It was midway through my fourth playthrough of the same section in Splinter Cell: Blacklist that my patience with that son of a bitch Herman finally wore thin and I snapped. It was my own fault, of course. As a fan of the Splinter Cell series from back in the days when a single guard’s lucky glance in the wrong direction could mean instant fail, my inclination with Blacklist was to be a ghost. I wanted to clear the Water Treatment Plant in Chicago, an early level in Blacklist where the terrorist group known as the Engineers were planning a devastating attack under the guise of attacking “American consumption,” without the enemy knowing I was there. I wanted them to continue on with their digital lives after I had gone, possibly blaming themselves for their failure. I would curse them with the greatest and most devastating weapon I could use: self-doubt. But then Herman appeared.
Herman was the name I had arbitrarily given to one particular guard who kept managing to spot me by the most improbable means, thus ruining my perfect stealth run. One time he walked right in to me when I was hiding in shadows, another he forced me into the path of another guard and saw me as I dashed back. The third time Herman heard me as I shot out a light. The fourth attempt though, after taking an especially long time to quietly make my way around and yet he randomly turned and looked right at me… well, the fourth time things did not end well for Herman. Or his squad. Or anyone that happened to look at me funny. And while it might not seem like it, that is actually the brilliance of Blacklist.
Sure, Herman drove me in to a homicidal rage that would have put Sam Fisher in a very, very dark place spiritually, but it also highlighted the thing that sets Blacklist apart from its predecessors, and most stealth action games. Splinter Cell: Blacklist rewards you for playing it in whatever fashion you want.
Blacklist exists in the same mold as the previous Splinter Cell games, with mostly linear levels and an emphasis on being sneaky. The post-level scoring system, however, is what sets it apart. It might sound like a minor thing, but it really does change how you approach a mission. In the previous Splinter Cell game, Conviction, it’s biggest flaw was that it made you feel stupid for playing the game like a traditional Splinter Cell game. You could be super sneaky and slowly make your way through levels, spending hours on painstaking research of the movement patterns of guards – or you could just run through that same area in a matter of minutes with Death as your co-pilot, and there were no consequences. It made your stealth efforts worthless, and you were often forced into fights regardless, which felt like a bit of a betrayal of the series’ principles. Sam Fisher is a shadow, a story terrorists tell their little terrorist kids to get them to do their chores and eat their vegetables. He doesn’t grab an assault rifle and murder a small town’s worth of people. If you want to go that route in Blacklist, you are free to, but thankfully, for the obsessive gamer like me who wants to remain unseen, you can do that too and receive a huge bonus for it. And when Herman shows up, you can weigh the cost of that bonus versus the sweet, sweet taste of vengeance. It was totally worth it.
A new Fisher for a new world. The story of Blacklist resets the Sam Fisher mythology to a degree. After spending the last few games dealing with betrayal, loss, and personal drama on his own, Sam is back with an organization fighting terrorists. Blacklist’s Fisher is a new man, having gone through the fire and emerged a leader. In his role as a boss, the game unfolds on multiple fronts.
One Interface to Rule Them All. The overarching story pits Fisher and the new Fourth Echelon against the Engineers, a terrorist organization that plans a series of escalating attacks against the United States, with the end goal of having America recall all of its troops stationed abroad. Under orders from the President, Fourth Echelon follows clues around the world, from Paraguay to Chicago to Benghazi to Louisiana to London and more, always one step behind of the well informed Engineers. The main arc plays out through the single player campaign, but to get the full story you’ll also need to play the co-op missions.
The co-op missions can be accessed at any time during the campaign, and once they are unlocked by talking to the NPC that assigns them, they can be replayed at any time either with a friend or solo with an AI partner. Each co-op assignment is a standalone mission that is connected to the Engineers plot, but independent of the main story line. You don’t need to play it to get the full story, but it adds to it. The missions range from stealth with instant fail consequences if spotted to all-out assault to a mixture of the two. You can even combine styles in some missions, and have one person go Leroy Jenkins while the other sticks to the shadows.
Give Me a Ship. Fisher’s world revolves around Fourth Echelon’s pimped out cargo plane that doubles as a mobile command center. From here you’ll choose your next missions, but you’ll also get to talk with your crew, including: Briggs, Fisher’s protégé; Charlie, the Q of the organization; Kobin, the man who sort of faked Fisher’s daughter’s death, and so ended up on his “naughty” list; Grimsdotir, who narrowly avoided getting shot in the head by Fisher, and now enjoys the odd awkward conversation with him. It all plays out in a similar fashion to an RPG like Mass Effect’s Normandy interactions.
Choose your Own Path of Destruction. Poor, doomed Herman exemplifies the gameplay options well. In the demo I played, there was a limited amount of time. That forced me to take some risks I wouldn’t normally have taken in a Splinter Cell game. In the comfort of my own home, I may have made slow, but steady progress by using plenty of gadgets to distract and learning patterns. That would go towards earning me “Ghost” points, which are tabulated at the end of the round. If I had silently killed Herman, perhaps while muttering “Why did you make me do this?!” then I would have earned “Panther” points. Instead, by going Wolvie berserk style and killing everyone, I earned “Assault” points.
Sticking to one category throughout the entire mission earns you a big bonus. That equates to money you can use to purchase upgrades, so there is a practical benefit for not going insane and killing everyone, instead sticking with a ghost playthrough throughout. Alternatively, you can kill everyone quietly for Panther points, or you can play the game like a traditional third-person shooter – although Fisher has an unfortunate habit of dying when shot a few time. Buying the right equipment helps you towards whatever path you want, and you can replay missions at any time. An average playthrough will likely end with a little bit of multiple styles.
Spies vs. Mercs. Along with the co-op and campaign missions, there are a series of Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer maps, which put you in the shoes of an under-powered, but sneaky spy, or a strong, but slow-moving mercenary. Check out our earlier preview for more info.
Same Old Fisher. Thanks to the multiple pathways, Blacklist plays like Conviction, down to the ability to mark targets and execute up to three enemies at once, but it also hearkens back to the older games. Each area tends to have a few options on how to proceed, and the gadgets like noisemakers and an RC helicopter with a camera can help when your path is blocked. Both stealth and combat options feel natural, and Fisher moves with a fluidity afforded to him thanks to new motion capture technology, which is made possible due to the sad absence of Michael Ironside.
Big Sound Dampening Boots to Fill. If you have played the Splinter Cell games before, losing Ironside is a surprisingly difficult pill to swallow. Eric Johnson does a decent job, but he is far more vanilla than Ironside – his voice doesn’t carry the same menace. When Ironside told a bad guy he was going to cut them, you could buy it. Johnson’s Fisher can knife a guy just fine, but he sounds more generic while doing it. The tradeoff is the natural looking movements, which Johnson filmed wearing a motion capture suit. That, paired with some solid and imaginative level design that takes you all over the world, from terrorist dug tunnels to city streets to office complexes, makes Blacklist look like the best Splinter Cell game yet.
Although the next-generation of consoles is stealing most of the attention of the gaming industry at the moment, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a good example of why the current gen won’t disappear any time soon. It’s a game that lets you play how you want, and rewards you accordingly. If you want to go old school and sneak through levels, you can. If you want to bathe in the blood of your enemies, you can do that too. And you can do either solo or with a friend (in specific missions). The fate of Herman and his ilk is in your hands when Splinter Cell: Blacklist arrives on PC, PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U on August 20.
[UPDATED: This article has been updated to correct an error – the Engineer’s attack is on “American Consumption,” not “American Consumerism” as originally noted.