Published on April 22nd, 2014 | by Mark
Review: Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Hiding in the shadows, you see two guards talking; neither of them has spotted you. You feel the tension rising as they near the end of their conversation. As it draws to a close one walks off in the opposite direction, you breathe a sigh of relief knowing you will remain undetected. Now there is just one lone guard with his back to you, you carefully emerge from the shadows and creep up on him, silently subduing him and dragging his limp body back to the shadows before waiting for the other guard to return.
That feeling of removing every guard without being spotted, of silently making your way through an installation without raising the alarm, it never gets old and it always feels great. It has felt that way since I first walked through the Facility in Goldeneye on the N64. Now on the Wii U we have Splinter Cell Blacklist, the latest entry in an award winning blockbuster series.
There is a plot somewhere, there are terrorists, they are attacking the US and someone has got to stop them. That someone is you, Sam Fisher, the leader of Fourth Echelon, an elite terrorist fighting unit that operates largely under its own autonomy from a base aboard a giant plane called Paladin. That’s about all you need to know really, the plot is typical Hollywood action movie fodder with a few contemporary touches based on current events. It won’t set you on fire or compel you to continue playing; it feels like it is there because it has to be. A blockbuster title needs a plot, a bad guy, a team of good guys, a country under threat and a hero – this has them all and you’ll care about none of them.
The cast, the plot and the setting are all instantly forgettable at best. But one especially irritating cast member does deserve special mention – the ‘technical guru’ aboard Paladin. This techno-babble spouting, cardigan wearing nerd really does take the biscuit for being a walking cliché. Thankfully, despite him doling out new weaponry and armour you can buy it directly from the gun cabinet circumventing the need to talk to him.
Paladin serves as a hub. You can select your next mission, replay previous missions and choose to play multiplayer or cooperative modes. You can also speak to members on board to upgrade the plane, your armour and your weapons which are done with money you earn from completing missions and carrying out successful take downs and other objectives.
You will learn pretty quickly that there are essentially two ways to upgrade your gear. The first turns you into a stealthy, lightly armoured and nimble assassin with silenced weapons all geared to moving quickly and quietly. The second turns you into a heavily armoured, heavily armed, slow and noisy tank that is able to literally gun down everyone in your path.
This is where Ubisoft’s design starts to fall apart. A good stealth game forces the player to avoid open conflict, move through the shadows, take down guards silently and achieve goals undetected like a ghost. The whole sense of tension in a game like this comes from the fact that open conflict leads to death. You are totally outnumbered, heavily outgunned and you tip the balance in your favour by using the shadows to hunt your enemies silently one by one.
But in Splinter Cell Blacklist this isn’t the case. Due to the insane number of gadgets, weapons and armour at your disposal the easiest way to make it through a level is usually to shoot your way out. It isn’t long into the game that you realise that being detected is actually not fatal, you just select your assault rifle, move to cover and approach the waves of enemies as if playing any third person cover based shooter.
This breaks all the tension and removes any incentive to play stealthily, which invariably removes most of the challenge. What’s more the mark and execute system which allows you to pull off three headshots at a time, whilst looking fantastic, turns you into an even more powerful one man army.
Ubisoft were clearly aware of this problem, so to counteract it they inserted ridiculously overpowered enemies with massive amounts of body armour that you need to take down in hand to hand combat – or alternatively save up for an even more powerful assault rifle. These design choices lead to guards with helmets that require two headshots, this is again irritating because despite the helmet not covering their faces it also takes two shots to the face to kill them.
The levels themselves also contribute to the feeling that the game is more easily played as third person shooter. Nearly every mission feels like you are being funnelled down a set path and following a directional marker. You move down narrow corridors, or areas that feel like corridors, taking out guards along the way. And there are a lot of guards. The areas are overflowing with enemies, which further contributes to making stealth a less than attractive option.
There’s also no real freedom in how you approach most levels. One exception is a large indoor mall area. At that point it’s up to you how you get from one side to the other – do you go over the air ducts on the ceiling, do you sneak through the Christmas stalls in the centre or do you creep around the edge? It is at points like these the game shines. You are in control, you decide how to approach a problem and you decide which direction you take and whether lethal force is needed or not. But then all too soon you’re back into the corridors on a set path.
Pretty soon you get used to the pattern. You move into a room, shoot out the lights, start making headshots and then if all goes wrong blast everything with your trusty assault rifle. But that doesn’t make it a bad game. It’s still fun and at times there is still tension and atmosphere. If anything this game is a victim of modern game design – hand holding, a lack of challenge and a simplified path taking you from A to B all serve to make it a vanilla experience.
Again Ubisoft seemed aware of the repetition and have sought to break it up. However in doing so they have merely shoe horned in the usual segments that are trotted out to break the pace. There’s a getaway section where you man a turret, there’s a section where you are providing cover with a sniper rifle, there’s a level where you use a first person perspective and there’s even a section where you provide cover from a plane flying over the battle field. When I first experienced these changes of pace in Modern Warfare they felt fresh. Now they feel stale and over used, almost as if they are check boxes on every developer’s list of things that must go in a game.
Technically it looks great. The environments are detailed, the animations are superb and the game runs smoothly. But you will spend time waiting for it all to load. When moving in and out of Paladin you will experience some seriously long waiting times, around a minute at their worst. It’s not a deal breaker as once you’re into a level you don’t see a loading screen until the end.
What does raise this game up a notch is the excellent cooperative multiplayer. Doing the optional missions that are given to you from crew members on Paladin are always fun, and even more so with a friend. Full voice chat is supported and the feeling of working through a level with a friend, one working on hacking a device whilst the other provides cover, or one creating a distraction whilst the other flanks the enemies to take them out from behind is brilliant fun.
The problem with the multiplayer is it often doesn’t work. Sometimes you will be able to partner up and sometimes you are simply told that you cannot connect to your friend. This leaves a large chunk of the game being often inaccessible, which in this day and age is frankly pretty poor.
Overall Splinter Cell Blacklist is a good game. It provides a well-polished, solid single player experience with a quality multiplayer suite (when you can connect to your friends). The problem is it could have been so much more.
Splinter Cell Blacklist is a classic victim of modern mass market focused game design. The challenge is dumbed down. Choices on how to approach a task or a level are removed. Stealth is dumbed down and there’s always a way out by taking a Call of Duty style approach in a level. It’s not that there’s much wrong with it; it’s polished, plays well and looks great. But everything feels like you have done it before. So many game developers seem to have a development checklist which only serves to turn many big releases into titles that underneath the big budget polish feel tired and worn before you’ve even played them.