One more time...
If you'd have asked me a few days ago what the definitive stealth-action experience for me was, I'd have said Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. I had immense fun with that particular game and countless hours spent on the co-op missions playing with friends, not to mention Spies vs. Mercs and so on. For me it had the right mix of sneaking and infiltration coupled with action and adventure, with Michael Ironside on top form as gruff spy: Sam Fisher.
If you ask me now, I'd have to say it's Splinter Cell: Blacklist, because this game combines the best of Chaos Theory with the polish and control of Conviction.
For all the naysayers out there who say that the game is an action remake of Splinter Cell and it's just the same as Conviction. You're entitled to your opinion, but you can play the game as a pure ghost - not being seen - not interacting with guards in any way/shape or form.
Like I did here:
100% stealth: Night Vision and a single EMP gadget only on the hardest game-mode which is Perfectionist.
Splinter Cell is back on form.
The game opens with a bang, as the Engineers attack the US at Guam. Sam is caught in the fireworks and very quickly the story takes a turn for the dramatic as things escalate. It's obvious that Ubisoft have been watching a lot of films and TV shows these days since their cinematic flare have taken a turn for the better. This is high-octane high-stakes spy-fiction at its finest and yet grounded in a grim and gritty realism that introduces us to new Sam Fisher even though we all wanted Michael Ironside back.
I'm not going to go into details why Ironside isn't in this one, because that ship's sailed and it's about time the new guy was recognised for his talents - Ironside endorses him and from his performances in the cut-scenes he's got Sam down to a T.
I accepted him from the first few moments we're introduced to Sam and Vic again, and that's all I needed to see. He fits and the cut-scenes and storytelling work to integrate him into the universe almost immediately.
We find out about the Blacklist and some information - but that's all I'm going to say since you know by now our policy on story spoilers. The rest of this is REDACTED.
This isn't the Splinter Cell you know and love, but it's the closest you're going to get to Chaos Theory married to Conviction. A game which offers you three paths of approach in terms of core gameplay and puts you into a varied sandbox per mission which lets you apply a mix of the three styles, or just concentrate on one.
It's this 'play as you want' approach which endears me to Blacklist more than previous iterations of the series. You're not forced into a particular style of gameplay as you explore the areas as Sam; you're rewarded with laptops you can hack (for cash) and dead-drops to find (for more cash) as well as given an end-of-mission bonus for exploring alternate pathways and hidden routes.
Before we get into the core gameplay techniques I'm going to explain the three play-styles in more detail.
Ghost: This is the style which rewards you the most points, you are a shadow. You are never detected, you are never engaged in any kind of combat non-lethal or otherwise and you disturb nothing in the mission unless it's a specific objective in a cut-scene. A true ghost player reaches the objective with no one knocked out and the guard's non-the-wiser (see above video). Ghost also rewards non-lethal takedowns and hiding bodies so that they can't be found.
Panther: This is the style which allows you to take on enemies from the shadows, more like a ninja than a spy - you kill silently and use a variety of lethal tactics to murder your way from point A to B. Your gadgets and weapon choices enable you to survive extended bouts of combat, but you're always on the move, relocating and using your last position to outflank and confuse attackers. Panther rewards brutal and effective kills and skill at evasion.
Assault: This is the style which lets you be loud and proud; you don't care about reinforcements and being sneaky. Your Ops Suit is geared to take a beating and keep you alive in the field. Your weapons are the ones with the most stopping power and the punch to drop the heavy armoured bad guys who show up in seconds. You use gadgets like incendiary grenades and proximity mines to decimate your enemies before they have a chance. Assault rewards balls to the wall action.
Any run-through of a Blacklist mission, be it a core story mission or one of the many 4E side-missions in the game can be made up of several of these styles or if you're looking to master one aspect, just the tactics from that style alone. Bypass guards to gain a maximum ghost score and leave nothing undisturbed, or slash their throats from the safety of a concealed location as they come to check out a nearby noise. Get detected, switch to a combat weapon with more power and put them down before they do the same to you.
