This review was written after finishing the main single player missions and most of the optional “4E missions” (all in ‘perfectionist’ difficulty), and without having played the online multiplayer components at all; save for half of a Spies vs. Mercs match I managed to play before my Wii U froze (as I knew it would from the many reports fellow gamers have been giving), I have not touched the co-op missions or played Spies vs. Mercs in any meaningful way. It is known that a patch is coming, however, so I decided to do a follow-up article on the multiplayer aspect of the game instead of forcing myself to suffer through the current connection issues, or letting it affect my otherwise good impression of Splinter Cell: Blacklist. When I have written this article, I will link it here.
Short of Greatness
Three years ago, my brother took me to a Brazilian steakhouse. There I ate the best barbecue meat I have ever eaten in my life; yet I made a tremendous mistake first. You see, in this particular steakhouse, you fill your plate by asking the passador (meat waiter) for a cut of whatever meat he is carrying around. This means you have to wait until you see a passador near your table; but not to worry! You can fill your plate — and your empty stomach — at any time by going to the salad bar. That is what I did: I got a bit of salad right before eating the best barbecue meat of my life. I ate filler, and stole the space and attention that belonged to that incredible meat.
Ubisoft has also filled Splinter Cell: Blacklist, a top-notch restaurant where you can find some of the best stealth meat around, with salad bars: there is a cumbersome real-time menu system that takes place in the military aircraft “Paladin”, which is like a bootleg copy of Mass Effect’s Normandy; a bloated customization system that gives you the option to improve weapons that will be obsolete in every single way, regardless of how much money you put into improving them, once you buy the weapon that comes next in the same weapon class; furthermore, you can buy from a variety of black market weapons in the same class — say, pistols — that each have unique strengths and weaknesses among other black market weapons, but that are altogether equally obsolete against the regularly acquired pistols; and of course, worthless “KILL or SPARE” choices in specific moments in the story. Some of these options are just that, optional, and really do not harm the game (beyond the development time and money spent in putting them there in the first place, of course), but others, such as the bloated customization system and the Paladin aircraft menu, get in the way of, and distract from the main course: the stealth action.
The sides are ok, but their barbecue is the best
Full disclosure: I tend to focus more on the little things that frustrate me about art and entertainment when the overall product is great, or full of potential: a cheap, ugly car can be forgiven for having defects, but a blemish on a supercar is a sin; grafitti can be a decent expression of culture in an urban environment, but try spraying “vatos locos west side” on a pillar of the Sistine Chapel, and see what reaction you get. Though not baseless, my reaction against those small blemishes is only fueled by my respect for Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
Blacklist is still a great game.
The key idea here is that the game allows you to play it. Much modern game design centers around the false dichotomy that a game can either have a good narrative or offer a variety of gameplay; if the storytellers want the player to have a specific narrative experience, then they must be guided through limited, linear experiences. This dichotomy is yet to be proven, mostly because developers that have limited their gameplay in favor of their story have yet to write a good story anyway — but that’s a story for another day. For now, I will just say that Splinter Cell: Blacklist doesn’t subscribe to that theory, choosing instead to put all its eggs in the gameplay basket, while remaining content to tell a (rightfully cheesy) decent Tom Clancy tale of American espionage and conspiracy.
Ubisoft certainly doesn’t impress with the story beyond it feeling as delightfully and soberly cheesy as you’d expect a Tom Clancy story to feel — and if you don’t know what kind of cheesy that is, just imagine a Dan Brown story in a high-technology, American spy setting — but they did a hell of a job with their gameplay. As I said above, Blacklist offers you a wide variety of gameplay options to beat the various challenges in the game — it allows you to play it — but that’s only part of the draw here: Blacklist also allows its computer characters to play the game as well, only with the goal of hunting you, the player.
As strange as it sounds that a computer character gets to play the game (and the claim is technically untrue, if you must be so pedantic), that is the impression one gets from seeing the enemy A.I. work in real time. Even if they can fall on an arbitrary-but-somewhat-randomized set of patterns when they have yet to discover the player, their true cunning surfaces as they become more alert to the player’s presence: have an enemy discover a knocked-out teammate, and he will report this to his friends, hence remaining in a state of caution in which they search the area in groups, split up to cover wide areas more carefully, keep count of who’s still around (and if others in the group disappear “mysteriously”, they increase their alertness), investigate noises more thoroughly, and generally become excellent hide-and-seek players. Have them discover your position, then, and they will immediately get behind cover, flank you from alternate routes, and spam your position with fire and grenades to prevent you from running away while flushing you out into the open.
