Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review

Splinter Cell: BlacklistI am Sam Fisher. It’s midnight and I’m in Paraguay, where my mission is to infiltrate an international arms dealer’s sprawling hillside property.

At least ten paramilitaries with assault rifles patrol the terraces to the rear of the house; I’ll need to bypass, kill or evade all of these in order to reach my first objective, which is an outbuilding about 65 yards from my current position. I don’t want to start a gun battle and I won’t kill unless I have to. A guard approaches and pauses, unable to see me in the shadows two feet from where he lights a cigarette; one drag is all he’ll take before I put him to sleep with a choke hold. I hear a dog barking and see more guards; a pair of them lurks by the main back entrance. I hatedogs; getting my boots off the ground is the best way to avoid them so I chin-up onto a low roof and deploy my Tri-Rotor drone to mark the guards and the dog in my heads-up display. I disable the dog with a taser charge from the drone and win myself a little more freedom of movement on the ground. Taking out three exterior lights with pistol shots enhances this further. Before dropping back down, I put the marked goons to sleep with a gas grenade and move fast along a roof beam to throttle another as he passes below. I can evade another two by jumping the rear wall of the property and covering the next 30 yards unseen by hanging off the parapet and moving hand over hand along the available span. With thirty yards still to cover, I mark two guards and use tranquillizer darts from my tactical crossbow to put them down. A half-second later, a more alert guard runs around a corner, sees his snoring comrades and is about to sound the alarm. I can’t allow this so I double-tap him to the head with my silenced pistol and he crumples, dead before he hits the ground. Pausing only to dispose of these bodies in the shadows, I jump the remaining wall and make it to my objective unnoticed.

Sam's HUD at the start of a coop mission, with two enemies already highlighted

Sam’s HUD at the start of a coop mission, with two enemies already highlighted

This is how I roll in Splinter Cell. Starting gun battles and killing indiscriminately surrender the initiative, are unnecessary and constitute bad manners, like breaking wind in a crowded elevator. Splinter Cell Conviction was a decent third-person stealth-shooter, but a few weeks after its release, “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” came along and raised the ante, beating Conviction in all departments including cover mechanics, stealth game play and opportunities for the player to exercise tactical choice. “Splinter Cell: Blacklist” needed to regain the series’ reputation as gaming’s preeminent stealth-shooter by paying much more attention to the controls and mechanics of silent lethality, which were neglected in favor of gun play in Conviction, and by supporting this enhanced game play with sufficiently open-world maps to enable the use of varied tactical approaches to all objectives. In this respect and in many others, Blacklist is a triumph, but as with all Ubisoft PC releases these days, the publisher shoots itself in the foot over a variety of issues which I will outline later in this review.

The fact that Blacklist is such a qualified triumph on release makes me feel sorry for an extremely talented development team (Ubi Toronto) which may well not be responsible for the game’s deficiencies. The dev team “gets” Splinter Cell in the way that their predecessors did not with Conviction, yet my distrust of this publisher is such that I must fight a tendency to categorize all recent Ubisoft releases as the product of a twisted dynamic between the talent of individual dev teams and the greed of their paymasters who superimpose crude marketing and bogus social networking tools that corrupt, literally and figuratively, otherwise good games which should not be burdened with this level of corporate defacement.

First, the good news: Ubi Toronto has brought back and, in most cases enhanced, almost every beloved Splinter Cell stealth gameplay element. Hiding enemies’ bodies, shooting out lights and a robust cover system for moving amidst the shadows (which, admittedly, was introduced in Conviction) makes playing this version of the game more fluid and intuitive. It is so much easier to close doors behind you now (which seems like a small detail but any  dedicated stealther will tell you otherwise), you can open and close doors while carrying bodies, and greatly enhanced AI makes the reaction of defenders to any disturbance more credible and realistic. A patrolling guard will no longer ignore the possible source of a shot-out light nearby (or a colleague who suddenly drops dead beside him) and he and his buddies will move quickly and effectively to flank any player who squanders the initiative so carelessly.

Dust, decrepitude and danger: The 4th Echelon pays a visit to the Third World

Dust, decrepitude and danger: The 4th Echelon pays a visit to the Third World

The maps, in both the single-player and coop, are superb, supporting vertical movement in a way that Conviction did not, and providing alternative routes that make bypassing enemies much more of a viable tactic than it has been in any previous version of the game. Sam’s gadgets are very satisfying to deploy, especially the sticky-cam and the Tri-Rotor drone, and none of them spoil the game play by overpowering the player, who must still thread his way through the maps with patience and guile. Going loud is a viable option, however, and much better realized than it was in Conviction, which was bloodthirsty and gun-crazy but essentially non-tactical. An extensive and well thought-out equipment upgrade tree requires the player to find his own compromise between stealth and aggression and it’s Sam’s speed of movement from cover to cover as well as his enhanced defenses and firepower that make Blacklist’s all-out gun play more than just a futile way of dealing with the consequences of mistakes made in stealth mode.

