Sam Fisher returns, sounding considerably younger and not at all like Michael Ironside anymore, in Splinter Cell: Blacklist, foiling terrorist plots and generally being very stealthy indeed. Or not, depending on who’s playing.
Because this newest iteration combines elements from the previous games in the series, from the hardcore stealth of Chaos Theory to the more action orientated approach of Conviction and everything in-between, to create three possible games in one, each employing the three distinct styles of play: you can go into situations all guns blazing in Assault mode; you can stalk from the shadows, killing enemies silently and remaining undiscovered in Panther mode; or, and this is my preferred method, navigate around enemies silently using your gadgets and your wits and complete levels without anyone ever knowing you were there in Ghost mode. You’re not tied to any particular mode however and can change tactics on the fly mid mission, even if the best method is usually to stick with one style for the duration.
At the end of each mission your stats are counted up and based on how well you performed (Enemies Undisturbed, Bodies Hidden, Secret Paths Found) you’re given in game cash that you can spend on upgrades for both Sam and your base of operations. These upgrades are available from said airborne base, the Paladin, where you will also launch single player or co-op missions, play Spies vs Mercs (returning for the first time since Chaos Theory), watch cut scenes and er…make phone calls to your daughter. These in-between missions sections are entirely unnecessary and take you out of the story for the sake of an interactive menu system that strives to be like the Normandy sections of Mass Effect but feels more like a waste of the player’s time than anything of any importance. Every time I came back to them I just launched the next mission and only stuck around long enough to buy and upgrade items I absolutely had to. It could be taken out completely and replaced with cut scenes to no detriment to the game.
But while you’re there, you’ll be able to tailor Sam Fisher for your style of play. So if you are going for Assault, a range of better armour is available for you to buy, as well as a wide variety of heavy duty weapons to enable you to be the least stealthy spy ever. And if Ghost is more your style you can outfit Sam with lightweight armour designed to make the least amount of noise, but which is nigh on useless if you accidentally alert the enemies and get embroiled in a firefight, but your gadgets (sticky cams, noisemakers) help with the whole not-getting-caught bit.
The missions themselves involve Sam and his Fourth Echelon team jetting around the world trying to stop a group of terrorists known as The Engineers from carrying out the Blacklist of the title that will destroy an American city of something important every seven days unless American withdraws its troops from various countries. So far, so blah; it’s fine as video game stories go but one could hardly describe it as riveting. But it sets the plot in motion, sending you on missions that follow the standard Splinter Cell formula; go here, get a thing that leads you to another thing or go here, find a guy, extract a guy. The stories have never been the selling point for Splinter Cell games; it’s the gameplay that you come for. And thankfully, aside from a few minor quibbles, the gameplay is great.
The cover system has been refined since last time; Sam can still shimmy from one chest high wall to another without being seen, and it feels much more intuitive than it did back in Conviction, as you no longer need to hold down the left trigger to hug walls. Think Gears of War, but with emphasis on not being seen as opposed to killing everything in sight and you’re pretty much there. The mark and execute ability from Conviction returns as well which can help you get out of a sticky situation at times, yet never feels like as much of a insta-win button as it did in that game [Although, again, that could just be me rigorously sticking to the Ghost style of play and not using it that much]. The maps have enough scope to them that multiple playthroughs are required to find every nook and cranny available to the surprisingly-mobile-for-a-guy-his-age Fisher, and you’ll want to find the many different routes through the levels so you can attain the highest possible score by the end of the mission.
As well as the single player campaign, you’ll have the chance to do some co-op missions as well. These are probably the hardest challenges the game has to offer, as in some of them getting spotted leads to an instant fail. While some may find these frustrating, it’s a true test for the hardcore Splinter Cell fans. Some of these missions can also be played solo, and while fun and possible to complete, it’s clear the intention is for two people to be playing. Spies Vs Mercs also returns, and it’s just as tense as it was in 2004, with overpowered slow mercenaries taking on the sneaky but weak spies. It’s a nice change of pace from your standard Call of Duty TDM-fest, and it’s good to have it back.
Lastly and I’m almost loathe to bring it up but the voice of Sam Fisher is no longer the recognisable dulcet tones of Michael Ironside, and is instead actor Eric Johnson. Johnson is not bad at all, but the change is jarring especially after Ironside and Fisher becoming one and the same over the course of the five previous Splinter Cell games. The voice sounds too young especially when Sam (in the games odd and misjudged attempt at adding some emotion to the story) calls his now adult daughter Sarah at several points through the game; with Johnson it sounds like Sam is a 20-something ringing his girlfriend, not a concerned father talking to his daughter. It’s by no means a game-breaker, just a shame that Ironside didn’t return.
The game is advertised as having ‘three ways to play,’ and while that is true throughout the ten or so hours it’ll take to play through the campaign you’ll find that the game is really meant to be played as stealthily as possible, and considering that stealth is what the franchise is known for it’s far and away the most fun method. However, there is something here for everyone and it deserves to be commended for broadening the appeal of Splinter Cell games (action and cinematic set pieces) yet never betrays its stealth games roots.