This generation of Tom Clancy-branded titles undoubted demonstrated the capability of consoles, flaunting enriched visuals and providing players with access to increasingly sophisticated gadgetry. Yet, Ubisoft’s contemporary line of military and espionage-themed games also simplified core gameplay mechanics, presumably in an effort to appeal to a wider audience. Whereas patrols and room clearing missions in Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six once demonstrated controller-clenching intensity, with slight miscalculations resulting in the death of your teammates, later iterations transformed protagonists into implausible bullet-soaking superheroes.
Similarly, 2010’s Splinter Cell Conviction shirked much of the franchise’s furtive approach, largely adapting the series into an action title. While the game was a critical and commercial success, its changes produced a rift between long-time series fans and newcomers who enjoyed Conviction’s accessibility. Clearly, the next Splinter Cell would put seasoned super-spy Sam Fisher in a particularly precarious situation, as he tries to appease both audiences.
Amazingly, the recent release of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist succeeds in this endeavor, offering an expansive toolset and enough autonomy to accommodate a variety of play styles. For stealth purists, Ghost-oriented tactics favor nonlethal interactions and lurking in the dim recesses of each stage. It’s undoubtedly the toughest trek, requiring players to methodically study the behavior of foes, and occasionally abscond when the AI unexpectedly discovers Sam. Yet, covert play is also the most rewarding style. Beyond offering the requisite achievement/trophy for a no-kill playthrough, ghosting earns the largest point values, allowing players to outfit Fisher with additional gear.
The Panther path recalls Conviction’s gameplay, as player’s stalk oppositional forces, slashing away at their numbers. Two of Conviction’s fundamental mechanics, the ‘mark and execute’ and ‘last known position’ abilities return. The former allows players to automatically eliminate denoted hostiles with a single button press, while the later uses a translucent outline to indicate where enemies think Fisher is hiding. Since the Panther play style aims to not alert the enemy, it’s easier than the Assault tactic, which involves direct confrontation with unsuppressed firearms, grenades and melee kills committed in the open.
Blacklist’s well-crafted environments admirably try to accommodate all three play styles. Although there are moments when ‘mark and execute’ strategies aren’t effective in specific settings and the cover system can be a bit too clingy, these blemishes contribute to the game’s intensity. While the sporadic unraveling of well-concocted strategy can be a bit irksome, the side effect is that players are compelled to be cognizant at all times and to have a contingency plan for when chaos inevitably erupts. That said, wholly spontaneous situations are infrequent, rarely corrupting Blacklist’s cadence. For those who enjoy controlling a situation- deliberately darkening locations, and luring foes around with noisemakers to provide a strategic advantage, the game’s eight-to-ten hour core campaign provides a plethora of satisfying opportunities.
Every bit as skillful as Blacklist’s single player adaptability is the game’s collection of fourteen cooperative stages. Here, local and online partners work is close collaboration through stages, relying on constant communication to complete the game’s conventional jaunts and stimulating wave-based missions. Using a device to bait enemies is pleasing, but having one player create a clamor while another waits in a strategic position to mow down unsuspecting foes is irrefutably riveting, encouraging protracted play sessions. Since currency earned in any of Blacklist’s components carries over to the rest of the game, solitary players can even save for gear that will enable them to survive most of these missions.
Rounding out Blacklist’s roster of components is the return of Pandora Tomorrow/Chaos Theory’s engrossing Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer mode. Pleasingly, the asymmetrical foundations remain largely unchanged. Pitting duplicitous spies with environmental prowess against ground based grunts carrying heavy firepower, matches are persistently tense regardless of faction. Although the pace of the proceedings is slightly elevated and a few gadgets are missing (such as the ability to listen to rival team chatter), these modifications do little to mar the tension between teams using radically divergent toolsets. An eponymous variant ups the player count to 4-on-4, offering a class system and an occasional reprieve from maps drenched in darkness. Mostly other new changes work, save for a confusing Team Deathmatch mode which allow for Spies and Mercs on the same team. Too often, distinguishing friend from foe detracts from the visceral rudiments of competition.
Splinter Cell Blacklist’s main weakness can be found in its framing. The game with a strong sense of urgency, as a group known as the Engineers ambush an American military base in Guam, before threatening the States with an increasingly destructive timetable. Nervous jump cuts, throbbing synthesizer drones, and superb voice acting from Blacklist’s villain come together adeptly, while subsequent globetrotting made possible via Fourth Echelon’s clandestine base of operations, allows Fisher and company to skulk, snipe, and shell across exotic locales. Yet, between an oppositional motivation which begins to fray as the game reaches its conclusion and teammates rooted in overused stereotype (hyperactive young hacker who offer comic relief? Check! Techno-babbling chief officer? Check!).
After six games with Michael Ironside playing Fisher, the transition to accepting voice over from Eric Johnson will prove difficult. Much of the problem is that the new actor doesn’t articulate the coarse intonation expected from a seasoned spy in his late forties. Instead, Johnson carries the enthusiastic and glossy inflection of someone at least a decade younger and with significantly less psychological baggage. Additionally, the game’s mechanical and narrative-based tensions are occasionally undermined by performance issues, with screen-tearing and rudimentary character modeling being particularly noticeable.
Splinter Cell Blacklist’s decision to placate divergent audiences could have easily pushed the game into ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ territory. Yet, the team at Ubisoft Toronto has brought together a near-seamless package apt to please veterans who revere Chaos Theory as well as newcomers who enjoyed Conviction’s accessibility and speedy play. Hopefully, Ubisoft will apply this approach to the rest of the Tom Clancy oeuvre. We’d love to see Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six revitalized and regain their once unrivaled glory.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 with a retail media supplied by the publisher.