Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist (Xbox 360) Review
Posted by Marc Morrison on 09.16.2013
411maniaís Marc Morrison engages the world of stealth in the new Splinter Cell game. See how Sam Fisherís return to form is handled inside.
Title: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Publisher: Ubisoft Toronto
Genre: Stealth, third person shooter
Players: 1-8 Online Multiplayer, 1-2 Split-Screen
Rated: M for Mature
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is kind of an odd game in spots. It most directly is a follow-up to Conviction, and even to a lesser extent Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. However Blacklist also has elements from Chaos Theory that returns, such as the Spies vs. Mercenaries mode, and different ways you can approach your mission types. Blacklist is a good blending of the old Splinter Cell games, with the new ones, but a few small problems crop up. Still, this has been the best Splinter Cell game Iíve played, and for once, Iíve actually enjoyed the series.
Sam Fisher is back with the government in this game, heading up the newly christened ďFourth EchelonĒ team. A few past characters are back: Grim, President Caldwell, Kobin and Vic, to new characters in the game like Charlie and Briggs. The basic setup of the game has a terrorist organization known as ďThe EngineersĒ commiting actions against the US, supported by a Blacklist of targets, ďAmerica FuelĒ, ďAmerican ConsumptionĒ, etc. Sam is tasked with preventing Blacklist attacks and trying to stop the Engineers from killing more people. Itís a fairly basic setup with a twist (shocker, I know!), but keeps the game moving from different locations well and provides a decent enough motivation for your exploits.
Your base is a plane called the Paladin. Here is where you choose what missions to go on, upgrade the plane, upgrade the weapons/items/armor, or participate in online activities. Itís also where you can talk to the other members of your team in order to do their own specific missions as well.
The basic gameplay is taken a lot from Conviction, but the actual spy elements in the game are back. You can non-lethally take guys down now, move bodies around, whistling, and a technological indicator (lights on your suit) of when youíre in stealth mode, as opposed to the color washing out in Conviction. The added stuff is all very beneficial, but the core game still plays a lot like Conviction did: ďMark and executeĒ returns, last known position, gun upgrading, etc. The cover system also returns, but now you can more easily snap to it, than in the previous game.
Iíll focus on a good, and an odd thing in the game, starting with the good thing. This game goes a long way in making Sam actually feeling/playing powerful and cool. The first few missions he has the bog-standard equipment, but once you get the Paladin upgraded a bit and do some tweaking of your arsenal, you become over-powered and the game becomes fun. It never becomes a total cake walk, but you have the necessary tools at your disposal (no matter how you play) to trying new things, and seeing what works out for you. In Conviction, you donít get the sonar goggles till the 7th mission in the game, which was entirely too late. In this game, you can just buy them around the 3rd or 4th mission, if you desire. Not only that, there are other types of goggles for you to choose from, depending on what you want them to do.
You can outfit Sam in a variety of ways in the game. You can change Samís pistol, alternate weapon, special weapon, to his gadget load-out, or even specific armor pieces. The types of gadgets in the game are as follows: sticky cameraís, smoke/sleeping/tear grenades (non-lethal), frag/incendiary (lethal), to a proximity mine, or a proximity shocker (non-lethal mine). The armor pieces are as important since they dictate stats like your armor and sneak capabilities, how many gadgets you can carry, and how much ammo you can carry for each of your three weapons. All of the upgrading/swapping stuff feels fluid, with you picking what you want to use. For the record, the new tri-rotor is great to terrorize guards with.
Blacklist has three classifications for how you deal with enemies/missions. You can utilize Ghost, Panther, or Assault tactics in a mission to varying degrees of success. Ghost tactics are about fully avoiding/distracting the enemy and gear they might have to slip away. This means you donít kill them, but you get them away from the next checkpoint, and bypass them completely. Panther tactics are about being stealthy, but you can kill enemies, as long as you get a stealth kill/knockout. Stealth knockouts actually net you more money in the game, rather than kills. You donít clear out every enemy, but you clear out enough so they wonít be a hindrance to you. Assault is taking the more militaristic viewpoint and just blasting everyone in sight. Stealth is of no concern; it just matters that you can kill everyone and hopefully not die in the process. Of the three, I mainly stuck with Panther, mixed with Ghost, however occasionally Assault style would come into play, particularly during Charlieís missions.
