Wyclef Jean once penned the classic lyric, “Things done changed, but they stay the same”. And I’d like to thank Wyclef for those words of wisdom, because they could easily be used to describe my time with Splinter Cell Blacklist.
Make no bones about it, this isn’t Michael Ironside’s voice and his personality is sorely missed. There’s no special reveal, but (and you might not want to hear this, but it’s true) Blacklist still seems to be a bloody good game, and Sam Fisher is still…well, Sam Fisher, only his voice has changed. That said, he does appear to have lost a few wrinkles, and an already ageing, weathered Sam from Conviction (and this is a sequel to that game) looks and feels more sprightly than before. Some of the new characters are of questionable quality (the twenty-something purposefully-out-of-place computer nerd called Charlie is a bit on the nose).
And perhaps it’s the fact Blacklist is a sequel to Conviction that makes things feel so familiar when you’re sneaking around, trying your utmost to take enemies out without causing a fuss, because when Blacklist lets you loose on the downtrodden environments, when it lets you play with the tools of Sam’s trade – well, it’s damn good.
Fisher moves around with such an effortless grace that it seems as though everything is scripted, yet it rarely is. Moving from cover to cover is a dream, with a simple tap of the A button (on Xbox 360) creating the jump from A to B, with numerous animations that feel relevant to the type of cover you move between. But those options, oh, those options! Catering to all manner of players whilst retaining a stealthy approach is never easy, so those who favour a run and gun approach (and seriously, why are you playing a Splinter Cell game?) will suffer, whereas the patient player, the one who will shimmy along a window ledge, only to stun (not kill) an enemy combatant, will be rewarded via the euphoria of successfully executing the manoeuvre.
The mark and execute mechanic returns and is still incredibly cool, feeling more like a reward for playing “properly” than a win-button. When you’re hiding bodies in a bin, then holding someone hostage before executing two other armed assailants, it’s hard to feel too annoyed at a bit of bombast here and there. It’s worth noting that getting spotted will get you killed very quickly. If it’s just you and one other enemy, there’s a window where he’ll be surprised by your presence and you can take him out – even once alerted – but if there’s more than one guy, just don’t try it.
In fact, during one level, after successfully saving a guy from a torture scenario, you have to bust out the firepower. In fact, there’s even a section where you are cornered, awaiting your ride out of town and you have to protect the target, guns a-blazing. This doesn’t feel very in-keeping with the Splinter Cell way, and due to my being conditioned to play with a stealthy approach, it felt a little awkward.
There are plenty of ways to rack up points or cash, and after each mission you are graded in three areas: Ghost (complete stealth), Panther (combination of stealth and violence), and Assault (guns, going loud). These three “styles” are constantly filling up an XP-like bar, which allows you to purchase new weapons and tools relevant to the respective areas. Unlocking takes place in the new hub, which is basically a giant plane that Sam and his colleagues are working from. Missions are accessible (including multiplayer, which I haven’t yet had access to, sadly, as there looks to be a plethora of customisation and friend tracking options) through a map called “SMI”, which shows you targets, among other things.
Elsewhere, you can upgrade the plane – but most of these upgrades are for things like radar, or perhaps to show you secondary objectives on the radar (and a further upgrade to make them visible from a greater distance), that kind of thing.
Also on the plane, you can have short chats with other important characters, and even call your daughter after each mission to update her on your progress. It all adds colour to the personality of the game, but it feels a bit like a token gesture, allowing you something to do when you’re not playing the game proper.
Blacklist feels very much like “more Conviction”, which will mean different things to different people. I very much enjoyed Conviction, but the smoother animations are very noticeable, and there’s definitely more stealth involved for Blacklist, but there’s also a very clear decision been taken to appeal to the largest possible audience. Balancing that out, there appears to be a new difficulty that removes lots of the assists that players like me enjoy so much. However, one thing that is for sure is that in that moment when the stars align and you nail the perfect storm of stealth execution, Blacklist is just unbeatable.