Posted on January 30, 2013 AT 12:00pm
Once you go Blacklist…
Few franchises are nearer or dearer to my my heart than Splinter Cell. Sure, the series has had plenty of ups and downs over the years, but there’s something about superspy Sam Fisher’s trademark blend of international intrigue, covert antics, and high-tech gadgetry that speaks to me on a visceral level. To this day, I consider the 2002 original and it’s 2004 follow-up, Pandora Tomorrow, to be the two greatest stealth games ever made.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I was a little flustered by the E3 announcement of Splinter Cell: Blacklist and its debut gameplay footage. Why is Sam Fisher killing everyone in sight? Why doesn’t he sound like Michael Ironside? Did he just call in an airstrike?
That being said, first impressions aren’t everything, and I was excited to go hands-on with Blacklist and discover if those apprehensions would melt away once I’d walked an incredibly quiet mile in Sam’s shoes.
The verdict, as it turns out, is a resounding “sort of.”
For any longtime Splinter Cell fan, hopping into Blacklist is bound to be at least a little jarring—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Plenty of the most obvious changes are downright spectacular, and nowhere is that truer than in the game’s presentation. Ubisoft Toronto has taken the integrated storytelling of Conviction to new heights, effectively turning the entire game into one fluid, in-universe experience.
Rather than selecting single-player, co-op, or multiplayer missions from some abstract, top level menu, everything is directly accessible from the deck of Fourth Echelon’s mobile HQ, a tricked-out stealth bomber known as the Paladin. Between missions, Sam can roam freely around the aircraft, talking to crew members, upgrading and customizing his loadout, and viewing stats and challenges that are updated in real time. Oddly enough, the closest analog is probably the Normandy in Mass Effect—though I doubt Sam will be getting freaky with the guy doing weapons calibrations anytime soon. Whenever you’re ready to drop into the action, you can simply walk up to the Strategic Mission Interface—essentially a Microsoft Surface table on steroids—and roll out.
Of course, Blacklist‘s surprises don’t stop once you’re in the field; if anything, they ramp up. The first mission I played tasked me with extraditing a familiar face from CIA custody in Benghazi, Libya. (Here’s to hoping I won’t be asked to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.) The basic structure of the level was fairly standard for Splinter Cell—multiple routes through the level, plenty of guards to evade or take down—but the ways I was able to approach each situation felt much more robust than in previous titles.
See, Blacklist has been built from the ground up to accomodate three distinct playstyles: Ghost, Assault, and Panther. Ghost is probably the most in line with the traditional Splinter Cell experience, centering around quiet, non-lethal solutions to your problems. While one of my biggest concerns after the E3 demo was that the stealth approach would be gimped, it’s quite clear that isn’t the case. Plenty of sneaky abilities that were missing from Conviction have been restored, including moving and hiding bodies and whistling to draw a guard’s attention, and the slate of nonlethal gadgets is larger than ever.
Assault, on the other hand, is the brute force, guns blazing approach. In my experience, it was probably the least viable of the three, but thanks to the addition of more high-powered weapons and the ability to blind fire from cover, it’s still manageable to work your way through a level mowing down everyone in sight—even if it didn’t seem all that rewarding to do so.
Finally, there’s Panther, which sits as a sort of happy medium between the two extremes. It’s about striking quickly from the shadows and taking all out of your enemies in one fell swoop with thoughtful use of the Mark and Execute feature, and is probably pretty close to how most folks played Conviction.
The most promising thing about Blacklist, however, is that you’re free to mix and match these styles however you see fit. You can go in stealthy but switch into Rambo mode the minute things start to go pear-shaped, and the game will award you points accordingly. That’s pretty much how my playthrough of the Benghazi level went—I breezed through the first half of the level like a precision instrument, but once my cover was blown, I openly embraced every gunfight the game threw at me. Though it wasn’t quite the brutal experience I expect from a stealth game, it was a surprisingly fluid way to keep the action moving after most stealth games would’ve abruptly sent you back to the last checkpoint.
As I moved into the second level, a recon mission in an abandoned London flour mill, I made a concerted effort to keep my actions as covert as possible. It was, after all, a dark and stormy night, and that’s when Sam has always done his best work. Unfortunately, that decision was one that gave me serious cause for concern about the demo: as a pure stealth experience, the snippet of Blacklist that I played was uncharacteristically easy. In fact, I managed to complete a wholly undetected run with just two checkpoint restarts.
There were some interesting snags, to be sure, including a new enemy type that scrambled my Sonar Goggles and sent out a drone to search through the shadows, but it was still fairly simple to sneak past, around, and over the guards I encountered without much hesitation. Part of the problem was the forgiving enemy AI, which would frequently walk by my position, notice me for long enough to bring up the onscreen detection meter, but ultimately pass by without incident.
Feeling a little worried, I decided to replay the Benghazi mission on the highest difficulty setting—ambitiously named “Perfectionist”—and that’s when I finally started to notice shades of the Splinter Cell I know so well and love so much. My goggles could no longer see through walls, Mark and Execute was disabled, and the AI spotted me the very instant I entered their line of sight. My safety net was gone, that meant I was forced to rely on careful observation of guard patrols and my full repertoire of gadgets to stay alive. Quick movement and reckless violence were still an option, of course, but they felt more like a calculated risk than a viable way to play the game.
That’s the biggest takeaway from my time with Blacklist, really. There’s definitely a demanding stealth experience to be had here—so long as you’re willing to look for it. At the moment, Sam Fisher’s latest does feel like a profoundly different beast from the Splinter Cell that won my teenage heart, but it’d be foolish of me to get so caught up in what the game doesn’t do that I lose sight of what it actually does deliver—namely the incredibly slick presentation, promising story, and open-ended gameplay that attempts to cater to as many different playstyles as possible. I can’t, in good conscience, tell you that my brief taste of Blacklist put all of my fanboyish fears to rest, but I can truthfully say that I’m intrigued—and unexpectedly excited—to see what surprises the rest of of the game has in store.
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