Splinter Cell: Blacklist reboots the series in more ways than one. Sam Fisher looks younger and more spry, and gone are gravelly tones of Michael Ironside complaining about how he’s too old for this shit. The rest of the game follows close behind, with a steady shift towards action kicked off by the divisive release of Conviction. Purists may have forsaken the fast pace of Blacklist, but the increased offensive options and gadgets help to keep the action going, if nothing else. Blacklist is a reflection of the times, for better or worse.
Anyone expecting Tom Clancy’s touch in Blacklist will be disappointed to know that the author’s name is only present in spirit. Third Echelon, now bogged down in corruption, has been replaced with the newer, sexier covert operations unit Fourth Echelon, headed by none other than Sam Fisher himself. The three-man-one-woman team has been tasked with investigating a series of escalating terrorist threats called the “Blacklist” carried out by the Engineers, an awkwardly-named terrorist organisation. Uniformed henchmen, disjointed “morality” choices, and a villain with a foreign accent round off an otherwise forgettable campaign. The story is merely tedious at first and escalates to ridiculous levels by the end. (Let’s just say that Sam applies his “Fifth Freedom” rights none too judiciously.) Unrelated side missions branch off the main story trunk, and serve primarily as a means of earning cash to upgrade skills, abilities and gear, rather than helping to add any context to the unfolding events.
Gameplay is reminiscent of Conviction, although the experience is not quite as seamless and the control scheme has changed yet again, which makes for a slightly odd learning curve. The main change is the introduction of “Active Sprint”, allowing Sam to kill enemies and clear obstacles on the move, like an awkward form of parkour mixed with murder. I’m used to a slower approach when it comes to Splinter Cell, but players who like a run-and-gun approach will certainly appreciate it. Mark & Execute also makes a pleasing comeback, and it works in much the same way – kill enough enemies hand to hand, and you’ll earn markers that can be used to automatically kill a number of enemies at once.
Blacklist also features a new method of evaluating player performance using three categories: Ghost, Panther, and Assault. As implied, Ghost stresses evasion and non-lethal techniques and Assault is loud, lethal force. Panther is a mix of the two, focusing on using offensive tactics while guards are alerted, and taking advantage of elements such as Last Known Position to lure soldiers into the end of your knife. To reflect these different play styles, Sam can opt to use a lethal or non-lethal approach; using lethal attacks and weapons ensures that enemies can’t be revived, but using more passive techniques (such as sleeping gas and sticky shockers) are just as effective.
The different gameplay styles call for a more diverse selection of gear, and Blacklist has the widest variety of gear so far compared to other Splinter Cell titles. Sam can modify his gear to increase his sneak or armour rating, and weapons range from silent crossbows to assault rifles. You can grind through side missions and earn cash to unlock more gear for multiplayer (although it appears the scene isn’t quite so active). The degree of customisation is fairly impressive, and it stresses that Splinter Cell is no longer simply about sneaking and avoiding conflict: it addresses both camps and provides all the necessary tools, so if you want to blaze through a level with an auto-shotgun and tear gas, you’re more than welcome to do so.
But is the focus on action a good thing? To be honest, it was nice to have the option to go loud, but in the end it just didn’t feel like a Splinter Cell game. Yes, there was the option of making my way through a camp undetected, but once alarms were going off, it was an odd feeling that I could just shoot my way out of a bad situation, or use one of my many gadgets to throw my pursuers off and kill them systematically afterwards. It’s a strange turn of pace for the franchise, and I really needed to shift my mindset during the first several missions. Maybe I’m just getting old…
It’s easy to see that Blacklist is trying to cast a wider net beyond stealth gamers: the faster pace, those side missions where you face off waves of enemies, and the diversity of gear have clearly all been designed with action in mind. Even subtle things such as changing left trigger from “take cover” to “aim” support this shift in focus. If you weren’t interested in Splinter Cell games before, you might appreciate the flashier Sam Fisher experience. Veterans of the series, on the other hand, may not be so taken in.
Reviewed for Xbox 360