Reviewed on PC. Mild spoilers.
What mechanics do you think you’ll find in stealth game Splinter Cell: Blacklist? Metal Gear Solid style infiltrations using state of the art gadgets? Being conscious of movement speed and light levels, similar to the Thief series? How about Uncharted climbing?
Splinter Cell: Blacklist follows super spy Sam Fisher and his band of boring teammates, as they fly around the world in their mobile air base responding to attacks by a terrorist group called ‘The Engineers’. The Engineers have released a ‘blacklist’, which hints at an attack that will be carried out by the group every seven days. Fisher’s group comprises of Grim, Briggs and Charlie. Fisher himself has been stripped of both the sense of humour he had in previous appearances, and his original voice actor, in the hopes of insulting all long time fans. Grim is a long time partner of Sam, who damaged their trust in the last game, meaning a lot of this game has the two bickering while the player feels uncomfortable. Briggs is a younger field operative and seems determined to be more boring than Fisher, there’s not much more I can say about him. Charlie rounds out the crew by filling the annoying young hacker who makes bad jokes position. Most exchanges between the group feature them either walking urgently or standing around a briefing table, spitting out long lists of acronyms and looking angry. As for the villain, he is unmemorable and spouts such original lines as: ‘I’m just like you’, and ‘I’ve already won’.
The gameplay starts with a third person cover-based stealth foundation. From there, the game emphasises the fact that all missions can be tackled in three ‘distinct’ styles: ghost, which relies on completely avoiding enemies and using non-lethal takedowns when cornered; panther, which is killing enemies while undetected; and assault, which is killing enemies while detected. You are scored on which approach you take to deal with each individual enemies, with the stealthier methods predictably yielding considerably larger scores. The scores are turned into money to be spent on upgrading Fisher’s gear, but he also gets large cash bonuses for most actions. Kill a few people with the same weapon and Sam gets a chunky payment. Maybe he is supplementing his government wage with sponsorships from arms manufacturers, but this doesn’t explain him being awarded $10 000 for destroying some lightbulbs. Some of the levels are quite open, with multiple paths to compliment your choice of playstyle, but there are several sections that force either perfect stealth or direct combat. I leaned towards stealth, so when I found myself on a train in mandatory close range combat, my sneaking suit and sniper with an extended scope suddenly seemed like a waste of money. The train section wraps up with you diving through the window of a train car and instantly being shot at. On higher difficulties, it becomes apparent this part was not tested, since you can be killed before the animation is over and have to rely on luck to even have a chance to fight back.
The equipment on sale often seems redundant. To unlock the better items, you have to buy all the preceding ones in its category, wasting the money saved for the actual item you want. I found the pistol missed many vital shots, so in order to improve my accuracy, I bought several pistols I never used, then added as many precision attachments as the game allows. To further improve accuracy, you have to buy several upgrades to your gloves, which I suppose makes sense, but buying a bunch of gloves that look pretty much the same is never as appealing as purchasing a crossbow. With my special gloves and fully modified pistol, I centred my laser sight on a guard’s head and…still missed. Everyone turned around and Sam was promptly shot from four different directions. Later, I bought ‘armour piercing rounds’ for both my pistol and rifle, but if the shot hit an enemy’s helmet, the helmet would just be knocked off (as usual) and the guy would be free to tell all his friends where I was. This is a modern Ubisoft game, so of course some items are only accessible via DLC, logging into Uplay or by playing the tie-in mobile game (which apparently is no longer supported). Thankfully, the items aren’t even that good.
The strange design choices don’t end there. I’ve already touched on Fisher’s parkour, but it gets really hard to take this game seriously when a man in his mid 50s is diving off buildings to stab people. The Uncharted vibes are even stronger when you sprint down a linear path to dodge a missile strike, true to the sense of realism Tom Clancy games tend to go for. Elsewhere, the game has you play as Briggs for a while, and shows this change by briefly becoming a generic military first person shooter. The game throws in a few more modern warfare sections, which have you click on red target squares to simulate shooting enemies from a ridiculous height.
One of the most egregious elements of the game is the fact it is based on a checkpoint only save system. Even worse is the fact these checkpoints are sometimes quite far apart, which makes ghost styles tedious when one mistake can send you a long way back.
The controls on PC often have several functions mapped to one button. Pressing ‘E’ can kill/knock out a nearby enemy, pick up a body, knock on a door or pick up a gun. Pressing ‘Q’ once makes you snap to cover, but if you panic and press it twice, you slide instead. As you can imagine, things can go wrong when the game interprets your button press differently, and perfectionists will no doubt be annoyed by the unpredictability.
Blacklist contributes an entry to the ‘enemies that can go fuck themselves’ list – the dogs. I love dogs in real life, but here they have an almost supernatural ability to sniff you out and alert everyone to your presence. Instead of all the guns, why can’t Fisher buy a bag of treats and a few tennis balls to distract the pooches?
On the technical side, I encountered a host of issues. Environments would flicker in and out of existence, enemies would float down stairs and dead guards would sometimes ragdoll into the air. I also encountered some huge frame rate drops despite being on the lowest settings, with one area pulling my frame rate down to one per second. ONE.
Also, you to have Uplay.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy any of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist; the open levels and choice of combat style appealed to me, but the onslaught of design flaws in service of a cringeworthy narrative means it has no chance of a recommendation.