"Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!"
That's one of the most common words you'll hear from me if you ever find yourself sitting beside me in a splitscreen or online match in Sam Fisher's most recent outing. You'd probably assume I'm talking to Sam Fisher's voice actor, though you'd only be partially correct. What I'm actually talking about is the god-awful story that force-feeds itself down your throat to a cringe-worthy degree and results in one of the most annoying and eye-roll-inducing experiences you've ever had in a video game.
This is truly a shame, because if you can somehow ignore that aspect of Splinter Cell: Blacklist, you'd find that it is possibly the best entry in the series, yet.
Shut up, shut up, shut up!
It's crazy, right? After all, I'm the one who wrote a freakin' article saying how this game wasn't going to work in the first place, and I'm probably more surprised than you are to see myself already give the game a "yes" rating before I even delve into the details of what makes this game so great (and in some cases, terrible). I guess now's as good a time as any to explain my stance on this.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist - The NotGoodForReview
Stealth is Back, and it's Awesome.
Stealth seemed to be largely intertwined with the combat in Conviction, but Blacklist brought it back in rock-solid standing, proving to everybody that Ubisoft still has what it takes to create a Splinter Cell game. Many levels have various points to approach and award patience and a stealthy approach with experience points you can use towards obtaining new gear at your own leisure and pace. In fact, you get bonus rewards for never disturbing a single guard, knock-out or otherwise, and proceeding through an entire map without ever being noticed is as much fun as... well, not as it sounds, but as you can possibly imagine it to be, if you're into that sort of thing. Which is good! Great, actually. And the new tools such as the sticky cam and the drone accentuate the experience with a larger stealth arsenal. Stealth returned to Splinter Cell with no holds barred, and ghosting through the game without ever being noticed can be just as fun and rewarding, if not so much more so, than running in guns blazing. And that's an achievement.
The Enemy AI is Next Gen... on the Previous Generation.
Maybe that's sort of an exaggeration, but Splinter Cell: Blacklist's AI is second to none, at least in all the games that I have played. They dynamically interact with each other (sometimes across multiple floors) and have far more natural reactions to strange noises; you can't whistle over and over and expect them to keep thinking it's "just rats" this time around. On top of which they react really well in combat situations when things go awry, such as taking cover and running from grenades instead of just jumping in the opposite direction and working in groups to try to flank you. Looking back on it now, the AI is actually pretty basic, exactly what people expect out of AI in a game this generation, and exactly the sort of stuff that you don't see in a game this generation because devs claim they need next-gen tech to pull it off. Regardless, the AI performs well and breaks through common expectations of Generation 7 AI with flying colours, and offers for cerebral stealth segments as well as adrenaline-pumping shootouts. Suck it, Fish AI.
Freedom of Approach Actually Makes Decisions Matter
One of my first criticisms of the game were that the freedom of approach in Conviction made playing stealthy and getting caught not actually matter. Getting caught back in Conviction after trying to stealth posed no problems as the combat mechanics were just far too solid and powerful, so you can basically swap between stealth to a Gears of War style shootout without a hitch.
Thankfully, this problem was remedied in Blacklist with a very simple fix; armor that's suited to dedicated playstyles. The way it works is that you can only equip armor that's suited for stealth or action sequences, and investing in one or the other would leave you vulnerable to the contrary playstyle. There is also a "middle ground" armor, of course, but as everybody knows, a Jack of all trades is a master of none. And in Blacklist, it really shows.
High stealth ratings makes you much harder to see, middle stealth ratings make you vaguely capable of stealthing, but either option will leave you in a very vulnerable (high stealth armors put a much larger emphasis on that "very") state when things go guns blazing, forcing you to go into hiding. On the other end, high body armor makes you very noticable, so stealth is practically not an option (possible, but not always), but makes combat supremely satisfying by virtue of being forgiving with bullet damage. Neither seem to have an impact on how fast your character moves, however, but swapping between the two armors makes the discrepancy between the two playstyles all the more obvious, and each playstyle is a blast, opening room for at least another playthrough.
Numerous Enemy Types
All of which cater to both stealth and combat situations. Sometimes it's as simple as body armor, at least on paper. But in practice, it can make all the difference in the world, and above all else, this is what makes Blacklist stand apart from previous entries in the series, not the freedom of approach.
Most of the enemies are your usual "slightly more powerful" variants of existing units, like helmet-donning goons which can't be readily "marked and executed" like they could in the Conviction outing, on top of which there's a slow-moving fully-armored enemy that can only be attacked from behind in a melee attack, or exclusively headshot. These two actually play a role in stealth just as much in combat scenarios, as you have to take special measures to clean a room of these guys; marking them all and executing, even if just to save yourself when a guard spots you and is ready to alert, isn't an option, unless you have a sniper rifle in close range, which just isn't good in combat situations, period.
