Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review

By Blair Nokes on September 1, 2013

Splinter Cell: Conviction had fans of the series in a bit of divide. On the one hand the game, as a game, was rather well done. The cover system still stands as one of the best cover systems to date in the franchise, the action was well done, and while the story on the weaker side, it took a back seat for what you participated in. It's been likened to playing through an episode of 24 due to the high octane action and that was what Ubisoft wanted at the time. On the flip side, many veterans were disappointed by the peculiar departure from the tactical espionage and stealth action that they've supported up until this. Sam Fisher's own voice actor, Michael Ironside, had even commented on Sam's character going in a different route than he had envisioned when commenting on Double Agent and Conviction. Because of this, he declined the role of Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell: Blacklist. He probably should have waited because while Blacklist doesn't replace Chaos Theory as the series' poster child, it certainly makes up for the more recent instalments.

The story follows the events after Conviction, with Third Echelon being shut down. Fourth Echelon has since taken its place for counter-terrorism and special operations. Sam Fisher, our protagonist, is the Commander in Chief. Also returning to the scene are Anna Grimsdottir, Victor Coste and Andriy Kobin, all of whom fans will recognize from previous entries. There are also two new introductions, Isaac Briggs who will be your cooperative character, and Charlie Cole "“ the witty tech specialist and computer hacker. The main enemies are known as The Engineers "“ a group of 12 terrorists who have had enough of the United States' global military presence in what they say is two thirds of the countries around the world. And so they offer a terror ultimatum; withdraw their presence or suffer one escalating terrorist attack after another.

Some may see some predictable turns in the story, but as a whole, it was thoroughly engaging, and well done for a series not wholly known for its narrative. The elephant in the room is the sad departure of Michael Ironside, but to be perfectly honest, Eric Johnson does a very good job.

There was a lot of caution on the build-up to Blacklist's release, mainly because there were some doubts about the gameplay. And it's safe to say that the gameplay hits a nice sweet spot that caters to both demographics. Blacklist has enough stealth in the game to warrant the action breaks in between. In fact, both definitely complement one another in terms of pacing and progression.

With the exception of scenes that force an action route, you are primarily sneaking your way through the majority of the game. Of course, the enemies have scripted paths, but they will look high and low for you if they suspect something's wrong. It's impressive to see them peek over balconies in the off chance that you might be shimmying across. Another great nod to the AI is the way they communicate. There will be times where they ask for a buddy to search together, limiting your points of attack.

Fortunately, Ubisoft Toronto has given a slew of weapons and gadgets both lethal and nonlethal play styles to ensure that players can find their comfort zone. If you want to play as a Ghost you will be penalized every time you're spotted by an enemy. But to match this play style you are offered gadgets ranging from EMP grenades, sticky cameras, and even a tri-copter that you can manoeuvre for surveillance. On top of this you are given flashy takedown attacks that look absolutely gorgeous in motion and make you feel like a total badass. Successful takedowns will replenish a meter for Ubisoft's newest mechanic the mark and execute. You can tag up to 3 enemies so you can monitor their whereabouts, and if they are in a highlighted range (when the marker turns red) you can press the execute button which is very similar to Red Dead Redemption's tagged kills in slow motion. Some may see this as an auto kill which makes the game easy, but really it's just one option for people to use and obviously isn't encouraged for those wanting to truly play the game like a stealth game.Unique to the Wii U version are gamepad integrations. And they truly are some brilliant uses. For starters, the snake cam, which is famous in the series, is controlled entirely through the game pad. As you peek under a door your touch screen will become that snake cam and you can move the controller and have it move the camera in the game's world. It all helps to add an extra level of immersion. The sticky camera's vantage point can be accessed through the touch screen as well. On top of that, your entire inventory is accessible through the screen making switching weapons and gadgets far more convenient. Ubisoft has also integrated their Uplay service through the pad that you can access on the fly. There you'll see weekly challenges among a slew of other interesting things. And finally, you can play the full game off screen with the Wii U's second screen. Ubisoft Toronto put a lot of thought and care into how the gamepad could work without feeling forced or too gimmicky. What's here is practical and makes sense.

After completing each mission you are awarded with experience that is attributed to your play style. There are three to choose from: Ghost, Assault, and Panther. Ghosts work undetected, they monitor and lead enemies away from your objective marker so you can enter and leave without a trace. Panthers focus on their predatory skills, which covers your lethal stealth takedowns, and silent marked executions. Assault class completely ditches stealth and favours action more akin to Rambo. After each mission, you gain experience depending on what you have down. If you've taken a life in a loud or alerted fashion you're getting points for Assault, if you kill but remain unseen you will receive experience for Panther, and if you neutralize an enemy non-lethally, and silently you will be getting points for Ghost. This offers a great range of customization, as it tailors to each individual player and how they want to play. Money is also earned for nearly anything you do, and there are in-game achievements that give you larger sums of money. Your currency is spent on upgrading your armour, goggles, weapons, gadgets, or even your headquarters to offer you special prototype weapons, and the like.

The game's main menu is fully interactive, with Sam walking around their base of operations. Here, Sam can talk to Briggs, initiating cooperative missions; speak with his daughter on the phone to add personality to the character, or access the SMI - Strategic Mission Interface. This is a map of the world where story missions, coop missions, and side missions pop up. It also serves as the way to hop on to Blacklist's online mode, Spies vs Mercs. SvM is an incredibly unique 4 on 4 multiplayer take on the classic attack and defend. It was a mode highly praised from Chaos Theory and its return is definitely a good thing.

Essentially, you are either a Spy or Mercenary, and one is tasked with infiltrating and obtaining data, and the other is tasked with defending it. The kicker is that Spies are entirely in the third person perspective, and mercenaries are entirely in first person. This is a wonderful dynamic and offers a great mix-up of gameplay. On the one hand you are an agile spy that can climb and move undetected making full use of the environment and on the other you are more restricted but also heavily armed and very lethal. It's a great spin on a classic competitive mode and I can see this having at least a cult following like the original SvM was.

Wii U owners however, need to be wary. Unfortunately, there is a problem on Ubisoft's end regarding the online functionality. A quick skim of the miiverse community for Blacklist will show a slew of fans voicing their concerns and issues regarding Ubisoft's network and server failures. When it works, and once it's functional it's brilliant, but it's not there yet.

Visually, the game is no benchmark title. That being said it looks solid and for the most post performs very well. You might find a few framerate drops on the Wii U version during cutscenes, but the actual gameplay remains incredibly smooth. The environments are well designed, offering multiple choices and paths to take; character models are detailed and look gorgeous in motion. Seeing Sam seamlessly move from one cover to the other and vaulting over cover into a takedown just looks fantastic. The faces are a different story. They just seemed off which is a shame because everything else looks great.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a strong entry in this long running franchise. There are some gripes with the consistency of the online on Wii U, but the team did a tremendous job in porting over the single player campaign, with the gamepad functionalities carefully integrated and fun to use. The campaign is solid, and offers a welcome return to the stealth action the series is known for, and the online has already shown that it will be a competitive mode if people stick with it.

Great animations and tight controls
Offers freedom of choice and lots of weapons and gadgets
Wii U gamepad integration is some of the best on the console.
Awkward facial animations and occasional frame rate dips in the cutscenes
Spies vs Mercenaries (when it doesn’t work)
Mark and execute may be an easy crutch to lean on.
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