Mix it up and you're rewarded with various scores at the end mission style-screen, scores translate to CASH and cash is used to upgrade Sam's Ops Suit, his weapons and the Paladin Mobile HQ aircraft 4th Echelon operates from.
The experience feels a little strange at first, getting rewarded for challenges (and there are a lot) which translates into cash bonuses allowing Sam to further upgrade his arsenal. Get x-headshots with x-pistol and earn $1000 for example. Once you're comfortable with it or you remember the PEC challenges from Conviction, you soon get into the flow and relish the next badass amount of money you're given for murder-hoboing a bunch of enemies or knocking them out from a hidden position.
These challenges help keep the game fun, interesting and fresh however and encourage you to experiment with all the weapons/gadgets in the game over time and accrue more cash to spend on getting all the toys/upgrades - not only for Sam in Campaign but for your Spy and Mercenary in the series' signature multiplayer mode.
The Paladin is Sam's Normandy, it's upgradeable and it offers a variety of bonuses when you pour cash into the plane. You'll unlock new weapons, better in-field support and other interesting features (such as increase the money multiplier for the end of mission screen) as you gain more cash from playing any of the game modes on offer and there are a lot. Blacklist IS big; it's amazingly big for a Splinter Cell game and offers a ton of replay value right out of the box.
Aboard the Paladin is the Strategic Mission Interface (SMI) and this is your hub to the world of Splinter Cell. Here Sam can choose from Blacklist missions (campaign) and a variety of 4E missions all designed to test the agent's particular skills either Solo/Co-op or Co-op only. You can check an incredible amount of stats here too, as well as the Shadow.net which is Ubisoft's in-game social feed providing challenges which reward you with various amounts of cash. Daily challenges, weekly challenges and friend challenges all show up here and you can do them or ignore them as you see fit. You can also fire up Spies vs. Mercenaries mode from here too.
It also serves as the window to the Gone Dark intel meta-game which sees Sam solving clues from reports and searching the SMI with the cursor to find the next link in the chain. Get it right and you'll get a nice boost to the 4E multiplier at the end of a mission, more multiplier means more CASH.
4E missions are different and take place in different (large) maps which again offer a sandbox style of play - each providing alternate routes and hiding places to facilitate sneaking or good cover for assault.
Grim's missions are pure stealth based; they test your infiltration and espionage skills to the maximum limit. A high score on these requires knowledge of enemy patrols, evasion and a zero mission footprint - you can't even disturb a single guard. If you're spotted the mission is scrubbed and it's back to the start. (Co-op/Solo play)
Charley's missions are a different take on a horde mode. Welcome to a sandbox killing zone, the enemy knows you're around - just not where. Keep out of their line of sight and eliminate them one by one. It's a great playground for Assault and Panther kills. Survive every 5th wave and you'll get a chance to extract. (Co-op/Solo play)
Brigg's missions test your cooperative skills with another player, story based and full of high-octane action at times these are a mixed bag and can only be played with a friend. They're still good and one mission has you controlling a drone whilst the other player sneaks around, then you swap to bring the other player home. These missions are awesome for Assault. (Co-op only)
REDACTED's missions are terrorist hunts from Denied Ops. You have to clean the site however you like and if you are detected the enemy send in more troops. This is really great for Assault style. (Co-op/Solo play)
Once you've customised Sam and chosen from Rookie through to Perfectionist difficulty it's time to get into the mission at hand.
A quick note on Perfectionist: It disables Sonar vision, Execute (you can still mark) and makes enemy combat/stealth spotting skills as hard as they can be. The AI is beefed up and this is the true mode for anyone who loved Pandora Tomorrow or Chaos Theory.
In mission Splinter Cell Blacklist controls in third-person with a smooth GUI and control system taken from the best of Chaos Theory and Conviction. Sam's gadgets and weapons are easily selected making in-field adaptation quick and painless as you can very smoothly change weapons, swapping out a lethal for a non-lethal approach and a variety of other things from a simple wheel system.