I have a love-hate relationship with one particular enemy in the game which really emphasizes the almost trademarked "intel gathering" aspect in Tom Clancy games. These guys are drone operators, and they keep you on your toes, because their mere presence prevents you from using the iconic goggles. Unfortunately, this includes night-vision, which is a nightmare on the dark levels on the console version, while not too much of a problem on the PC version in the right settings. But thanks to this, you can no longer just sit comfortably while marking enemies through walls on the lower difficulty settings with the use of the sonar goggles, although you can still see the drone operators, themselves, which is a nice touch. This forces you to use every other tool in your arsenal to keep tabs on the enemy, such as peeking under doors and using drones and sticky cameras, which really makes the game feel like a legitimate espionage game. Oh, but you can't get too comfortable; they're called drone operators for a reason, and as long as they're around they send waves after waves of remote controlled drones which explode on contact with you. And man are they hard to avoid.
Put all these enemies together, sprinkle on a few dogs which can easily track you by scent, and you've got a really varied set of gameplay moments that can dynamically change the game in various playthroughs more so than opposing playstyles.
"Customization" is Really an Upgrade System
Which isn't bad in itself, but it is very counter-intuitive in a game which boasts freedom of approach. Rather than choosing items to equip which benefit a certain rating while decreasing another (short of choosing either stealth or combat armor), gun and gear upgrades give exclusively better ratings with noticeable improvements, leading to a system that more just betters your character overall rather than catering to a certain playstyle. Sure, there are a few upgrades which give you upgrades to only a certain aspect that are conflicting with another upgrade, like choosing between red-dot and holo-scope, but again, equipping either has no repercussions in your build, only increased performance in your area of choice.
On the flip side, you can easily downgrade your character for added difficulty, which is a nice touch. At will, you can remove your ability to use Sonar goggles so that you have to exclusively rely on intel-gathering equipment or wits, but you cannot turn off Mark and Execute short of going into Perfectionist difficulty, which I don't find a problem, given that I love this mechanic, and it is borderline necessary in some Blacklist situations.
Fourth Echelon Missions Feel Like They're Lacking
The truth is, if you're to compare the Fourth Echelon missions to Conviction's Deniable Ops, there'd probably be the same amount of maps as there ever were. However, Deniable Ops segmented gameplay across the same maps, whereas 4E missions segment entire maps across gameplay, leaving the whole experience feeling much shorter than it actually is. For instance, you can tackle any Co-Op level in Deniable Ops in either Survival, Stealth-Exclusive mode, or Hunter mode, whereas 4E has maps which are exclusive to each game mode. You could argue that this makes maps more catered to their game modes, but the truth is that I can't help but feel that some of these maps would make great sets for other game modes, like playing the Hunter game mode through Grim's levels which are Stealth-Exclusive (partly because the Hunter game mode takes place exclusively in the Middle East, and nowhere else, leaving for monotonous map design in an otherwise varied game).
Spies Vs. Mercs is Really Fun
Whether or not it's the best outing in the series doesn't really matter, Spies VS. Mercs is a blast, whether you're playing as a nimble spy or the heavy merc. I'm sure you've read enough about this in other reviews to know what it's all about, but bottom line is it's a nice way to get more than two players in the Splinter Cell experience and a great test of skill for those who have already breezed through the game on the hardest difficulty settings.
Unfortunately, it does have one ridiculous flaw; there is no exit button. That's right. You're stuck in the match until it's over. The premise is that you cannot rage quit, which makes sense, but apparently Ubisoft have never heard of "Alt-F4," which basically causes the entire match to crash if the host decides to leave the game the hard way. Ironically, the game actually does have a host-transfer mechanism. However, it never actually works, because the only way to leave the game is by abruptly quitting the game, meaning that the server never gets to collect the data from the host player in the first place. It also makes joining a friend a nightmare, because then you have to quit the actual game and relaunch it to join a friend's co-op or versus mode map, which is a real waste of time.
The Story is Absolutely Abysmal
Shut up, shut up, shut up, SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UUUUUP!
Sorry, I got that out of my system. Now, to get back on the details, the story is awful. Splinter Cell: Blacklist chose a very controversial premise to base its story on, and being a Tom Clancy game, it didn't even tackle the grey area without drawing a line between "good and evil" through it in the first five minutes. The premise of the story is that a terrorist group called the Engineers is fighting against America's apparent desire to take the world in military occupation, a practice which is actually happening in the real world, today. Of course, the Engineers are, in fact, pure evil, and America is 100% the good guy because of having military occupation in other countries, and Blacklist wants you to know that, in every single nook and cranny of the game, regardless of game mode (apart from Spies vs. Mercs), constantly reminding you that everybody who is opposed to military occupation by allied forces is immediately a terrorist. Again, and again. Outside of cutscenes, and even more during them. Any time the player is present with any moral grey area, Sam and his crew immediately dismiss it with a vocal "f@#$ off" (really, he actually says that at one point when confronted with the main villain) and call it a day.
First off, let's not kid ourselves, the Engineers are using terrorist tactics to resolve these global issues, and such violence should never be condoned. But that doesn't change the fact that Blacklist's story is so binary and so thoughtless, and seems very much hell-bent on making you know that there really is only one right answer in a situation that's just far too complex to solve with a "good guy vs. bad guy" outlook, making the whole thing really just highly disrespectful to the subject on the whole.
