The legacy of Sam Fisher continues in this latest installment of the Splinter Cell franchise. Blacklist picks up shortly after the events of Splinter Cell: Conviction; Fisher’s skills and expertise are called upon once again to deter a new international crisis known as the Blacklist threat. With the NSA’s Third Echelon still disbanded, the president has formed a new special task force cleverly named Fourth Echelon, with Fisher acting as team leader. In addition to the new recruits brought in, returning to our hero’s aid is his long-time tech expert and situation analyst, Anna Grimsdottir. What’s actually not so familiar in Splinter Cell: Blacklist is Sam Fisher himself.
In the pursuit of making Sam Fisher himself more realistic with simultaneous body, face, and voice capture, Ubisoft opted to replace Michael Ironside, the man behind Fisher’s iconic voice, with a younger and more spry actor in the form of Eric Johnson. Admittedly, Johnson gives a fantastic performance in Ubisoft’s latest offering, but this is not the Sam Fisher that we’ve come to know and love. Even the script writing seems to favor Johnson’s delivery as opposed to staying true to the spirit of Fisher. The noticeable youth in Johnson’s voice also makes Fisher’s phone conversations with his adult daughter Sarah feel less believable, hurting the overall experience. Even though Johnson delivers a strong performance, as a longtime Splinter Cell fan, it is difficult to believe he is Sam Fisher and I imagine the change would be less awkward were this version of Sam introduced as an entirely new agent.
Still, Splinter Cell: Blacklist offers the best gameplay, and some of the most memorable missions, of any Splinter Cell to date, and it’s possibly the best stealth-action game I’ve ever played. Sam’s greatest asset is still the shadows that surround him. In addition to using existing shadows, or the shadows he creates by shooting out lights, Sam is able to scale walls in an instant, climb pipes, and crawl through ductwork to better maneuver himself past armed guards and security cameras. He is able to flow seamlessly in and out of cover, covertly advancing himself toward his goal or unknowing enemies. Not only is Sam a physical marvel, he is well-equipped with a completely customizable loadout of state-of-the-art gadgets, weapons, and apparel, with some old favorites thrown in. Making a return is the iconic Splinter Cell trident goggles. Night vision is available in the goggles’ base form, but once upgraded, they also feature a sonar mode that allows you to see enemies through walls–a spy’s best friend, to be sure.
As a highly trained government agent, Sam Fisher also knows a number of ways to incapacitate those who get in his way. Whether the approach is lethal or non-lethal, loud or silent, with fancy gadgets or his bare hands, Sam is never left defenseless. The most satisfaction when dealing with enemies comes from silent takedowns in combination with the Execute feature first introduced in Splinter Cell: Conviction. Sam is able to mark and keep track of up to three targets at the same time. Once they get close enough, the markers above their heads turn red, meaning that Sam is in range to take them out instantly in one fell swoop. Outside of marking and executing, the combat itself has never been more fluid or more satisfying. If Fisher is met with a string of enemies, he can quickly and efficiently move through the line in a matter of seconds leaving nothing but unconscious (or dead) bodies in his wake.
Like in past Splinter Cell games, every step you take can be met with disaster, making it that much more rewarding for successful completion of an area. Blacklist also capitalizes on the three play styles commonly associated with Splinter Cell games: Ghost, Panther, and Assault. Ghost is remaining undetected without killing, Panther reflects stealthy killing, and Assault involves engaging the enemy head-on. Choosing between all three playstyles gives Splinter Cell: Blacklist great replay value. Missions that have been completed can also be revisited individually if, for example, you’re going for that perfect Ghost playthrough and mess up partway in a mission.
Not only does Blacklist feature the best Splinter Cell gameplay to date, it also introduces a new mechanic that sees Fisher freely roaming the headquarters of Fourth Echelon: a massive jet called the Paladin that is home to Fisher’s team of agents. In between missions, you can check in with Fisher’s backup, buy plane upgrades, and customize his gear–much like Commander Shepard managing the Normandy. Within the Paladin, you can choose to launch the next campaign mission, do a side mission, or jump into multiplayer.
The multiplayer of Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a two-sided coin. Competitive multiplayer in Splinter Cell: Blacklist is called Spies vs. Mercs. In this mode, two teams of up to four players compete against each other. As the name suggests, one team is a group of Splinter Cell agents, whose goal is to successfully hack three different terminals, and the other is a group of mercenaries, whose goal is to stop the hackings. It’s encouraged to play through Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s campaign before trying Spies vs. Mercs–the stealth techniques learned will help you keep up with other online players.
Not only does Blacklist offer the online multiplayer that has come to be expected in current games, it also has the extremely welcome addition of two-player split-screen. Blacklist introduces a series of optional missions throughout the campaign that can be tackled independently or with a friend either online, or, more preferably, together on the same screen. Playing these missions with a buddy on the same couch is some of the most fun that you can have with this game and simultaneously clearing out an area without alerting a single enemy is extremely satisfying.
The issues found in Splinter Cell: Blacklist are few and far between. The only problems I found during my time with the game were minor technical issues that hardly detracted from the experience. Framerate drops happened from time to time, but only during transitions between areas where no action was occurring. One particularly strange glitch that happened during co-op play was when a teammate died. Usually the mission would end or restart from a checkpoint, but other times a fallen teammate would be switched to spectator mode, allowing their surviving counterpart to play out the rest of the mission. If the latter occurred, I found that if looking down the scope of a sniper rifle, the scope and reticle images would completely disappear when aiming but the gun would still fire normally. While clearly a broken mechanic, this actually just added an interesting layer of challenge and made it extremely satisfying to get headshots on enemies using nothing but muscle memory to gauge my shots.
The only other complaint that I could leverage against Splinter Cell: Blacklist is that the facial animations and detail do not meet the expectations set by other PS3 games, or blockbuster titles released years ago. Apart from that, the game is gorgeous. Fisher has never looked better taking out (or avoiding) helpless soldiers.
Overall, Splinter Cell: Blacklist delivers the best Splinter Cell experience yet. The story is strong and fosters very memorable missions, while the gameplay–both in the main campaign and multiplayer–is extremely rewarding and offers ample replay value. Sure, it suffers from some minor technical issues–and despite the top-notch acting performances, Sam Fisher is no longer the same spy we’ve come to know and love–but these small grips don’t detract much from what is a stellar experience, start to finish.