Everyone has their favorite stealth franchise — for some it’s Metal Gear, others it’s Deus Ex. While I like those games quite a bit, nothing scratches that stealth itch quite like Splinter Cell. Conviction was something of a reboot for the series, taking away certain features like hiding bodies and night vision, but also allowing for a more streamlined and snappier action game. Splinter Cell: Blacklist represents a return to form for fans of the PS2 era games, and a refinement of ideas and mechanics from Conviction.
Blacklist begins with an attack on US troops in Guam, sparking a political vendetta against the United States and giving Sam a reason to fight back using any means necessary. What follows is a cavalcade of military jargon and hot-button issues. The idea that a small group of soldiers can do just about anything, legal or not, so the world is a better place is weirdly unsettling. Plus the whole plot revolving around a mad terrorist wanting a world without US troops in every country is a bit on the nose. But it doesn’t really matter, and Splinter Cell doesn’t have much to say that isn’t on the news or the plot of a Bourne movie.
In a series that hasn’t told an interesting story since the start, this one manages to hold itself together most of the way through, giving you some generally likeable characters to boot. Not that they’re more than just archetypes for the writers to bounce exposition off of, because they aren’t, but their actions are justified and the voice acting is relatively good (read: not Michael Ironside chewing on glass) at bringing out some sense of drama. The whole narrative has that standard action movie flair without the high-flying, explosion-a-minute nonsense. It’s filled with numerous genre cliches, making the narrative feel stale and virtually needless.
Blacklist takes this globe-spanning story and create levels of diverse style. Early on it was impressive to see the levels linking together as the mission changed and Sam had to adapt to a new scenario. Later missions send him into an Iranian desert or a military base, others to a billionaire’s mansion. Whatever the case Sam is more than capable of fluidly traversing through undetected.
At its core Splinter Cell: Blacklist is defined by its stealth gameplay, but Sam starts off pretty barebones. Since you’re an off-the-record group, the missions you go on net you currency which you can use to upgrade Sam’s vast arsenal of weapons and gadgets. It’s a pretty inspired upgrade system that let’s you get what you want when you want it, rather than having the game tell you when you get it. Immediately I went with full-on stealth gear that’s light on armor, but easier to sneak around in. I then went about upgrading my pistol and gadgets, never once needing to mess with the bigger weapons. I would sometimes unlock a gadget just to see what it did and how I could use it when planning strategies in the field.
Blacklist caters to multiple different play styles; I went through most of the game sneaking around knocking out guys rather than killing them, but some might want to take a more action-heavy approach which is more than welcome judging by the weapon arsenal alone. In some missions I challenged myself further by never once getting spotted. The game actively rewards you for taking the more challenging paths, giving you the largest amount of points for a complete non-combat stealth run, and making these feel incredibly tense and satisfying to pull off. These different play styles and unlocks provide you with your own sense of personal identity and experimentation.
Once you’re on the ground in a mission everything is smooth. Every knock out (or kill) feels earned and every mistake feels like it’s your fault, which makes clearing rooms feel rewarding — whether you killed everyone or moved through the area never being spotted. Each mission area is an open playground for you to explore with a number of options for maneuvering undetected. If I died or wanted to restart a checkpoint, I’d usually end up going a different way to avoid that mistake. While the more complex stealth mechanics return from older games, the ideas brought over from Conviction really reward the player for thinking on their feet. It’s this kind of free-form experimentation that helps Blacklist stand above past games in the series.
Combined with the main missions that take about 8-10 hours, Blacklist also includes side missions which can be completed in co-op. Most of them can also be accessed solo, but even so, there may be a few co-op access only doors barring your way, which you’ll have to find a way around. The co-op offerings last about as long as the single player, depending on how well you and your partner work together. It’s really enjoyable to come up with a unique strategy with your friend and execute it, taking out all the guards in a room and never getting caught.
In addition to the single player and co-op modes, Blacklist also features the return of the much beloved Spies vs. Mercenaries mode. I’ve always kind of enjoyed the weird mash-up of third-person spy action with first-person merc shooting this mode offers. Each team uses their respective class type to their advantage, but Blacklist stumbles in getting players used to the complex control scheme and tactics that it might be hard to penetrate for newcomers. It’s an interesting dynamic, though, and a lot of fun once you get over the learning curve.
While it won’t turn any heads with its visuals or blow anyone away with innovation, Blacklist is a combination of all the best Splinter Cell games and represents a return to form for the series. There’s not much in terms of new ideas, but there is further refinement of the core franchise, making Blacklist an incredibly enjoyable, but narratively hollow, experience.