And when you think you’ve got the handle on the regular enemies’ patterns, more skilled soldiers with thermal goggles, gas masks, or heavy armor come around, forcing you to re-evaluate your strategy, and just plainly get better at the game.
Not just conviction, but grit and determination
Much of what you do in Blacklist, as a matter of fact, is re-evaluating your strategy. Early in the game, it might be a decent idea to simply snuff out lights and lure lone soldiers into your position, snatching them all one by one until you clear the area, or at least get a wide-enough opening to simply move on into the next area. In later missions, thermal goggles-wearing soldiers will see you in the dark anyway, and may be smart enough to move in groups so that you can seldom lure a single enemy out without calling attention to others around him. Here, something slightly more clever, like throwing a noisemaker to distract them and quickly proceed to shocking one then choking out the other, might work better — but make sure the thermal goggles guy doesn’t see you!
Late in the game, you will need to perform riskier, more cunning and athletic moves to deal with the large amounts of enemies: throwing a smoke grenade to run from live fire and enemy grenades, followed by an EMP dart to disable the lights in your escape route, finalized with a sleep gas dart in the direction of a pathway from where you believe you are flanked, and vanishing into the darkness while several of your enemies drop unconscious, will make you feel as evasive as Reggie Fils-Aime when getting asked about western localizations and upcoming third-party games on Wii U.
Of course, there is only a limited amount of challenge in the main single player missions for your skills to be pushed, but that is why Blacklist offers side missions with more limitations and a much higher challenge. Fans of Chaos Theory, for example, will be glad to hear there are missions where you must absolutely not raise any alarm, be seen by enemies, or even kill them silently. These are true ghost missions which must be completed from beginning to end and which require classical amounts of patience and cunning to be completed successfully. Other missions require you to survive waves of highly alert enemies that will thoroughly scour a level to find you. Completing these missions in ghost style is a task for the most persevering and quick-witted of us; yet the true flavor of these levels is brought out when peppered and salted with some good old silent-but-deadly means: kill an enemy, destroy the lights, indiscriminately shoot as many enemies as possible and, before they overwhelm you, vanish amidst a smoke grenade’s cover so you can choose your next move carefully. There is, too, a type of mission where you choose to get rid of all the enemies in an area however you want — but be prepared for reinforcements if you get caught! And finally, there are the co-op missions, which I chose to talk about in a follow-up article, as stated in the opening of this review.
If Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is a scotch whiskey, and Conviction is jungle juice, then Blacklist is a good ale: it is more accessible and offers more variety than the former, but is much more complex and refined than the latter. This is not to say that many people won’t still favor Chaos Theory over Blacklist — scotch diehards will swear by their drink of choice to their grave, too, and with reason.
It’s entirely true that no Splinter Cell has had deeper and more challenging mechanics than Chaos Theory. However, to mourn the series for not following blindly in Chaos Theory’s footsteps is selfish and shortsighted. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory’s brand of stealth was already nearly perfected: the game that did this is called “Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory”. It’s only righteous for the Splinter Cell franchise to move on from its roots, and lead the march of the stealth genre evolution; and while I completely agree that Conviction was a poor first step in a new direction, Blacklist is the result of a much more reflective and all-encompassing thought process that led to a bolder, more deliberate, and more decisive evolutionary step for the franchise.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist brings good tidings for the stealth genre; it could very well be the first of a wave of similarly varied and polished (yet unique) stealth games to arrive later from different developers, revitalizing the genre. If only for this, Blacklist is worth praising.
- The core of the game is mostly rich and creamy, and there are occasional moments of true greatness where the player's flashes of high-skill and cunning manage to barely outclass the game's more difficult challenges, resulting in a feeling of elation that few games know how to provide.
- When navigating the game's unnecessary Paladin menu system, the game is much too slow and bothersome. Coupled with currently-long loading times and obtuse customization options, there are more obstacles in the road to enjoyment than befits the well-designed core of the game.