Sam's new arsenal of toys is also impressive as is his array of lethal/non-lethal takedowns, options and tactics. If you're playing a ghost style, you can choose to hide bodies (missing from Conviction) and knock enemies out. Otherwise expect Sam to show no mercy and use his knife to effectively end their lives quickly.
The gadget list sees the return of the sticky camera, with a variety of optional upgrades and sticky shockers! There's the new excellent tri-rotor mini-drone and a bunch of other gadgets to use in various scenarios. Sam's arsenal of weapons has expanded with the spy being able to tote a primary (pistol) and an alternate (rifle/sniper rifle/shotgun and so on) along with a special weapon (stun gun or crossbow).
Sam's goggles have been upgraded beyond the sonar capability, and can be expanded via cash to include footprint tracking and a variety of stability upgrades as well as quicker pulses and better range.
(I did find the fact that you had to buy previous upgrades to get the next one a bit strange, same with the weapons, it's a minor thing though and doesn't stop you enjoying the game.)
The crossbow fires a variety of non-lethal bolts and expands Sam's options when playing Ghost style. Sleeping gas, noisemakers, shockers...
Sam is more athletic than before and his speed/action is definitely an improvement from Conviction, with his combat movement allowing him to strike and evade and lot faster. At full run he can cover a lot of ground and holding down the A button (to interact) sees him vault over objects and climb in seconds. These new athletic skills make Sam a vicious combatant when cornered and allow the player to take advantage of enemy AI to flank them and get the drop on them in a variety of satisfying ways.
One of these is KILLING IN MOTION.
As you kill/knock-out guards your Execute bar fills (unless playing Perfectionist) and once full it can be used to take out 3 marked enemies in a cinematic badass fashion. Sam has never looked so good doing these kinds of things, because now after you press the Y button to begin the move you can press the left stick to continue moving (in slow mo) rather than stopping on the spot.
This KIM is a new tactic you can use to smoothly transition towards a 4th guard, get close, grab him and quickly mark more enemies to create a streak of murderous badass kills. Or just get to cover to protect you when the lead starts flying. Unless you've upgraded the Ops Suit to be more armoured you're not going to last long against gunfire.
Another KIM scenario sees you mark 3 targets, grab and kill a 4th in the same room - your Execute bar is now full and you smoothly take down the other 3 in a dramatic fashion whilst still in slow-motion.
Using all the skills new Sam has at his disposal and meeting a variety of new enemies, including the drone tech and the heavy with gasmask, means that you need to keep battlefield awareness and your senses sharp in this instalment of Splinter Cell. Heavies are nasty and they will decimate you if you try and tackle them from the front, it's best to take them out from a high vantage point or from behind unless you really feel like picking shotgun shells out of your face.
Sam can also attract his enemies with a quick tap of the back button; this is best used sparingly as AI will react based on its type. Some will investigate and others will call backup before they do so.
Drone techs are evil; they jam your goggles and send out dangerous drones to hunt you down.
There's a lot more to the new Splinter Cell in terms of single player tactics, campaign stuff and 4E missions but we want you to explore that yourselves and get stuck into the SMI.
Splinter Cell gameplay is back and it's DAMN good this time around.
It comes on 2 discs and both of them contain the campaign, so it's a BIG game.
Saves are check-point based and pretty well implemented.
The game looks good, really good if you take the time to install the HD texture pack from disc 2. The visual fidelity of the engine is nice and there's a lot of detail on the levels, the characters and the weapons. There are no discernible texture issues and the light/shadow engine handles things really well with deep pools of shadow provided by the many light sources which can be destroyed since Sam Fisher really hates lights. Or as the Boss from Saints Row IV would say: that light had a family!
