Despite having been around since the previous console generation it hasn’t always been plain sailing for Sam Fisher, and you could be forgiven for thinking that by his sixth outing things might get a touch stale. There aren’t many franchises that can survive that length of time, especially after some questionable releases - yes Double Agent and Conviction, I am looking at you. Thankfully, there is a freshness that has been injected into the franchise in this iteration that puts many fears to bed.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist focuses on a terrorist group known only ‘The Engineers’ who begin the game by attacking a military airbase and then threaten a series of attacks known as the Blacklist. These very well timetabled series of attacks serve to give the narrative an overall sense of pace and purpose; every mission that passes reads like a ticking of a clock. Having coincidentally just survived the initial attack on the airbase, Sam is instated as the commander of the newly established Fourth Echelon. You would think that with Third Echelon being shut down due to corruption the President may have chosen a different name for Sam’s new outfit but I guess when you are dealing with a national terrorist threat you just don’t have the time to come up with a snappy name.
Similar to Third Echelon this new group operates above the law with the ability to exercise the Fifth Freedom; a freedom that allows Sam to act illegally for the greater good. While it’s not original or overly creative the narrative is a solid action espionage thriller and plays out like a 24 mini-series, and as it moves along at a quickening pace the game is never dull. Fans of the series may notice and bemoan the lack of Michael Ironside as Sam but Eric Johnson steps in with great confidence and a silkier audio palette. What does cause a level of dissonance is that Sam seems to have discovered the secret to not only eternal youth but how to reverse the ageing process.
With your ragtag group ready to fight the good fight you take to your mobile headquarters in the shape of the flying fortress Paladin. At this point the game takes a leaf out of the Mass Effect playbook with the Paladin becoming a game hub that houses a number of supporting characters that you can interact with. As you accumulate money you can make upgrades to the plane and these upgrades will, in turn, assist you on the ground. For instance by making an upgrade to the infirmary you will see your health regeneration receive a boost, or by upgrading your cockpit you will receive an increase to your radar range in the field. It serves as an engaging mechanic in-between missions and these unlocks are not piecemeal and you will feel the difference each one makes so you will be compelled to push for more and more of them.
The proof of the pudding with a Splinter Cell game is how good the stealth gameplay is, that and interesting level design, and thankfully Blacklist delivers. This really is a game that caters for all ranges of play style and with controls that are responsive and accessible you will be able to execute your desired plan of attack and also manage ad hoc survival with ease. The three styles of play that are open to the player, and which you are graded on post-mission, are Ghost, Panther and Assault. The Ghost stays hidden and avoids any contact with enemies, the Panther is silent but acts with deadly force while the Assault does exactly what it says on the tin. Each of these areas are graded after missions and the better you perform the more money you will receive for purchasing upgrades and so on. Each mission has targets for extra rewards and this is a great mechanism built in for making the player come back time and again to chase extra cash to customise their own version of Sam Fisher.
Sam is also assisted by his an array of useful devices in his arsenal to tackle any missions and they again help you to define your play style. For the noisemakers among you there are some pretty devastating weapons such as the incendiary grenades that will cause maximum, blood curdling damage. For those who have a touch more guile you will get a lot of use out of gadgets like the tri-rotor, a mini player controlled drone. You can fly it through vent shafts, spy on enemies and even put them out cold with a well placed shocker in the back. Beyond weapon and gadget loadouts there are also a large variety of modifications for your Ops Suit for you to craft the perfect Fisher for every mission. From your gloves to your boots you will be able to customise them to give your character a buff from reduced noise when running, to improved accuracy at range. Ubisoft Toronto have really left the player with no room to complain when it comes to giving the player the ability to play the game as they want. There is always a concern that stealth games can get dumbed down to attract a wider, less cautious, audience. In Blacklist there is no issue with this, the idea of playing the game as an Assault character even makes sense from a narrative perspective given the urgency and imminence of massive attacks.
Beyond the single-player element there is a plethora of extra game modes to get your teeth stuck into and they are all fully realised. Each of your Fourth Echelon colleagues will provide you with extra missions that you can fill out your play time with and unlock as your progress. Some are standalone challenge missions that will see you trying to complete an objective while remaining undetected, some are a variation of a horde-esque mode, while others are online co-op only. These missions are tied into elements of the main story but can be played at any time, they are much more than an afterthought and add a lot of playtime while not sacrificing the quality of the main portion of the game.
The real diamond of the extra modes is the welcome return of Spies Vs Mercs, now with an added Blacklist variation on the formula. The classic version of the mode is the 2v2 setup with Spies having to hack terminals while Mercenaries must protect the information the terminals hold. What has always made this mode brilliant is the alternative viewing perspectives with Mercs operating in a first-person mode while the Spies have a wider field of view in third-person. Mercs deal heavy damage but are restricted by being slower and with less of a field of vision while Spies are nimble and deadly but can’t take any real measure of damage. It works fantastically well with matches fraught with the type of tension that sees you holding your breath on your sofa as you sneak up on your target, hoping they don’t turn around.
This feels like a game that has returned to a time when the series was great; whether that lack of innovation is a sticking point or not is an opinion that will sit firmly with the player themselves. It is more of the same then, but it exists as a wonderful refinement of an old recipe. With an entertaining story, play style customisation and a plethora of extra content Blacklist is without a doubt the finest Splinter Cell game for what seems like quite a while. It’s big, bold and a bit silly at times but for a silky action adventure that will give you more than you put in then you shouldn’t look much further.