Personally, I do not know why people set out to play loud as opposed to using firepower as a last resort; if firefights were anticipated, 4th Echelon would use teams of paramilitaries, not a single stealth operative. However, the guns sound good, have great upgrade-ability and, as I’ve said, it’s the effectiveness of cover that gives even balls-out gun play an all-important tactical aspect favoring fire and maneuver as opposed to frontal combat. Conviction’s “Mark and Execute” feature is back but this time it is incorporated much more gracefully into both single player and coop design; instead of being a “win button” (Conviction’s designers were so enamored of this mechanic that they built missions around it) it’s a technique that, while spectacular, must be used advisedly; for example, if you try to use a pistol or certain long guns, you try to use it on heavily armored, steel-helmeted enemies, the head shots, as executed, may not be fatal and all you will accomplish is to roil up the defenders and leave yourself exposed.

As in Conviction, the game cannot resist a certain amount of scripting, which, yet again, and without the benefit of actual evidence, I attribute to this publisher’s insistence on cinematic effects at the expense of what I imagine is the dev team’s notion of tactical game play. In this respect, Blacklist is not as egregious an offender as Ubi’s “Ghost Recon Future Soldier”, which made the player jump through an endless series of hoops in its single player campaign in order to impose cinematic effects, give him an unearned sense of bad ass potency, and reduce tactical challenge. Blacklist sometimes makes you play God, too, putting you in a helicopter with a sniper rifle or giving you control over a rocket and cannon-equipped drone but these episodes are limited, they occur amidst otherwise strong map design and are well-executed, regardless of their resemblance to a certain famous mission in “Call of Duty”. Sometimes the episodes involving “linear pathing” and scripting are conspicuously weak though, especially, unfortunately, the campaign’s final sequence, an over-scripted, underwhelming boss fight.

In this coop screen, Sam stands guard while Briggs infiltrates.  Either that, or I had to take a phone call...

In this coop screen, Sam stands guard while Briggs infiltrates. Either that, or I had to take a phone call…

“Splinter Cell Blacklist” is crammed with content, including a kind of meta-UI which puts Sam and his crew (Grim, tech nerd Charlie and apprentice stealth ninja Isaac Briggs, among others) on a specially adapted C-130 transport aircraft from which they can assemble intel for all their missions and you can launch any single player or multiplayer game from the so-called “SMI” screen, which is a big, sexy interactive map. I like this UI concept and find it exceptionally well executed. It put a big smile on my face to discover I could visit the flight deck and I like the way that starting conversations with Sam’s colleagues enables all kinds of stats, options and side-mission menus. You can customize the aircraft itself, Sam’s equipment and other options which make one’s way of tackling the missions feel much more personal.

The dizzying array of statistics, challenges, a tiered scoring system for different styles of play (“Ghost”, “Panther” and “Assault”) and the integration of these into the game’s social overlays (Uplay, of which more below, and a clan-building interface called Shadownet) creates a depth of competition that has never before existed in a Splinter Cell game. The SP campaign story starts out promisingly as a sensibly-scaled (for fiction, anyway) terrorist conspiracy to attack the American homeland in reprisal for the US military’s presence abroad; the early missions are very well designed infiltration, hostage / HVT extraction and targeted assassination scenarios that fit well into the Splinter Cell universe. As the story progresses, however, it becomes more preposterous and the missions more scripted as the narrative imposes itself on game play. There is not a single bad mission, however, and, as I have noted, the maps are outstanding, as good in their lighting, design and tactical opportunities as anything in the venerated “Chaos Theory”.

The coop maps are also superb, with extensive draw-distances that enable sniper tactics, great atmospherics and a certain contemporary immediacy of atmosphere and locale. Splinter Cell coop game play mechanisms and dynamics have been refined, perfected even, making this game mode, with inbuilt voice comms, one of the best cooperative experiences in any tactical stealth shooter. Each coop mission includes unique challenges, such as non-lethal ROE, complex infiltrations or, in one instance, a spectacular drone deployment. One mission deserves a special mention: a nighttime infiltration of an island in the English Channel controlled by well-financed British nationalist fanatics. Its atmosphere is wonderful, the design witty, with music by Elgar playing in the background and a Spitfire prominently featured on a display plinth. As in all the coop maps, multiple routes through the terrain are available and teamwork pays off.

London on a stormy night, as seen from an abandoned paper mill where Fisher finds a WMD in the single player campaign

London on a stormy night, as seen from an abandoned paper mill where Fisher finds a WMD in the single player campaign

When the PvP “Spies vs. Mercs” multiplayer mode came out in “Pandora Tomorrow” and reappeared, much improved, in Chaos Theory, it was rightly acclaimed as a breakthrough in MP gaming concepts with its brilliant use of asymmetrical abilities which imposed contrasting offensive vs. defensive tactics. SvM is back in Blacklist, in “Classic” mode as well as various enhanced modes that allow players to customize their loadouts and even (horrors!) play death match. For any Splinter Cell SvM diehard, Classic will be the most appealing, as it retains the 2v2 structure and does not allow loadout customization to mess with game balance.