The Paladin upgrades also enhance your abilities in and out of the battlefield. You can buy upgrades for the plane that makes enemies appear on your mini-map, increases health regeneration, unlocks more weapons for you to buy in the store, shows secondary objectives in the missions, or lets you customize your gear during a mission (at a restock box), so you can swap out something you donít need. The radar upgrade is a little sketchy (the basic version should be unlocked by default), but all the other upgrades have a useful place in the game.
This kind of brings up one of the weird things in the game, the concept of money. As you complete story missions, do side-missions, or do the secondary objectives in the game, you gain money. The secondary missions involve picking up a hidden thumb drive (Dead Drop), hacking a laptop (only if youíve been undiscovered in the level), or knocking out a special guard that is a ďHigh Value TargetĒ, and then bagging him for pick up. Each activity nets you some money, as does completing the overall mission, depending on how you did it.
Money, overall, doesnít really serve a practical purpose to the game. You use it to buy the upgrades and such, but it is completely inconsequential, as a metric, or a motivating factor. I had WAY more money than I would really ever need in the game. By the time the fourth mission rolled around, I had fully upgraded the Paladin, and was working on getting the gear I wanted.
Hereís a tip: Only concern yourself with getting the ďSCĒ weapons from Charlie (you need to upgrade his workshop twice). Theyíre the best weapons in the single-player by far.
By the 6th mission, I was buying stuff in the store just for no reason at all. Sure, Iíll spend $80,000 on violet colored goggle lights, why not? Donít get me wrong, I didnít buy every item in the store, but thereís no need to. Almost all the weapons you can get, are inferior to those with the ďSCĒ branding. By the end of the game, I had 1.6 million dollars accrued, with nothing really to spend it on, except for the multiplayer, which Iíll get into below.
Each of the four people on your plane, Grim, Charlie, Kobin, and Briggs each have side missions for you to complete, which are all slightly different from each other. Grimís missions focus on the stealth aspect, youíll need to complete objectives around a map without being seen, or else the mission ends, and you need to retry. Kobinís missions focus on being stealthy, but itís not a make or break. Youíll have to eliminate a certain number of guards from an area before you can proceed. However, if they spot you, they will call in reinforcements and that number doubles, if not triples what it was at. Briggs missions are essentially normal missions, but you have to play them cooperatively, either online, or with split-screen. You canít do them without a partner, period. And finally, Charlieís missions are a weird mixture of stealth and horde mode. Youíll be in a map, and enemies will spawn in waves to come find you. Once a wave is eliminated, the next one comes, each getting harder than the last. These missions have up to 20 waves, but you can get out every 5 waves, if youíve had your fill, or it becomes too challenging.
Of these four, Kobin and Grimís are the best. Kobinís are great because it has you just eliminating fools, but trying not to get spotted. You have to use the environment to your advantage when dispatching with enemies. Grimís are the same way, although the ďIf youíre spotted, mission endsĒ rule can be annoying at spots.
Briggs missions donít work because there should be the option for a single player to do it, with an AI buddy. Having to wrangle someone to do a mission can be a bit of a chore. Also, I had one mission in this mode flake out on me when I (and my partner) had to control a UAV drone. Enemies just wouldnít appear on the map until too late, which would cause a mission failure.
Charlieís missions are actually the worst though, because the game really isnít designed for wave-based combat. It can be done, but itís not done well. When trying to go stealthy, Sam is too fragile to survive against 6 guys at once. And if trying to go full-assault, youíll have even more guys on your back trying to bring you down. Guards also have an annoying issue of just opening a door in the level and spawning out of it, when you canít do anything. Also, I encountered a nifty (and helpful) bug in the first Charlie (Pakistani Embassy) mission. In the main building, thereís a second floor, with a staircase that has a turn in the middle to go up the second floor. I planted myself by the door and would kill the occasional guard. Dogs would spot me, get to the staircase landing but would not go up the second staircase to come after me. The dog would just keep moving around the first staircase but wouldnít go up the second. This gave me plenty of time to catch a breather, or reload. I could then activate the dogís ďgo up the second staircaseĒ AI by flying my tri-rotor passed him. This would get him unstuck from the corner, and he would trot up. Then I would shoot him in the face before he started barking.
