The light, it burns!
Tom Clancy's penchant for global political intrigue and a world constantly on the brink of collapse has paid off in spades for Ubisoft, who've mined a decade of entertaining video games off the pseudo-futurism military jingo that serves to push players from one objective to the next. The spawn of these two was Splinter Cell. The franchise has always emphasized light and darkness, pushing players to use stealth to prey upon the terrorists that dot the world's caves and compounds, waiting for anyone to hang off a pipe and deliver sweet release. While some might think that Sam Fisher's new pair of boots for his latest mission is problematic, Blacklist may be the franchise's best game yet.
Blacklist doesn't just let players mark targets for swift execution at their leisure, as Ubisoft's latest pushes Sam Fisher forward and gives the player tools to pounce from shadow and retreat from light. Where previous games relied heavily on watching and tracking enemy movement, Splinter Cell: Blacklist streamlines gameplay into three distinct types—Ghost, Panther, and Assault—all of which provide exciting, tense gameplay.
After Sam Fisher's last adventure in Splinter Cell: Conviction, I was surprised to learn that the corruption in Third Echelon has only resulted in an even more top-secret, double-classified, cut-the-red-tape Fourth Echelon stationed in the mobile "Paladin" jet-base. If Batman had a cave that could also fly around the world, it'd look a lot like the Paladin. From here, players can launch missions using the primary menu interface or speak with their companions to get a feel for how things are going. Players can even work with returning voice-in-your-ear Anna Grimsdottir to upgrade the Paladin for better in-mission support.
On the map, players select bright red missions that propel the story forward faster than I could follow. The Blacklist itself is an effort by the terrorist "Engineers" to force the U.S. to withdraw all troops stationed abroad. Their targets include indictments of United States culture like "American Consumption," but it doesn't take long for Fisher to decide that the best defense is actually an all-out offensive on the Engineers. I guess the Army can handle the defense. Secondary missions offer solo or co-op challenges, though a few of them are cooperative-only.
In game, players have distinct Ghost, Panther, and Assault playstyles at their disposal, and this is where Blacklist intelligently focuses in on offering gameplay that caters to every desire for action. A smart, patient spy can navigate entire levels without ever disturbing an enemy. Leaning towards the Ghost style really does make the player feel like a silent, deadly shadow, one with an all-seeing eye and the ability to knock out just about anyone.
Of course, going in guns blazing can also do the trick. There's an entire cornucopia of assault rifles to choose from and steady third-person shooter mechanics to support a spy with an itchy trigger finger, but I don't recommend this method. Assault gameplay leaves a lot to be desired and starts to feel largely foreign after an entire level. The mechanics are there to support an agent who trips the alarm and wants to level the opposition, but not one who expects to see the Engineers brought to justice. This leaves Panther gameplay, which blends the aggressive nature of Assault and the svelte, silent nature of Ghost.
Panther play typically results in a higher body count, but the means justify the ends, as some of the flashiest, most brutal animations pop up when players decide to go lethal. Leaping from a ledge to perform an aerial takedown or electrifying a puddle of water to kill two terrorists with one stun gun charge feels incredible, but what comes afterward makes Panther style even more entertaining.
Oftentimes the screams of pain and gurgles of blood attract other guards, so chaining kills from mission start to mission finish turns out to be a matter of trial and error. When you do react perfectly to every enemy, Sam Fisher performs an elegant ballet of death, and score-screen be damned—it's way too satisfying to pass up.
The same can be said for Splinter Cell: Blacklist's return to Spies vs. Mercenaries multiplayer mode. Spies vs. Mercs pits two teams against each other in objective-based game modes. Players on the mercenary team see the world in first-person. They can use stimulants to see in the dark, but for the most part, Mercenaries will rely on brute force and teamwork. Meanwhile, the spies have darkness, gadgets, and increased mobility on their side.
Playing as a spy in this asynchronous multiplayer mode feels a lot better, so much so that time spent as a Mercenary might feel like purgatory. It's a matter of minutes until the teams switch, but thanks to the cat-and-mouse nature of Spies vs. Mercs, each side will have a good time if they play the objectives and focus on their team's strengths. Bottom line, Splinter Cell's multiplayer mode makes a happy return, and the only threat to the enjoyment players reap is whether or not the community holds up.
While Blacklist can't support an aggressive Call of Duty-trained soldier, thoughtful yet military-minded players of all skill levels will love the high production values, streamlined gameplay, and layered replayability. The bonus missions that are playable either solo or co-op are fun both ways. Spies vs. Mercs takes the single-player gameplay and offers players a turn as the dim-witted guards they've tortured so thoroughly in the campaign. Blacklist returns Splinter Cell to flagship franchise status, no matter how crowded Ubisoft's portfolio has gotten during Sam's shore leave.
Copy provided by publisher. Review based on PS3 version. Tested on Xbox 360. Also available for PC and Wii U.