Splinter Cell is one of the most prominent games in the entire stealth genre, with the only other major competitor being the renowned Metal Gear Solid series. While the initial few Splinter Cell games embodied stealth in its purest form—players were often penalised for even being spotted by enemies, let alone confronting them—the later games, starting from Double Agent, took a rather unfortunate turn to focus more on combat. Ubisoft had promised that despite this trend, Blacklist would have plenty of options for stealing around enemies rather than just shooting them in the face. Is this the case? Let's find out.
Blacklist has a Normandy-esque home base to explore
Splinter Cell: Blacklist revolves around a terrorist organisation that calls itself The Engineers and has only one demand: the US should withdraw all of its soldiers who are abroad. If these demands aren’t met, the Engineers promise to slowly destroy America by attacking certain areas. Said areas are hinted at with cryptic names such as "American Consumption" and "American Freedom". In short, the plot's quite bad. Most of the game takes place outside the US, but we’re treated to the same America-saves-the-day jingoism that’s become so common in modern military shooters these days. Despite the characters constantly throwing around names, army commands and confidential information, it’s quite a dumb plot.
Calling the writing shoddy would be an understatement. Most of the characters, if not all, are quite two-dimensional and there isn't much depth to them. We all know that the nerd is going to be one of the best hackers on the planet, Grim is definitely the hardass control centre and Briggs is obviously the token black guy who accompanies you to the field now and then. Protagonist Sam Fisher appears to be quite fleshed out, but even that can be attributed to the fact that we’ve seen him around for seven games before this. Apart from the fact that he has a daughter whom he talks to occasionally, he still feels like the usual generic, badass guy.
The story is so bad that despite their rather inept attempts at employing typical terrorist tactics—which often leads to just one or two guys taking them down—the Engineers feel way more sympathetic than Sam & Co. do. Maybe it's because the plot was mostly meant to tug on the heartstrings of the decidedly American demographic, but their demand of pulling out US soldiers from foreign soil doesn’t really sound too unreasonable to us. Think about that: a game’s bad guys (who also happen to be terrorists) come off as more sympathetic than the good guys... and this definitely wasn’t done on purpose.
Sam Fisher has more in common with Jack Bauer than Solid Snake
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Fisher
Time to cut the game some slack: the crap story in no way stopped us from actually enjoying the hell out of Blacklist. Sadly, we got an early pre-release review copy, so we couldn't try out the co-op or multiplayer Spies vs Mercs mode. However, the campaign itself is quite fun. The levels are varied and take you all over the world, right from Iran to the US to South America. The levels themselves are quite well designed and allow a lot of room for improvisation. For example, you can either enter through the front door of a building and take down a tonne of guards, bash in through the front door and throw a smoke grenade to hide yourself, or you can find a vent to get inside the building undetected.
The stealth aspect of the gameplay makes good use of light, sound and line-of-sight. You are encouraged to go through the levels in one of three ways—completely undetected with no unnecessary kills, some silent kills or all guns blazing. If you’re going silent, you’ll use items like sticky cameras and noisemakers to keep an eye on enemies and distract them. Use your always-silenced pistol, and you’ll go more towards the middle of the bar. Go all out with a shotgun and some frag grenades, and, well, you know the story.
I attempted, and was quite successful, at going mostly undetected. That isn’t to say that I didn’t get into gunfights at all. But because of some of the design decisions, getting into gunfights seems to be discouraged. For example, you don't seem to have enough health to take more than a couple of hits, and that’s not even considering if the bad guys have a shotgun. You’re better off just hiding and biding your time as you wait for the perfect shot.
Stealth is great... so are gunfights
Fisher has quite a few moves at his disposal, including the popular Mark & Execute, where after pulling off some kills and takedowns, he can mark and kill some enemies instantly from a vantage point, if they're within the range of his weapon. Fisher also has takedowns for when he’s in cover, when enemies are on the other side of his cover, when enemies are standing in front of him, when he’s running up to them, when he’s stalking on a pipe above the enemy, when he... you get the idea. The game gives you all the tools you need to look badass, and how you use them is all up to you.
The focus has been on making Fisher mobile. There isn’t as much emphasis on observing enemy routes and planning forward like in Dishonored or the Metal Gear Solid series. This isn’t a bad thing, though, as you’re just supposed to keep going ahead and wing it. More often than not, you aren't thrust into any situation that’ll take more than a minute of thinking. To facilitate the much faster gameplay, there’s a cover system that lets you switch covers at the touch of a button. This doesn’t keep you invisible, though, and you’re supposed to wait till you’re not in anyone’s line of sight.
The guns respond well and make satisfying sounds when they're fired. Even shooting a silenced pistol feels good when you take down that unsuspecting guard. Assault rifles and SMGs have realistic recoils and essentially prevent you from using the old “spray and pray” tactic.