It's not so much the themes of the story that's the problem so much as how they're so poorly tackled, without a single ilk of consideration on a bigger scale, and in addition to being horribly presented, they're being horribly presented again, and again, and again. Over and over. Without a single moment to give you a break. I tried to pay attention to the story, I truly, truly did, but my finger was lingering over the skip button with such intent on skipping every cutscene that I ended up missing large chunks of the story simply because the game was demanding that I change my opinion on the world in every line of dialogue. It was drowning me with pro-military propaganda to an insane degree, the kind that does not even lightly attempt at a bit of subtlety, which is (thankfully) probably the only thing that allowed me to keep myself from being reprogrammed. Yes, the story is just that bad, and it almost cost me the experience of an otherwise amazing stealth shooter. In fact, I still cringe at the thought of sitting down to replay the Single Player levels, although the Co-Op isn't all that much better, either. The entire experience would have been so much better if I can just automatically skip cutscenes and turn off the awful dialogue, but one cannot turn off the voices without turning off all the sound in general, which just feels weird.
Sam Fisher is a Horrible Character, and his New Voice Actor Makes It All the More Apparent
Sam Fisher was never a particularly intriguing character to begin with, aside from being voiced by Michael Ironside, whose voice alone was probably the character's only salvation from mediocrity. While his new voice actor isn't strictly speaking bad or anything, the generic "American Badass Soldier" attitude, dialogue, and voice, together, just highlight the fact that Sam Fisher is as generic as they come. He has no opinion, no genuine relation with his crew, and barely any with his family, either. He is void of personality apart from being a soldier, and now he does not even at least have an iconic voice with which to make him stand apart from your typical, gruff, military man.
It baffles me to still see him as a character in the series when Ubisoft had all the reasons to replace him in his entirety. First, it was their choice to replace Michael Ironside, who has been around in the series since its conception. Second, he's been practically played to death, with his character being excruciatingly old, and somehow made younger in the latest versions. We've already explored every corner of his character design since the beginning, and Blacklist only highlights how uninteresting the complete package really is, or perhaps his presentation is just so bad that I forgot he was ever a good character to begin with. It's time to retire Sam Fisher and move on to someone fresh and interesting, given that his most iconic aspect has been replaced. If nothing else, there was at least the slightest chance that a new character would open up opportunity to dialogue that didn't make the characters so terrible and cringe-inducing every time you see them on screen.
The Cover System Killed Me More Times than the Enemy
On to a more practical, in game flaw, one of the biggest problems with Blacklist is the ungodly decision to remove the absolutely flawless cover system in Conviction. For those who don't recall, Conviction had a cover system that only had you pressed against cover while you held down a trigger, and automatically letting go of the wall by letting go of the trigger. The result is a cover system that only works when you want it to, and always lets go when you don't need it anymore. It really, truly was flawless. It was comfortable, responsive, intuitive, and most importantly, it never left you stuck.
Contrary to that, Blacklist adopts a standard cover system popular in games like Gears of War or Uncharted, where the player is basically superglued to the wall when pressing the cover button. This is especially problematic because every time I tried to let go, often times I find that the game had already made me let go of the wall by instinctively running away, resulting in me pressing the cover button not to let go of the wall, but to stick right back to it. The animation for pressing against the wall is just too long to allow the player to react fast enough to dodge a grenade thrown behind him, resulting in so many game over screens that had nothing to do with the excellent enemy AI and design, and almost entirely thanks to a cover system that seemed to have taken a shining towards the sparkly, flashing grenade indicators.
I can see why they went through the trouble; on the gamepad, the controls were widely changed to adopt a more contemporary, ergonomic control scheme. For example, in Conviction, the aim option was activated by pressing the right thumbstick, rather than the left shoulder button, like in Blacklist. Conviction, however, used the shoulder button for a hold-for-cover button instead of the popular "sticky" option, which results in a much more comfortable shooting control scheme. But while it's possible that the gamepad was not able to support a comfortable control scheme, the PC edition didn't exactly get a break in that regard, given that the sticky option was still the only cover control available. It's just such a glaring oversight by the developers that it just baffles me that they would even want to change the cover system after how it was widely praised in Conviction by official game reviews, and it just really makes the game overs all feel like glitches instead or mistakes made by the player.
If you can overlook the story and dialogue (and boy, is that freakin' hard!), Splinter Cell: Blacklist could easily be the best entry you've ever played in the franchise. It's not exactly a throwback to the classics, but Ubisoft really listened to the community's push for a stealth-oriented game which is more in vein to the original gameplay, whilst simultaneously catering to people who got into the series in Conviction, and Blacklist's gameplay caters to both play styles flawlessly, bringing a bunch of old and new together in a perfect mesh that just feels natural to the game somehow, even though Splinter Cell was never an action game to begin with. Stealth fanatics will like it, action gamers will like it, and people who like a mix of both will love the gameplay.
But I still wish, for the love of all that is holy, that the characters would just shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!