The game has a good amount of replay factor, both in terms of the campaign and the multi-player modes. You can play the campaign with a friend which is a nice benefit and the other missions can also be done cooperatively. The big multiplayer mode here is the return of the Spies vs. Mercenaries mode, last seen in Chaos Theory. There are different modes you can pick for this, but they usually boil down to one team trying to complete an objective and the opposite team trying to stop them. So in one mode the Spies team has to hack three terminals in a map, and the Mercenaries team has to stop them.
Spies play from the usual third-person perspective and play like Sam does in the campaign. They can be outfitted with different types of armor to cloak themselves, destroy all enemy gadgets in range, or provide locations of nearby enemies. The Spy gadgets all follow these themes with most of them providing more battlefield information, non-lethal grenades or avoiding detection from enemy gadgets/tracking so you can sneak around better.
The Mercenaries on the other hand, play from a first person perspective. They also canít jump around or climb up walls like a spy can. Their gear is more tailored for lethality, having UAV drones they can deploy, frag grenades, abilities to disrupt enemy tracking, and proximity mines. The first person mode is not very fun though. You donít turn fast enough or have enough or generally have enough speed to look behind you.
The money situation applies to this mode as well with an added twist of the unlock tokens. As you level up, you get tokens to spend on new gear, which you need to buy with money. However, the amount of money you have isnít equal to the number of tokens/rank. Youíll have far more money than tokens you need to buy stuff. A simple solution to this problem would be to let you buy the unlock tokens with the in-game money. So, if you want one token, make it cost $100,000. Five tokens would cost $500,000, and so on. Certain level items are gated behind being a high enough level but my simple system would unlock about 80% of the items and would make for a better overall experience.
Side Note: When writing this review, I tried completing a weekly challenge for the game. My progress was at around 57 kills (out of 100) you need to get for the week. I booted the game up the next day and my progress was reset, despite the challenge still being active. So, Iím giving a bit of warning regarding trying to attain this.
Graphically, the game looks really solid, but there is a small hitch. The game comes on two dvds (360 version, again), with the first part of the campaign and the multiplayer component on the first disk, and the second half of the campaign and the HD Texture pack. Youíll want to install this texture pack (around 4gb or so) in order to really have the game look good. On the whole, the game looks great, the lighting is good, the animation is fluid, and the environments are different but detailed from each other. The only minor blotch is how Charlie looks in the game. The game uses facial modeling/mo-cap work from actors, so the way they look/animate looks better. Charlieís face though doesnít look right, specifically his eyes. He looks a bit like a frog or a salamander with his eyes sticking out on the sides of his head, bugging out. The actor, David Reale, doesnít look like this at all, so itís an odd thing for his character to look like.
Audio is slightly a mixed bag, but has more positives than negatives. The music is strong at points but largely incidental to the overall game. The sound effect design is good, gadgets all have different sounds, and you can hear guardís footsteps as they get closer to you. Most of the voice acting is good except for that of Sam Fisher. Iím not saying that Eric Johnson does a bad job necessarily as Sam, but something is a bit off. Sam has the voice of a guy in his mid-30ís, precisely because Johnson is in his mid-30ís. Samís chronological age is 56 and Johnson doesnít sound like that. Donít get me wrong, Ironside needed to go, and Johnson tries his best, but itís still just a tad odd sounding.
The stealth action is great and variety filled
Spies vs. Mercenaries makes a welcome return and is enjoyable to play
Upgrading equipment can enhance your abilities and can make the game very enjoyable
Money is ultimately worthless in the game as a reward mechanic
Mercenaries in the first person mode, is slow and plodding.
The game is buggy in spots
While Conviction was a good game, Blacklist is even better. It strikes a good balance of old-style Splinter Cell games but making the game modern for todayís audiences. There are a few quirky bits but this game largely hits all the high notes and was an enjoyable time through and through.
Youíll want to include the texture pack but the game looks great. The action never trips the game up and holds up admirably.
Aside from money, the gameplay was great. Diverse mission types, a lot of fun gadgets, and the basic tools to make it enjoyable.
Some of the voice acting is odd, but youíll get used to it. The sound effect design is key to a stealth game, and it works here.
The big inclusions of co-op and Spies vs. Mercís are the driving forces to keep you coming back. It has DLC hooks but is isnít out yet.
Youíll have a lot of fun playing this game, either being stealthy or being as loud as possible. The gadgets are very versatile and provide enjoyment.