Platform : PC
Release Date :Aug 2013
Price : £29.99 (Steam)
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Splinter Cell series. I bought the first game in the series on the Xbox along with the revised S pad that Microsoft released, the pad design that evolved into the Xbox 360 pad which as you know I’m a big fan of, so I remember playing it very clearly as the new pad was the missing piece in the original Xbox as far as I’m concerned and perfected the machine for the rest of that generation. Playing Splinter Cell then on this great new pad was a fun time, which was very much helped by the fact that the game itself was superb. Released during a lull between Metal Gear games, I’d not played a stealth game for a couple of years at that point and it was very welcome. The game introduced Sam Fisher, a counter terrorist agent of the secret Third Echelon. Sam controlled very well, the game itself was very pretty at the time, using the Unreal engine and of course Michael Ironside was awesome as the voice of Sam.
Ten years on, we now have Splinter Cell Blacklist, the sixth main game in the series (as well as some portable spinoffs and two versions of the fourth game, which straddled generations) gives us a revitalised Sam and a new start for the series. Sam has now started a new agency, Fourth Echelon, replacing the original outfit after the events of the previous game.
The game begins with a terrorist attack orchestrated by a mysterious group called The Engineers who attack a US military base and issue demands for America to withdraw all of their troops from every country around the world or face another attack every week until they have done so. Naturally this is where Sam is called to action, with him and his team being dispatched on their mobile base, a massive plane called the Paladin.
Returning alongside Sam from previous games is support operative Anna Grimsdottir (or Grim for short) and they’re joined by new characters Charlie Cole and Isaac Briggs. Charlie is a tech and intelligence expert, and also upgrades Sam’s in-game gear, while Isaac is a tactical expert and sometimes accompanies Sam on missions.
Gameplay is very fluid. The game works much like Splinter Cell games of the past, so it won’t take veterans of the series long to get back up to speed. A is a context button which opens doors, hacks computers, makes Sam jump onto ledges and so on, as well as sprinting while moving. B is your standard cancel/drop button, while X lets you pick up bodies and weapons as well as take living enemies hostage as a human shield. Picking up bodies allows you to dump them out of site or hide them in containers or boxes so that they aren’t found by enemies. Y is used for the executing enemies, but more on that later. Clicking the left stick crouches while the right stick reloads, and left bumper throws/uses gadgets and right bumper marks targets. Left and right trigger, naturally, are aim and shoot respectively, but you all already knew that right? The D-pad selects weapons as well as activating Sam’s night vision goggles. Gone from previous games are the different vision modes and now we just have night vision, but no great loss there. Anyone wanting to play with a pad be aware that you have to manually switch to it in the options, unlike most modern games it doesn’t do this automatically.
Sam is a lot more agile than previous, with the notable exception being that there is no longer a dedicated jump button – in one mission I wanted to climb over a bed to avoid some laser security, but as there was no ‘climb’ prompt I wasn’t able to, which was a shame. Aside from that though, when the game lets you, Sam scales walls and shimmies across ledges in a manner not unlike the Assassins Creed games, and as these are also developed by UbiSoft I expect this is intentional. He can also slide into cover when running, vault over the cover and bash through doors. Cover works much like you’d expect from a modern third person shooter, and if you’ve played Gears of War or Rainbow Six Vegas or any other game of that ilk you’ll know what to expect.
Sam is back in his ‘sneaking suit’ from early games, so no more Jack Bauer style getup from Conviction. This has the glowing lights on it that were so recognisable from early in the series, and these glow brighter as a visual clue to show you when Sam is completely hidden in shadow.. which sounds a bit odd, but presumably these lights are only for us to see and aren’t visible to enemies else he’d be quite easy to spot!
In combat, Sam has a variety of techniques at his disposal. When close to enemies, you can choose to silently take them down, either lethally or not. This is usually done by sneaking up close to them then pressing the X button (or holding it to take them captive) and Sam will drag the enemy out of sight and kill or knock them out. You can manually aim and shoot enemies with any of the weapons Sam is equipped with – headshots are the best bet as of course this takes down enemies immediately. The aiming is tight and accurate, though a couple of upgrades on the pistol are recommended to make it a bit better at range.
Finally, you can execute enemies. Silently taking down enemies builds up the execute meter, and Sam can mark several targets and execute these when in range by pressing Y. This takes the enemies down instantly, and is a great way to clear or thin out a room full of enemies.
Also familiar from another UbiSoft game, when spotted by enemies you’ll see an onscreen indicator which first fills up then turns red to show when an enemy is aware of your presence. This is practically identical to FarCry 3, and I think the sprite used might actually be the same one.
Between missions Sam gets to explore his plane, the Paladin. This too will feel familiar to gamers, as it works very much like the Normandy did in the Mass Effect games. You get to speak to your various team members, take side missions, upgrade gear and find collectables.
Actions in game earn you points, which are used to buy the upgrades for your gear as well as the Paladin itself. You’ll earn points for completing levels in a more stealthy or combat based way – there are points for each so you aren’t penalised for going in guns blazing if you want, you just get more points for combat that you would for stealth.
The games visuals are also very polished. I had to put the game into DirectX 9 mode on my machine to get consistent framerates, but once I had done so I was able to happily run on mostly medium to high settings in 1080p with Vsync and anti-aliasing so the game still looks great. Anyone on a more recent or powerful system than mine shouldn’t have any problems. When I first fired the game up I did notice 1080p was missing from my resolution options, but this appeared once I’d installed the latest patch. The character models in particular stuck out to me, as they’re both fantastically detailed and well animated. The projected onscreen titles and instructions from Conviction return and still look great. In cutscenes where Sam is talking to other characters over the radio you’ll often see projections of video with the characters and things they’re talking about around Sam, which is quite a cool effect.
A lot has been said about the recasting of Sam. Veteran actor Michael Ironside was tremendously popular in the role of Sam and was replaced due to the producers of the game wanting to go in a new direction with the character. Visually, Sam is clearly younger than he’s appeared in previous games (particularly Double Agent) so a younger voice actor does make some kind of sense. Eric Johnson provides the voice of Sam, and he’s perfectly fine it’s just… he’s no Michael Ironside. I found myself mentally growling everything Sam said in a Michael Ironside way to make him sound right. I do wish they’d gone a similar route with Sam as they did with the former lead character from Tom Clancy’s games stablemate Rainbow Six. After the first half a dozen games or so, the main operative Ding Chavez was promoted to the head of the agency, allowing the developers to introduce a new characters while keeping the old. I’m sure I’ll get over it, but I still find it a shame as I’m a big continuity guy as well as a Michael Ironside fan. Players of other good games will likely also recognise the voice of Elias Toufexis as Andriy Kobin, who most of us will last have heard as Adam Jensen in the superb Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
The side missions also can be played in co-op, but I’ve yet to have a chance to play these with anyone so have been playing these solo.
The multiplayer aspect of the game keeps the mercs vs spies setup that the series has had since Chaos Theory. The spies function much like Sam does in single player, while the mercs are more traditionally shooter based and weapons oriented. In each game you’re set on teams, which switch in the middle so you’ll first play as spies before switching to mercs and vice versa. Multiplayer is good fun as long as you find a good group.
Quite a lot about Blacklist feels like it’s cribbed from other games from the last couple of years, but it all seems to fit together quite well and instead of feeling like a derivative mixture of parts sits together as a very fun whole and is definitely recommended.
Splinter Cell Blacklist is available now on PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and WiiU.