and its asymmetric gameplay – tough mercs controlled from a first-person view face off against agile gadget-laden spies playing as normal, then the teams switch – is incredible tense and extraordinarily entertaining. There are set classes within each faction, or players can unlock a custom class and make a hybrid of their own. The campaign is nicely replayable if just to try and ghost through levels without firing a shot, but the unique multiplayer should house a good community for a good long while.
Somewhat paradoxically, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a very good game despite its numerous flaws. That’s perhaps because things like its awful escort missions are very few and far between, but also because a few wonky bits aside, the gameplay is so very compelling. Few franchises have managed to stay as consistently great as Splinter Cell, and six games in (seven if you include the atrocious PSP title, and you shouldn't), it’s still offering lively gameplay – this time for fans and newcomers alike.