I should admit from the start that I’ve never played a Splinter Cell game before. There, I said it. So with Splinter Cell: Blacklist I sat down with no prior experience of Sam Fisher, no cause for comparison to earlier titles and no idea what to expect apart from awesome looking pre-release trailers. With that mind in this review might differ from others you might read elsewhere – instead of any easy comparisons I’m reviewing it as it comes to someone new to the series. And to me, a totally new guy, it’s great.
As far as the main campaign goes, the aforementioned Sam Fisher is back working for the US Government to try and stop a terrorist movement called the Engineers. These bad guys have planned weekly terrorist attacks, collectively known as the Blacklist, to try and force the US Government to withdraw troops from foreign soil. It’s a decent enough plot idea and some great characterisation helps to keep life interesting as you work your way through the many (and refreshingly lengthy) missions on offer. Missions which, incidentally, can be approached however you like.
Blacklist has three main styles on offer, which effectively equate to whether you want to kill people quietly, stay out of sight all together or just go nuts and kill anyone who looks at you funny. Your chosen method will directly affect which kit you choose to go into the level with, and with a range of weapons, grenades and technological toys to play around with there’s certainly nothing to push you towards a specific style. This freedom of choice isn’t brand new, and there are other games around that do a similar thing, but the way that Blacklist delivers this flexibility is pretty impressive and despite quieter methods getting slightly bigger rewards, you rarely feel punished for playing your way. There are moments when you’re forced into sneaking or shooting, but they’re few and far between and don’t really tarnish the variety of options. There’s also a very cool execute option, which gets filled up by stealth knock-outs before letting you tag three enemies quietly and taking them out with a single button press. Marvellous.
Some of the gadgets available are pretty neat too, with sticky cameras which let off an incapacitating gas if you ask them to being an early highlight before you earn the right to use more techie bits such as a recon drone type helicopter thing. These additional toys and weapons are bought using the money you earn during each mission, and completing various objectives (such as not getting spotted at all during a mission, not killing anyone and so on) boosts your bonus a little. It’s surprisingly difficult to meet some of the objectives, and will keep you on your toys alongside all of the sneaking and shooting. You can pick up additional clothing too which improves some movement and combat abilities, and deciding just what to buy first is a tricky thing to get right – I’m not convinced there’s a wrong way to go though, that’s the beauty of such an open way of playing.
Visually this is a bit of a mixed bag, and although most environments look sharp and beautifully put together, there is the occasional muddy texture or less impressive level design. Nothing to make you physically sick, but when much of the game looks so great it’s noticeable. The sound, meanwhile, is brilliant. Whether you’re popping a silenced bullet into a bad guy’s noggin from across a dusty room, flicking on your night vision goggles or dragging someone behind a wall before a brief scuffle sees them unconscious it all sounds spot on, backed up by a cleverly used score of background music that drifts in and out depending on the scenario you’re faced with. Through some decent headphones or a surround sound system it comes alive, letting you hear when someone’s creeping up on you or exactly where that muffled conversation is coming from.
There’s no real excuse for getting bored either. If the single player campaign doesn’t grab you (and it really should, because it’s ace and could happily last for the best part of 20 hours) then you can buddy up with another player (online or, brilliantly, split screen) and carry out some separate co-op missions with other members of the team. You can do it alone if you like, but you’ll be missing out on a few bits that can only be reached with someone else doing some donkey work. There’s also the awesome online Spies vs Mercs mode, which pitches a team of spies against – yup, you’ve guessed it – a team of mercs. With the option of a 2v2 game or larger, slightly more currently-expected team sizes, there are two extremely different ways to play. Either way you’ll be taking control of a spy, with all of the quiet tech and fancy toys, or a merc who is slightly more noisy in his first person viewed approach. The games can get pretty lengthy, which is a bummer if someone drops out and leaves it 2-on-1 with a couple of minutes gone, but as long as you manage to get into a game with some keen players (which isn’t tough at the moment, the multiplayer is well populated) then there’s some great games to be had through the various modes on offer.
I don’t know if never playing a Splinter Cell game before has helped or hindered my ability to see this as its own game. Fans of the series may well look at much of this, roll their eyes and point out that every other Splinter Cell game did something I’ve mentioned, but as I mentioned before this is the review of a Sam Fisher newbie. From someone coming into the series totally fresh, I really enjoyed Blacklist. Even taking into account the occasionally rough visuals and the odd railroading into certain play styles it’s a thoroughly enjoyable game. And in the end, isn’t that what matters? It’s one of the best stealth games I’ve played, and with a challenging and enjoyable multiplayer option I can’t help but strongly recommend it.
Reviewed on PS3