Sam Fisher is a badass. Above all other things, this is what I learned from Splinter Cell: Blacklist. The best part about that? I got to be a badass vicariously through Sam. And really, at the end of the day, that’s what Blacklist does best. Of course, there is much more to look at, from co-op to the highly anticipated Spies vs. Mercs return to the incredible story that’s told. Does the newest installment in the Splinter Cell franchise stand with what many consider some of the greatest stealth combat games around?
Splinter Cell: Blacklist has such a strong offering of varied content that if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself happily surprised at what you see when you first spin up the game. After a brief tutorial, you officially begin your journey aboard what Sam and his crew will call home for the duration of your time together, the Paladin. The Paladin reminded me immensely of walking around the Normandy in Mass Effect 2, which if you have listened to Free For All for more than about ten minutes, you’ll know is a check in the win column for me. There are some initial areas that you can interact with right away on the plane as you simultaneously get to know your team, and your team is one of the best parts of Blacklist. You have Grim, whose not really the biggest fan of Sam and initially feels more like she’s babysitting than anything. Grim will also be your go to for upgrading the Paladin for better radar or unlock new weapon and gear upgrades. Next you have Charlie, my personal favorite. He’s the too-smart-for-his-own-good tech guru with a side of hipster and a smathering of personality. Being the resident techie, he’s also your go to for upgrades to you gear, suit, and weapons. And lastly there is Briggs, the home-grown military man who you’ll see in action if you’re checking out any of the co-op missions. You can also go to him for a variety of information on stats and progress throughout the game. As you progress you’ll add characters to the passenger list, and there a lot of nooks and crannies to explore like a phone where you can occasionally call Sam’s daughter Sarah for some interesting exchanges.
But enough about the plane, off the plane is where the action is of course! You’ll have thirteen single-player missions you’ll get to sneak or shoot your way through in what I believe is one of the best stories in a military-style shooter to date. The characters are relatable and likable. The villain, Sadiq, straddles the line between psychopath and evil mastermind quite well. And while I’ll kep things spoiler free, the end of the game feels satisfying to say the least. As you progress through the missions, you’ll be rated in three categories — Ghost, Panther, and Assault. It’s a great system the lets you vary play styles without being punished. You’ll be graded on all three systems at the end of every mission, earning Ghost points for leaving hostiles untouched or taking them out by nonlethal means, Panther points for silent yet deadly kills, and Assault points for kills made in open combat. I sat mostly in the Panther category, as silent kills felt much quicker to me than choking an enemy out. About the only issue that I had was some small frustration with the controls, as occasionally button prompts would not trigger and instead of sliding behind cover I’d hurdle over it or simply stand there just long enough to get spotted. It happened infrequently enough to not be game breaking by any means, but enough that it deserved a quick mention.
If you want to venture out beyond the main story, there are plenty of options. Each of your teammates will provide you with a set of side missions to take on. These can mostly be played solo, in local co-op, or in online co-op though I did find at least one mission that was co-op only. These take a variety of forms, from something mirroring the single player missions to wave based combat, as well as others. While these missions certainly aren’t poorly designed, I didn’t find myself compelled to return for more than the two or three missions I played for the purposes of this review. Also on the SMI map you’ll use to select missions there is an interesting meta game you can partake in where you’ll receive clues and then have to locate the subsequent waypoint on the map. I did around eight of these and did not reach the end before I completed the game, so if you want to know what the pay off is here, you’ll have to take that journey yourself! I will say while it wasn’t amazing, it’s at least solid and adds even more to the plethora of things to do in Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
Last but certainly not least, we have the Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer. This is something we have not seen in a Splinter Cell game since Chaos Theory, and fans I’ve heard from are more than excited to see it back. In the interest of full disclosure, I am notoriously down on competitive multiplayer in games. Some will argue I’m just not good at it, and in certain instances they’d be correct. But even in games like Blacklist, or let’s say Gears of War 2, my skill level was enough to both beat the game on the normal difficulty level and be a strong contributor on the co-op portions of the game. So I would hope those skills would translate for the competitive portion of those games — but I digress.
Objectively speaking Spies vs. Merc is a solid multiplayer mode that offers five modes and of course, the option to play as one of two sides — spies or mercs. As a spy you’ll have most of the same ability and gear you have in the single player game. In fact, at any point you have the gear UI up you can tweak loadouts for any version of your character, single player, spy, or merc. Mercs though, are a whole new ballgame. You’ll be playing from a first person perspective, you’ll move a bit slower, and you’ll not be able to access many hiding places that your opponent can. In essence, you’re at a disadvantage. It’s an interesting dynamic and I did have some fun playing it. But I personally hold to the opinion that the single player remains the crowning jewel of Blacklist.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is the one of the best stealth action games I’ve played in years, and follows up Hitman: Absolution in a string of games that remind me why the feeling of pulling off a great run through a mission is one of the best in gaming. It does have the occasional control hiccup and the co-op missions don’t quite hold up against the story missions, but all in all you’ll be hard pressed to find a better game in the genre right now. Pick it up and enjoy!