It’s a brutal game and one which I will need to play more to determine if it recaptures the charm of the original, much of which revolved around beautifully lit maps featuring unusual locations for skulduggery of this nature, such as a shopping mall, a cinema multiplex and an aquarium. I used to spend hours wandering the Chaos Theory SvM maps solo in a private server just to get all the routes and vantage points down while admiring the scenery. In my limited experience of Blacklist’s SvM, the maps are more generic-industrial, grim and utilitarian; this is the one multiplayer mode that could use a bit of James Bond style in its choice of locations. I’m reserving judgment but I have a feeling that coop is the more compelling and successful MP format this time out.

Brown is the new green: Fisher in Afghanistan

Brown is the new green: Fisher in Afghanistan

So, Splinter Cell Blacklist is a significant accomplishment but, as with most Ubisoft PC releases of the last few years, it is marred by technical and connectivity issues that are all the more aggravating for being, one suspects, unnecessary. Hundreds, possibly thousands of paying customers cannot connect with multiplayer game servers – even though they can see each other in Blacklist’s array of in-game social interfaces – and two patches have so far failed to address this. Other tech problems are more mundane, if aggravating, and hardly uncommon in any new release of a product of this complexity, but the connectivity issues seem unique to Ubi’s overbearing culture of digital security protocols and aggressive marketing overlays disguised as added value for the player.

Yes, Uplay is in Splinter Cell: Conviction and as obnoxious as ever in its control-freakishness, flaky performance, glitch-proneness, and tendency to invade every aspect of game play. Admittedly, it’s better than it was at the time of Conviction’s release; the in-game friend networking overlay works well, as does the Shadownet system (most of the time) but, given that many people are playing this game with both Steam and Uplay enabled by default, it does appear sometimes that Ubisoft seems determined to bury its products in layer upon layer of over-intrusive marketing and security. I have no reason to assume this is responsible for Blacklist’s widespread connectivity issues but it was deeply disappointing to realize yet again (even though I have not been affected personally) that another Ubi game has gone retail with broken server connections and thousands of customers fiddling frantically, and usually in vain, with port forwarding. At time of writing, the PC Gamer review has been postponed because the reviewer cannot connect, an action which cuts Ubi a break in that the magazine could easily have proceeded with its review and hammered the game for not delivering multiplayer to many of those who paid for it.

In this scenario, you can see an HVT labelled "Capture" in the player's HUD.  Coop teams can score additional points for taking this guy alive.

In this scenario, you can see an HVT labelled “Capture” in the player’s HUD. Coop teams can score additional points for taking this guy alive.

When Splinter Cell Conviction came out, I reviewed it pretty favorably here at SimHQ. I took some flak and ultimately came to believe that I had been over-generous. I therefore approached Blacklist with a critical eye, yet found myself disarmed by the quality of the development team’s work on the game; to summarize, it has restored and improved stealth game play, enhanced AI, introduced an impressive amount of new content and replaced the coarsened tone of Conviction with a game which honors the series’ roots in the Clancy universe of off-the-books counter-terrorism. I would also like to emphasize that if Blacklist is ported, it is a much better port than both Conviction and Ghost Recon Future Soldier. Sadly, however, Ubi’s culture of rapacious marketing and pandering to the lowest-common-denominator work against the interests of the PC consumer and manifest themselves in connectivity problems and other issues that undermine consumer loyalty and create hostility in the community. It’s a shame.

Good

  • Strong vision and execution from a talented development team which displays respect for the legacy of Splinter Cell.
  • Impressive content, both in quality and quantity, across all game modes including single player, coop and PvP.
  • Blacklist both revives the franchise and reinvents it, a delicate balance that it mainly succeeds in accomplishing.

Could be Better

  • Glitches and multiplayer connectivity issues, possibly caused by overbearing social networking, marketing and digital security overlays.
  • Creative and game play compromises are frequently evident.  Blacklist is not “dumbed down” as drastically as other Clancy-derived PC franchise sequels published by Ubisoft, but it would have been an even better game if the dev team’s vision were not so obviously subject to corporate imperatives.
  • The eagerly awaited Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer format might have lost its magic (but Blacklist coop is best ever).

Reviewer’s System Specs

  • Processor: Intel i7-920 (o/c to 3.3GHz – 3.9GHz)
  • Memory: 6GB DDR3 1333MHz
  • Video Card: 1x NVIDIA GeForce GTX 285 2GB
  • OS: Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium (64-Bit Edition)

Pricing

 

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