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Blacklist is a series of answers to questions posed in the wake of Splinter Cell: Conviction. Why can’t you move bodies? Why must you kill everyone? Where are the gadgets? Where is Spies vs Mercs? Well, now you can, you don’t have to, they’re all here, and it’s back. Conviction was yanked from the depths of development hell with a speedy that’ll-do-just-ship-it approach and was a surprisingly successful rescue job, but Blacklist was planned and directed like a laser to be all things to all players. Whatever you’ve found to like about any Splinter Cell game is here in quantities so extravagant that it’s almost daunting, and in combinations so random that it’s a disaster.
Blacklist pits the newly formed Fourth Echelon team against a terrorist group determined to attack the United States every seven days, and sends New Sam Fisher around the world to shoot (or not shoot) legions of insurgents and mercenaries in the name of truth, justice and the American right to invade foreign lands. From Fourth Echelon’s flying fortress you’ll choose your mission from the Blacklist campaign, the Spies vs Mercs multiplayer mode, a co-op/solo insta-fail stealth campaign helmed by Anna Grímsdóttir, skirmish-based terrorist hunts with Andriy Kobin, and a pure co-op campaign offered by and starring new agent Isaac Briggs. In Chaos Theory fashion, all the campaign missions can be completed without firing a shot, but in Conviction fashion it’s more fun if you do. Blacklist has a way with a headshot – brutal, neck-snapping things triggered with a tap of the ‘execute’ button – and you’re rewarded with cash for upgrades whether you play the game like a hunter, ghost or straight shooter.
The game awards more cash for leaving targets untouched and sneaking through its levels undetected, but it’s all too eager to give you reasons to hunt. Blacklist’s levels are target-rich environments where enemies in their dozens flood into spaces built more for aggression than stealth. Where Chaos Theory had you sneak through darkened spaces populated by two or three thugs, Blacklist has you sneaking in broad daylight past six, seven, or – in Kobin’s terrorist hunts – up to 20 heavily armed soldiers.
For the stealth-insistent, Blacklist is the most punitive game in Splinter Cell’s history. There are too many targets to evade and too little space in which to do it. Blacklist’s level design defies improvisation and ingenuity, and its checkpoint system denies creativity. It’s possible to fail and be returned to a checkpoint in a location you never visited – high on a catwalk rather than in the downstairs vent you used on your first attempt, perhaps – or be dropped several minutes before the encounter that made you hit pause/restart, or the wrong side of a temporarily unskippable cutscene, or standing a few feet from a terrorist who will see Fisher if you don’t immediately drop him.
But Fisher is overwhelmingly powerful as an aggressor. His selection of mines and grenades turn him into a one-man army long before you use the brilliant Mark and Execute system to traverse the map three headshots at a time. He’s so powerful, in fact, that headshot-resistant enemies, nightvision-equipped mercs and scent-chasing dogs are scattered throughout every mission, each restoring some sense of challenge at the expense of fun. It’s as if Ubisoft Toronto designed itself into a corner – the enemies are so numerous and the spaces so small that Fisher needs his gadgets to manage the crowds, but his gadgets are so powerful that the game needs special enemies to counter them. Those enemies work well in a hunt-and-kill playthrough but are infuriating when attempting a Ghost run, and that’s only compounded by a checkpoint system that forces a risk-averse playstyle, and level design that offers very few options in the first place.
Extravagant quantities, disastrous combinations. And so you play it safe: no risk, no fun, always taking the prescribed option. For all the choices Blacklist offers there’s always a conspicuous path of least resistance – a path that will be more exciting, more visually arresting and will generally make you feel as cool and sexy as the new cool and sexy Sam Fisher. Blacklist can be made a pure stealth game or a pure shooter if you have the will and the bulletproof sense of calm for the job – but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Splinter Cell used to be built like a Clancy novel; now it’s an action movie. Where a novel can find drama in the smallest moments – a man hiding while a lone guard probes the darkness with a flashlight – modern action flicks are obsessed with spectacle and constant one-upmanship. And so Blacklist has explosions and chases and extended platforming sequences and sniper missions and firstperson missions and missions against the clock and missions upon missions where being undetected feels like an exploit rather than a victory. Pure stealth was the most graceful way to play classic Splinter Cell, but here it’s the ugliest option as the game constantly urges you to take the shot, take the shot, take the shot. Even the asymmetric Spies vs Mercs mode has been given a big dose of adrenaline with extra players and lights everywhere, although a Classic mode reduces the headcount and does its best to ensure that Blacklist appeals to everyone, with no player left behind.
By the time you reach the end of Blacklist everything has grown so big and so explosive that you’re left exhausted but not entirely satisfied, and maybe after all that incoherent action you’ll recall the time when a single flashlight in Chaos Theory’s Panamanian bank made you hold your breath. Ten men searching for Fisher doesn’t make for ten times the excitement, but it sure does give him a lot to shoot.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is released on August 23 for 360, PC, PS3, Wii U. 360 version tested.