American espionage author Tom Clancy may have his name plastered all over the box, but he hasn’t written a single Splinter Cell book. The series is wholly a Ubisoft creation, allowing the publisher free reign over the franchise’s creative direction to best suit whatever purpose it would like.
Creative license is exactly what Ubisoft chooses to take in Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist: the sixth entry in its military stealth series cuts loose a lot of its fiction to create a smoother point of entry for newcomers, while taking a few liberties with the franchise’s gameplay and structure.
Blacklist is what you might consider to be a soft reboot of a complex franchise. While it doesn’t outright ignore events of previous entries, the game streamlines as much of its fiction as it possibly can for those who haven’t ever approached a Sam Fisher joint before. For instance, special forces unit Third Echelon is no more — Sam is now a member of the growing Fourth Echelon unit headquartered inside a stealth airplane called the Paladin. Characters like Sam’s daughter Sarah, who has played central roles in earlier games, here only appears in phone calls that you can choose to make or ignore aboard the Paladin, and additional series figures pop up with a really quick explanation as to who they are; onward the plot marches, regardless. History isn’t given much weight here, and it makes for a brisk pace through the story.
Fisher himself is quite different than in even his prior assignment, Splinter Cell Conviction: he comes across as a more balanced, level-headed character than before with a cleaned-up look. Nor is he voiced by Michael Ironside any more, which explains the more sober-sounding performance.
Not content with re-inventing just the fiction, Ubisoft pushes Blacklist in new directions for the series that sometimes feel appropriate and other times clash with what one might expect out of the franchise. The goal is to make the game more approachable than its hardcore stealth heritage allowed, which Blacklist accomplishes by leaning into the franchise’s inherent action. Stealth is still the predominantly encouraged method of approach, but with rare exception any given scenario can be solved with a shootout if Sam’s presence becomes known.
Blacklist rewards three distinct play-styles. Ghost bonuses are awarded by leaving as little trail as possible through non-lethal takedowns and otherwise leaving enemies undisturbed, Panther style involves killing quietly from the shadows, and Assault bonuses come from playing it loud. A tally at the end of each mission shows what style you favoured — do well enough in one style and you’ll achieve Mastery of that stage. Completionists will go nuts for trying to clear each mission with Mastery in each approach.
But Splinter Cell is not a great shooter, either from a first- or third-person perspective. When the going gets loud, the quick-reflex mechanics show themselves to be bolted on to the stealth structure, lacking the fluidity that comes with sneaking in the shadows. Taking the time to mark, follow, and silently execute enemies, hang from rafters for a well-timed takedown, or crawl through vents to circumvent confrontation altogether is a far more graceful and rewarding experience than attempting to gun your way through or out of a scene.
For the sake of unnecessary “variety,” Blacklist often strays from its stealth gameplay strengths and hoists Sam and co. into action-oriented military game scenarios that, at this point, just feel tired. Remember that one mission in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare where you controlled an AC-130, firing at enemy combatants seen through a detached, black-and-white monitor? Well, every military shooter since 2008 remembers that scene and has ground it into dust. This scene, and other “Call of Duty moments” like it, shamble forth in Blacklist, seemingly just to tick off a box on a list of features.
In another mission, the game jumps back and forth between Sam stealthing around in the customary third-person perspective and a jarring, janky first-person portion as Sam’s partner Briggs. Remaining hidden as Briggs proves far more difficult as many of the stealth tools that Sam employs are stripped away, with the giant gun on the screen nudging you towards shooting everyone in sight. This flirtation with what Ubisoft might interpret to be more popular with a wider audience is not only poorly implemented but does a disservice to the game’s identity: lumping in a game that has great character with a homogenous pool of me-too shootbangs only serves to dilute what makes Splinter Cell enjoyable to begin with.
Blacklist attempts a new, flatter progression structure than previous Splinter Cells — almost everything feeds into the same overall goal of stopping the terrorist group called the Engineers from executing their plan, ostensibly seeking to get the United States to pull all of its troops from foreign soil across the globe. At least, that’s where its desire lies; in actuality, the game is broken up into the main, swift campaign, assorted side missions and online competitive and cooperative multiplayer modes (offline co-op is posted missing). Aside from the fiction — which attempts to be mode-agnostic but has little real effect on how the story plays out — what ties the modes together is Sam’s equipment unlocks and upgrades.
Clearing a campaign mission, side strike or multiplayer session earns you cash which you can then use to purchase and customize loadouts or upgrade the Paladin for passive bonuses, which in turn can be used wherever you’d like with the exception of multiplayer mode Spies vs. Mercs. The game even has its own buddy app available for free on iOS, Spider-Bot, where players can earn money on their device and bring it over to the console game. You never have to not be playing Splinter Cell ever again. However, this progression becomes moot unless you intend to play through the game multiple times: there is enough money to go around to purchase and upgrade all of the equipment needed for your preferred play style halfway through the campaign.
The GamePad, for its part, is put to adequate use for quick equipment selection, although it extends the metaphor of Sam focusing his attention on operating gadgets by being the primary display for drones, cameras and other tools. The entire game can be played off-screen as well. For some this extra and quick accessibility to gizmos will be a big plus on Nintendo's system.
Ubisoft takes bold steps with tradition in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist in an attempt to please as many as possible, but by doing so dilutes the game's stealthy strength in favour of chasing new audiences. A greater focus on action reduces some of the rough, intimidating edge, and the game opens the door for new players to sneak in by softly rebooting its fiction. However much the changes clash with the series' roots, Blacklist is still a perfectly competent, enjoyable stealth romp whose only crime is inspiring very little awe.