Splinter Cell: Blacklist sees Sam Fisher return to a Nintendo console, and is yet another solid Wii U game from Ubisoft. But is this the quality stealth game Splinter Cell fans want?
Unlike another new Ubisoft game, Rayman Legends, Splinter Cell: Blacklist has a strong focus on its story. The main concept is that a group called the Engineers have started something called the Blacklist, which counts down to acts of violence (which are shared publicly through what seems to be a futuristic YouTube) as long as American troops are not removed from all non-American countries. The base plot is something new and interesting, but unfortunately the execution of the plot isn’t perfect. The first portion of the game, in particular, feels muddled as the game tries to decide what direction it is going in.
A big part of this is getting to know the characters. The main characters of the team aren’t introduced in a clear way, and so the dynamic between them isn’t immediately interesting. From the point at which you finally meet your enemy (whose personality is a refreshing change from generic enemies in some games), the characters start to have intriguing conflicts; these characters, who are forced to work together, have different morals and ways of working and this causes disagreements more than once. Sam Fisher is likeable, yet he has flaws that are identified and explored by the game (as do all the main characters). His interactions with Briggs – another field agent – result in some fascinating development for both characters, yet the standout character is Charlie, the cocky computer expert who gets some really worthwhile attention. The final act of the game, in particular, was completely gripping as all the character development and plot developments interweave in explosive fashion. The only other niggle I have is that the enemy’s reasons for doing what he’s doing aren’t explored much; if they had been, I could invest in the character (and the plot) even more.
In a game like this, with its big moments and character exploration, visuals are important in allowing you to invest in the world. So does Blacklist hold up visually? Yes and no. A lot of things look brilliant; Sam Fisher’s character model (this is the same for a lot of other major characters) is incredibly detailed and well done, and the lighting in particular creates the atmosphere you want in a Splinter Cell game. Dark areas are pierced by the lights of Sam Fisher’s suit as you sneak through them, with the light of cameras and light bulbs warning you of detection. This is important not only to make the game look great, but to allow you to identify where you can sneak around.
This is why it is disappointing to see the game fail visually on occasion. There are areas where you can see that less effort was put into the visuals, with less detailed characters, as well as flat and less believable textures. This isn’t common enough to ruin the great stuff, but it just takes you out of the moment sometimes.
Another important part of both the presentation and the gameplay of Splinter Cell: Blacklist is the audio, and this is something else that is done well in this game. The iconic noise of Sam Fisher’s goggles is there as you would expect, but other sounds like enemies discussing events (Batman: Arkham City: Armoured Edition style) add to the immersion you experience. The fact that Blacklist gets sound effects like enemy’s footsteps, lasers close to you and more correct is crucial as audio is another thing that you can use to help you plan your movements. The games soundtrack is also good quality, and it encapsulates the dramatic nature of the game well.
So then, let’s get into the most important part of Splinter Cell: Blacklist – the gameplay. Splinter Cell is best when you are stealthily sneaking past guards unnoticed using shadows, cover, pipes, ledges; whatever is at your disposal. The important question is, then, has Blacklist favoured stealth over action? The answer is no: but this is a good thing! Each level can be approached in three different ways – Ghost (sneaking around undetected), Panther (being stealthy, but using the tools at your disposal to take people out without being noticed), and finally Assault (going all guns blazing, using weapons and gadgets to basically just kill everyone). All three tactics are viable in every level, but you get the most points for Ghost (and then Panther, and then Assault). In the higher difficulty levels, Ghost is the tactic you want to deploy as Sam Fisher becomes extremely frail. Ghost is easily the most rewarding way of playing, with the tension and then satisfaction of sneaking past a room of guards unnoticed being something not often replicated in the world of games. The superb level design makes this possible, with secret routes mixed into the dangerous areas cleverly. A level often has a lot more to it than you first think, so taking your time to observe the area is wise.
Using Sam Fisher’s arsenal of tools and abilities in these areas works very well on the Wii U; using buttons to navigate menus is possible, but it breaks up the action and feels not only obtrusive, but quite cumbersome. The GamePad’s screen fixes this, as the screen usually displays all of your available weapons and tools as well as allowing you to switch between lethal and non-lethal actions at a touch. When you are in the middle of a level, being able to tap the screen to select what you want is quick and easy. The Gamepad is also utilized well to bring these gadgets to life in a way not seen in the other versions of the game. Peeking under doors causes the view to come up on the GamePad, where you can use the controllers gyroscope to quickly view the area. Air support sections see the overhead view come up on the GamePad. These things and more see the GamePad being used in interesting ways, and Ubisoft really shows off what third-party games can do with the GamePad if they try to think up refreshing ideas for it (Ubisoft has been very good at this so far).
In addition, the game allows you to upgrade and customize your gadgets as you gain more and more money in-game. This allows you to tailor your loadout to your style of playing even more. For example, you will equip sleeping gas instead of a frag grenade if you want to be stealthy and go for the Ghosts style of playing. You can do all this from the main hub, which is aboard Fourth Echelon’s base of operations (a plane, name Paladin). In the hub, you can also access side missions from each of the other four main members of your team, have touching phone conversations that expand the story, upgrade Paladin’s different components, and, of course, access the anticipated multiplayer.
While Wii U lacks the offline multiplayer (reportedly due to time constraints), the online multiplayer is all present and accounted for. Spies vs. Mercs is an original, suspenseful and, well, brilliant mode that sees first-person (interestingly, this aspect does translate to the main story occasionally… I’ll say no more), heavily-armed Mercenaries go up against third-person, super-stealthy Spies as the Spies try to hack the objective and Mercs try to stop them. While fully-populated games are unfortunately not easy to find on the Wii U, talk of servers not working as well as expected could explain this (Miiverse shows a lot of people wanting to play online). When you do get into a game, though, it is a top-notch multiplayer mode that does things differently from a lot of online shooters.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is the Splinter Cell we have wanted. The stealth gameplay is immensely satisfying and the best way to play the game, but you can get more aggressive if you wish and it is still a great experience. The game has flaws: the story has issues in its execution at times, the visuals are hit and miss, and the game lacks offline multiplayer, but these don’t stop the game from being another superb Wii U effort from Ubisoft that captures the essence of Splinter Cell.