Also On: Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist, marks the 6th installment in the stealth/spy franchise. This entry once again features Sam Fisher as the protagonist, now heading up Fourth Echelon, and follows up from the events found in the last entry, Conviction. While the earlier reveals of Blacklist seemed to give some indication that this would be a more action focused title like its predecessor, I was happily surprised to find that stealth and covert action was alive and well here.
Certain mechanics from Conviction do make the cut here, like the improved cover system that allows Sam to easily stick to cover and move between nearby objects in the environment without being spotted. Enemy detection is also very similar, with a lot of focus given to staying within the shadows while sneaking about, something the series is certainly well known for. There’s some visual aid given to the player to help determine how well hidden you are, by highlighting the small lights on Sam’s outfit, which shine brightly when covered in shadow. Overall, environment traversal feels great here, with Sam given a wide range of mobility options to cover a lot of ground without being detected.
Enemy A.I. also seems a little improved, if not a tad bit unpredictable. You can be spotted from a distance, but are generally given enough time to dash behind cover. There’s an on-screen detection meter that pops up when an enemy begins to notice you, again something that’s not unlike what we saw in Conviction. If you stay in sight too long, you’ll officially be spotted, forcing you to hide and avoid enemies on alert. But where Conviction gave Sam the option of winning most encounters by firefight, you’ll find that Sam feels a bit more fragile here. There’s still opportunity to engage in full on assaults, but it’s honestly the toughest way to get through the game.
The campaign portion of Blacklist has Sam and his team traversing the world attempting to thwart a terrorist group called the Engineers. The Engineers up front goal is to see the United States remove all soldiers from foreign lands, and in order to make that happen, have implemented The Blacklist. This is a series of scheduled events that involve high value targets meant to cripple the infrastructure of America, and it’s up to the newly formed Fourth Echelon to stop them. You’ll travel across a variety of locales throughout the campaign, and while the visuals aren't necessarily breathtaking, at least there's more attention to the color palette than Conviction featured.
I’d really like to praise the overall design for the majority of the campaign missions. There’s a scoring system in place that tracks points for different activities, like evading or taking down enemies. These points are divided into three categories, Ghost, Panther and Assault. Essentially these are different play styles, awarding you points depending on how you opt to tackle any given mission. And all three are completely viable for every stage, with a lot of optional routes, a fair number of secret paths, and a lot of gadgets/weapons at your disposal to aid you along the way. There’s some added replay value given too, since getting the maximum points in any given style will take a lot of effort. And then there are the optional goals, which include bagging high value targets for extraction, securing data from laptops, and picking up well hidden dead drops.
Completing missions will earn Sam and his team cash, which in turn is used to better outfit Sam in new gear. There’s a variety of suit options, broken down into sub-categories like boots, gloves and so on. There’s different gear for different styles of play, with stats boosted in categories like gun handling and stealth. You’ll also eventually gain access to additional slots for loadouts, so you can diversify Sam’s abilities, weapons, and gadgets even further. Along with personal upgrades and gear for Sam, you can opt to spend money on your mobile base, a modified cargo plane dubbed Paladin. Upgrades found here can improve your ability to see optional items via radar on missions, or give you access to black market weaponry. Cash is given out at a moderate pace, with better scores on missions netting more money, but unless you’re grinding out missions for money you’ll never feel like you’ve got more cash than items to spend it on.
Outside of the fun and engaging campaign, Blacklist offers up a series of co-op missions and the return of Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer. The co-op missions are lightly tied into campaign, and can be tackled in between story missions if you choose. Co-op missions are completely optional though, and can even be completed solo. However, with a partner in tow, you’ll certainly be more successful. You can also unlock optional routes when partnered up with someone that are otherwise inaccessible when playing alone. Matchmaking is pretty straightforward, and I had little trouble finding random folks to play with on PSN with our PS3 review copy.
Spies vs. Mercs is also pretty well implemented here. My only real complaint with multiplayer is that you need to load into the campaign hub on Paladin to access it, instead of being able to choose it from the start screen like most titles. Spies vs. Mercs employs a lot of modern day multiplayer mechanics, like gained experience for completing matches and a leveling up system tied into that. You’ll also be able to modify loadouts for both classes, using cash earned in both multiplayer and single player modes.
You’re limited to two initial playlists, a beginner list that pairs you up with other low level players in 4 vs. 4 maps. There’s also an option for classic Spies vs. Mercs, which are 2 on 2 affairs with classic shadow mechanics from earlier Splinter Cell entries like Chaos Theory. Eventually you’ll gain access to standard 4 vs. 4 maps regardless of player level, along with mixed team matches and standard team deathmatch as well.
If you’ve never played Spies vs. Mercs in previous Splinter Cell titles, you’ll certainly enjoy this mode. And if you already know what you’re getting into here, you’ll find that what you’ve loved about Splinter Cell’s unique multiplayer fun is largely unchanged. The additional modes are fun to check out, but the real charm is in the classic 2 vs. 2 maps. With a communicative partner tagging along, you can really wreak havoc on the sanity of an opposing team, which can be a whole lot of fun.
All in all, this is a pretty great entry in the series for Splinter Cell. Blacklist dials down some of the dumb action and forced firefights found in Conviction, in favor of the more classic stealth mechanics that have made the series famous. The larger, open maps offer up a lot of variety for players when it comes to tackling mission objectives and customizable loadouts for both online and offline play give you more reasons to improve your previous mission attempts. Top that off with a largely satisfying online mode with both versus and co-op action and you’ve got a stealth action title that’s hard to beat this year.