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Review: Splinter Cell – Blacklist

Sam Fisher’s latest adventure is a cautionary tale about trying to please everyone.

In the eyes of Ubisoft’s marketing department at least, Sam Fisher’s getting too old for this shit. So they retroactively made him look and sound younger. Also, the missions he’s embarked upon since 2002 are too hard for a generation of gamers raised on Angry Birds and pay-to-win browser games, so Ubisoft addressed that as well. Oh, and despite the fact that no other military shooter has ever come close to touching Call of Duty’s numbers, Ubisoft remains a Triple-A shop, and all Triple-A shops are mandated by statute to chase those numbers like an elusive Yeti.

You can see where this is going, folks. It used to be Splinter Cell games were patient taskmasters — failure to use Sam’s bag of gadget trickery in an efficient manner resulted in a quick trip to the reload screen. 2010’s installment, Conviction, shifted away from the traditional focus on pure stealth. It had more in common with 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum than Metal Gear Solid. Fans were divided, but the game at least had sense enough to commit to its new direction. In other terms, Conviction was different, but it wasn’t a bad game. For the most part, the mechanics and level design meshed well with the new focus.

Blacklist has no focus. It tries (and fails) to appeal to every person with a pulse.

There’s no such focus in Blacklist, because when you want your game to appeal to every person with a pulse, there’s no room for it. Ubisoft’s “compromise” is a progression system which all but requires players to slog through awful side-mission filler to unlock Sam’s best gear. These side-missions take the form of stealth-based infiltration missions and wave defense horde modes. The stealth missions are essentially B-roll, included as filler. They’re uninspired and unpolished, but it’s not entirely unimaginable that a tenacious player could glean some level of enjoyment from them. The bigger offender is the wave-defense: Whoever thought it was a great idea to shoehorn a sloppy, third-rate cover shooter into a Splinter Cell game should be fired. As a completely detached sideshow, these missions would still be awful. Tying them to the main narrative (albeit tenuously) and equipment rewards is inexcusable.

It’s not all bad news: Over the years, Sam has shed the clunk of the first few Splinter Cell games, and from a purely mechanical standpoint, Blacklist is the best installment to date. Sam has an agile moveset and (once unlocked) lots of equipment to navigate the environment. The “30 seconds of fun” in Blacklist is when, having stalked a foe in the shadows, Sam shanks the unsuspecting enemy on patrol and goes right along waiting for a buddy to come investigate. It cannot be overstated how enjoyable it is to stalk and shank enemies in Blacklist.

It cannot be overstated how enjoyable it is to stalk and shank foes. Too bad the levels are not set up to showcase this mechanic.

Too bad, then, that the levels and AI balance are not set up with a laser focus on satisfying stealth. A game like Blacklist is a series of encounters within levels, designed by developers to  showcase a set of (preferably engaging) mechanics. As clunky as the first few Splinter Cell games were, their levels were set up to maximize Sam’s shadowy skillset — shoot out light X, hide with a split jump at position Y, and take down patrolling enemy Z. It was a bit linear, sure, but by and large these linear encounters were well designed (at least for the time and the technology).

Certainly, a game developed in 2013 does not need to telegraph things as overtly as a title developed for the original Xbox, but the fact remains: When encounters and levels have no focus to them, no target vision by which to balance the game during QA, things feel disjointed. To put a finer, historical spin on it, if the first Splinter Cell had been set up to allow players the choice of playing it like a subpar Halo clone, the stealth (and the game) would have been half-assed. Swap out “Halo” for “Gears of War,” and you have the unfortunate case of Blacklist.

If the first Splinter Cell had allowed the choice of playing it like a subpar Halo clone, the stealth (and game) would have been half-assed. Such is the unfortunate case of Blacklist.

At one point in Blacklist’s narrative, a character gives Sam Fisher backup on a mission. Your perspective on this mission changes between Sam and said character. When you play as not-Sam, you are forced into a mediocre first-person shooter segment. It’s short, easy, and over in about 10-15 minutes tops. Still, one can’t help but feel the inclusion of such a section is symptomatic of everything wrong with Blacklist: Of course there needs to be a first-person shooter section; it provides opportunities to rope in FPS players with screenshots of a FPS HUD, as well as to test the market for a watered-down CoD clone set in the universe. Of course there needs to be a stupid iPhone application metagame tied to rewards in a $60 retail product. Of course the legitimately enjoyable stalking-and-stabbing mechanics must be diluted by a complete lack of focus in the level designs, so that nobody feels excluded if they prefer a combat game to a stealth killing game.

If the developers working on Blacklist had realized just how compelling it was to move Sam around in the shadows and take out enemies with gadgets and brutal melee attacks, they would have built levels meant to maximize those opportunities at every turn. This would be a fantastic game. As it is, you only get some opportunities to be a stealthy tech ninja badass, thanks to a mandate from on high that this game must also be playable by those who would rather go in with an assault rifle and kill everyone directly.

Verdict:

Blacklist’s toxic desire to be ~*inclusive*~ of all comers places its balance and level design completely at odds with the core mechanics that make it compelling. It’s a decent weekend one-and-done, but ultimately stinks of a watered-down form of what could have been concentrated magnificence.

Grade: C+

Developer: Ubisoft (Toronto, Shanghai, Montreal, Red Storm)
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: 360, PS3, PC

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