Review: Splinter Cell: Blacklist (XBOX 360)
Ubisoft’s second recent major release comes in the form of an all-new Splinter Cell game, Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
After going rogue for a while, Sam Fisher finds himself back in the bosom of the American Government, leading a brand new black ops team known as the 4th Echelon. His first mission; prevent an international terrorist group known as ‘The Engineers’ from launching a series of attacks against the USA.
These attacks, referred to as ‘blacklists’, sees Fisher and his small team flying around the globe, undertaking increasingly daring missions to find the leader of The Engineers. Locations these missions takes place range from the Middle East, to London, North America, and even Guantanamo Bay, interjecting a nice flair of variety which helps the overall experience become too stagnant.
Hand in perfect hand with the ever changing locations is the intriguing, and equally engaging story. Blacklist tells a great spy yarn, with enough plot twists and turns, betrayals and action to whet the appetite of any Hollywood blockbuster moviegoer. This said, the narrative stumbles over itself more than a few times, with the characters feeling as if they’re lacking a certain amount of depth and predictable and cliched dialogue that’s simply not at all inspiring.
This shouldn’t colour your opinion of the overall game, or even the story, however. The events which unfold over the course of Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s campaign is indeed compelling. It just never reaches the height of narrative cohesiveness, nor the interesting character development, of say, The Last of Us.
The true showstopper, and the reason you should buy into the experience Blacklist offers you is the gameplay. Splinter Cell certainly didn’t invent the stealth genre, but it has helped define since this series’ inception back in 2002. And while recent entries in the franchise have traded in stealth for more action, it’s nice to see both these elements finally finding a mutual balance alongside one another in this latest outing.
As such, players are free to choose which type of approach they’d like to take to gameplay; action or stealth. The latter is of course more rewarding, as you’re given an array of gadgets to play around to make staying undetected from guards all the more easier.
Blacklist tells a great spy yarn, with enough plot twists and turns, betrayals and action to whet the appetite of any Hollywood blockbuster moviegoer
Some of these include; the snake camera (allows you to peek under doors), Tri-rotor (small drone which you use to scope new areas) and sticky cam (remote camera which can be stuck to walls) are all designed to give you an edge over NPCs, while more tactile gadgets like spark mines and sleeping gas grants you the ability to guards out silently.
On the more ‘aggressive’ side, you can opt for explosive mines, frag and incendiary grenades and general explosives. Obviously these are all designed for the player who’d rather go in guns a blazing, while the potential to employ theatrics by way of smoke grenades is still there. And really, this is the great thing about the variety of gadgets at your disposal in that’s there’s something to counteract any situation.
This said, I couldn’t shake the feeling the usefulness of some gadgets outweighed that of others, leaving Fisher’s bag of tricks somewhat unbalanced. Whether this was my personal playstyle, or not, you can skate through majority of the game by simply using the Tri-rotor (once unlocked) and sleeping gas if you so wish to evade most guards. Not a major issue, but one I feel is simply an organic one which comes from giving players ‘too many options’.
Speaking of options, you can customise up to three different equipment loadouts – Fisher’s suit, gadgets and guns. This plays into the ‘stealth or ‘action’ elements found all through the game, allowing you to fastrack your pre-mission preparations. Additionally, you can spend earned cash to purchase upgrades to not only your gear/gadgets/weapons, but your very own plane, the Paladin.
Advanced upgrade options can be unlocked by completing side missions given to Fisher by his crew. All side missions follow a set number of archetypes (extract intel and survive X number waves of enemies, hack three terminals without being noticed, and so on), and serve as nice distractions from the main story. And unlike the main story, you can choose to tackle these missions with a friend.
Which leads into the multiplayer aspects of Blacklist, which are surprisingly robust and engaging. Aside from the co-op elements to side missions, you can jump into the Spies. vs. Mercs mode, which as it sounds pits these two “classes” against one another in somewhat traditional game modes.
The Wii U version offers players a greater deal of immersion
Spies, as you’d expect, have a lot in common with standard Splinter Cell gameplay, where you employ many of Fisher’s toys from the main game. Mercs, on the other hand, are FPS-inspired characters which sadly shackle you into this perspective – something that’s at odds with game’s entire design.
This FPS nature doesn’t stop at just Spies vs. Mercs, but also the main game. Fisher’s in-the-field partner, Briggs, employs this gameplay style. While his role as co-op partner is entirely optional, the game sometimes forces you into Briggs’ shoes, an awkward pacing issue that destroys the flow of the levels these moments appear.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is one of the first games to be released on current generation systems, Xbox 360 and PlayStation, as well as Nintendo’s next-gen console, Wii U. As such, I took the extra time to play the game on both Xbox 360 and Wii U. What I found, on both a level of enjoyment and technicality, was one part surprising, and one part frustrating.
First, let’s examine the use of the GamePad, Wii U’s obvious edge over the traditional Xbox 360 pad.
The addition of the second screen makes equipment changing mid-level a breeze, meaning you can more easily adapt to your current situation without pausing the action. Most importantly, this makes for a more immersive experience, not unlike we saw with Mass Effect 3 on Wii U. The alternative on Xbox 360 is, what I feel in comparison, a clunky item wheel that’s brought up by holding down the D-Pad.
Further to this, the GamePad acts as the second screen you’d believe Fisher himself would have when using gadgets such as the Snake Camera, Tri-Rotor and so on. As such, when one of these gadgets are in use the action switches to the GamePad screen, and you view/control the gadget using it. With versions, the screen just switches over to that specific view.
On the more technical side, it’s been argued that Splinter Cell: Blacklist on Wii U is less than optimised when compared to its rivals. While I’m not going to refute hard evidence, what I will say is while the Xbox 360 version experience a fair amount of screen tearing and frame rate drops thanks to the Unreal 3 engine, these are issues I never once saw on Wii U.
In saying that, I noticed colour and lighting appeared to far more “dynamic” on Xbox 360 than on Wii U. The latter appeared far more darker, more muddled in appearance, whereas the former was a bit more brighter. I did mess around with my TV’s settings a little, and after comparing on a more even playing field, I didn’t notice much difference in visual performance (aside from the issues noted above) in the two versions.
However, while the Wii U version offers players a greater deal of immersion, and assumingly doesn’t appear to be plagued by screen-tearing, the loading times are indeed crippling. On average, it would take somewhere between two to three minutes to get to the start menu after loading the game up, compared to barely 30 seconds on Xbox 360 (without the game installed to the hard drive).
As a player, it’s up to you to whether immersion and more dynamic gameplay is more important than faster loading times.
With an engaging story and a brilliant cast of voice actors, who are sadly not given the dialogue they’re perhaps worthy of, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is an enjoyable spy romp from beginning to end. More importantly, gameplay is rewarding and fun, setting a new benchmark for the series.
It’s also nice to see Sam Fisher return to his more stealthy roots, meanwhile the game retains a bit of the high-octane action that’s been increasingly introduced over the past few games.
Whether you’re a Splinter Cell fan, spy movie aficionado or just looking for a rewarding and compelling game experience, you should certainly pick this one up.