The biggest Splinter Cell to date is also, unfortunately, the messiest.
Posted by Mike Suskie (September 02, 2013)
Let's just get this out of the way: Sam Fisher is no longer being voiced by Michael Ironside, and that sucks. I'm comfortable calling Ironside's work one of the most iconic performances in the gaming industry (yes, more so than David Hayter as Solid Snake), and the actor's absence leaves a gaping hole in the series that, unfortunately, his replacement can't fill. Eric Johnson mutters, mumbles and murmurs his way through the entire script, reducing one of the most memorable protagonists of the last two generations to a guy who sounds like he needs his coffee. And let's face it – Splinter Cell has always been a bland mix of indecipherable government lingo and eye-rolling spy movies clichés. It was Fisher's gravelly menace and dark sense of humor that kept us engaged in what was going on, and now he doesn't sound, look, talk or act like his former self. He's essentially a completely different character, one with no discernible spark or personality. He's just a guy.
Why they didn't just bring an entirely new protagonist into the mix – especially when the previous game's ending would've served as a solid sending-off point for Fisher – I don't know, but it's a glaring misstep in a product that otherwise stumbles over itself trying to rebuild bridges with angry fans. I loved Conviction, but I realize that it wasn't necessarily what everyone wants from a Splinter Cell game. Refashioning the star of a stealth franchise into a nimble predator and encouraging players to be aggressive (even in quiet, indirect ways) was too abrupt a change of pace for some, and to compromise, Ubisoft has taken some of Conviction's advancements in aesthetic and control and applied them to a more traditional steath-action model with Splinter Cell: Blacklist. It's usually successful, occasionally a mess and altogether somewhat lacking in identity.
Having gone rogue and gadget-free in his last outing, quote-unquote "Sam" slips back into his signature black suit and goggles for Blacklist and returns to the life of a government operative, this time thwarting the plans of a terrorist named Sadiq, who demands that the United States pull its troops from all foreign countries. (If there's a counterbalance to Johnson's phoned-in performance, it's excellent character actor Carlo Rota, who lends steely venom to what is probably the series' best villain to date.) The increased mobility we saw in Conviction makes a return, as does the ability to "mark" enemies for instantaneous execution under certain circumstances, but a wider arsenal means more options, and it's almost always possible to sneak into heavily-guarded compounds without the enemy even realizing that Sam is there.
It's encouraged, in fact. Blacklist features a reasonably robust point system that rewards players for efficiency in three different play styles, which differ in terms of lethality and subtlety. Getting through the entire campaign without killing anyone or raising alarms is not only feasible, but it's the sort of challenge that diehard Splinter Cell fans love to impose on themselves, and it's complemented by some of the series' best level design yet. Areas are never as narrow as they look, and there's almost always a vent, ledge or pipe providing an alternate route... and even when there isn't, Sam's inventory is so extensive (including sticky noisemakers, sleeping gas and a flying drone) that non-confrontational approaches are usually available to those willing to put some effort into it.
I say "usually" because, yeah, Ubisoft still awkwardly shoehorns action sequences into the game from time to time. Remember the Iraq level in Conviction that no one liked, the mission that abnegated stealth in favor of straightforward gunplay? Blacklist's soon-to-be-notorious equivalent is a trek through the Philadelphia transit yards that literally morphs into a full-on first-person shooter on two separate occasions and eventually forces Sam into a headfirst firefight aboard a moving train. Infuriatingly, Conviction's super-intuitive cover system doesn't make a return, and I imagine it's been scrapped specifically to free up a trigger that can now be used for ironsights aiming, which, ideally, you'd never need in a Splinter Cell game.
Ubisoft is getting better with this, admittedly, but we're now six entries deep into this franchise. They clearly understand that players want to shape their own approaches to stealth, and they generally implement that sense of open-endedness well, so it's all the more baffling that they continue to make the same amateurish mistakes. Blacklist feels like it should be the best Splinter Cell game ever, and it isn't, and that's a shame.
It's certainly the biggest game in the series, though, at least from a glance. Rather than being a linear succession of single-player levels, Blacklist puts players in a hub zone – a plane called Paladin – and allows them to tackle both the campaign and a relatively substantial number of side missions at their own leisure. The catch is that the optional quests are comprised largely of the cooperative material that's become a mainstay of the series at this point. There are four missions that comprise the actual co-op campaign, and then a bunch of other arena battles and challenge maps that can be completed either solo or with a partner. So this is more or less the content that you'd expect anyway, the difference being that it's now all integrated into one relatively seamless narrative context. Having said that, this is still a pretty meaty game with a lot of content and a lot of replay value. In particular, the highest difficulty does far more than simply ramp up enemy damage, as it imposes serious limits on the ways players function, like removing mark-and-execute entirely and significantly reducing the effectiveness of sonar vision. It's loads of fun for enthusiasts, and it's aptly named: Perfectionist.
On the other hand, the co-op campaign kind of sucks. Oh, it's gloriously well-designed; that's not the problem. What blows are the rampant technical issues that often put players into game-breaking situations. The worst is an apparently widespread glitch wherein a wave of enemies during the very last firefight doesn't spawn, making the level impossible to finish and thus forcing players to start all over. When I made another attempt to finish the mission, I encountered a separate glitch during the exact same sequence in which enemies would only fire on me and ignore my teammate. For story-related reasons, we were stranded in the open and couldn't move to cover, thus making the shootout a frustrating disaster when only one of us was being targeted.
The burn of that experience was somewhat soothed, however, by a miraculous quirk later on in which my character "died" but was still somehow able to move and shoot without taking damage, while my co-op partner merely saw a dead body constantly relocating itself. And I'm only recounting the worst stuff, here; it would take me forever to list all of the AI bugs and malfunctioning command prompts that made the co-op experience such a broken mess for me. Maybe I'd be more willing to forgive that if co-op play was a throwaway feature, but it's been a selling point for the series for quite some time and it's now been integrated directly into the single-player story, and as such, this is inexcusable.
So while Blacklist is easily the most indistinct Splinter Cell to date, it could've made up for that by being the best, and it almost is. It's certainly as hearty a package as one could ask for (up to and including the return of Spies vs. Mercs, the competitive multiplayer mode that refuses to get old), and at its best, it's classic Splinter Cell. But what Blacklist does best has been done before, and more consistently than this. Bring back Michael Ironside and fix the damn co-op, and then we'll talk.
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