The animations for the game are excellent with Sam's lethal and non-lethal approaches being context sensitive and at times quite brutal. Select non-lethal from the wheel and Sam will smack a guard's head against the rail rather than pulling him to his doom. Change to lethal and he'll pull that guy off the ledge into the water or onto the ground below. In combat he becomes a killing machine up close and personal, or a lethal H2H stun-god - but you had better upgrade your Ops Suit's armour to handle that kind of play or Sam's reign of fist-face terror is over before it starts. Everything about Blacklist's animations screams quality and attention to detail.
Facial animation is some of the best we've seen in Splinter Cell yet.
There's a nice sense of impact and physical force to the world. The engine isn't pushed overly far by explosions and so on, but many of the set pieces impart a sense of destruction even if it's scripted and controlled by the scene. Bodies fall in a variety of interesting and realistic ways most of the time based on the force of impact and the round used (you can change ammo types on the Paladin or at supply crates if you bought the Paladin upgrade).
This is probably the best AI in an Ubisoft game yet and certainly the best Splinter Cell AI. It can be fooled/tricked and manipulated - be warned though, the AI will respond to a second call or a partial detection in varied ways based on their soldier type. It will also respond based on its alert status and if on high alert may just decide that you're not a distraction but the real thing and neat to eat a grenade or two.
The AI changes based on the difficulty level - if you're playing on Rookie expect an easier time. Play on Professional or Perfectionist and this is where the true challenge lies. AI is beefed up considerably and has an incredible perception for the slightest thing out of place. They can detect you in seconds and they're vicious on the hunt.
It's great stuff.
The sound suite for Blacklist is spot on, there are no glitches or issues and it sounds great from the weapons to the ambient effects.
The orchestral soundtrack to Blacklist is some of the best music we've heard from a Splinter Cell game and it has a real impact on the theme and atmosphere of the product. It really pushes the envelope in terms of the series music and sounds just superb when the dramatic sequences kick in.
I miss Michael Ironside but the new guy has to do all the mocap, stunts, facial animation recognition and the voice acting at the same time pretty much. The new system captures a ton of information from the get-go and Ironside cited himself he's too old for the role. So Sam's new voice is a shade lighter and less gravelly, but hey he does a damn good job with it and I can accept him in the role. The rest of the cast do a fantastic job in their roles as well and the whole thing comes together with the polish you'd expect from a AAA title.
The dialogue is quality in this game, there's a real sense of drama between the characters and the story is well told.
Co-op is akin to single player with a variety of objectives based on the 4E mission you're running with a friend or stranger (see previous 4E types). Co-op can be played split-screen or online over Xbox Live. Many co-op missions have alternate co-op only routes and dual boost locations to further enhance the experience with a friend.
Spies vs. Mercenaries is the return of a fan favourite and it comes in various varieties and every single one is pretty darn addictive. The game plays really well and there are no discernible lag issues!
SvM Classic: 2v2 and the task here is to kill the other team. No customisation and the game plays like a grand game of hide and go kill.
Extraction: 4v4 mode and the Mercs must break into a Spy HQ. There they must steal intel and the spies have to stop them. Good fun.
Uplink Control: 4v4 and the two teams are made up of a mix of spies and mercs depending on player choice. Each team has an Uplink and must move around the map capturing other uplinks. Kind of like a roaming King of the Hill.
Team Deathmatch: 4v4 classic multiplayer and both teams can have a mix of spies and mercs.
Spies vs. Mercenaries has really progressed since the infant days of Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory and this iteration is a welcome change and addition to the series.
Blacklist, not Blacklisted!
This is arguably one of the best Splinter Cell games yet and the new Sam is a bit edgier and still familiar enough to be Sam Fisher. Ubisoft have won me over with this new direction and there are countless hours of core story, 4E missions and quality game time here in this package - it's a big package and it's jam-packed with stuff to keep you occupied.
Repeat your missions to earn better rewards and scores, play challenges to hone your skills as Sam and dive into Spies vs. Mercs.
It's all there.