I played and enjoyed the original Splinter Cell trilogy back when they first graced the original Xbox. They are tough, rewarding and engaging stealth titles, but they have not aged well. 2010’s Splinter Cell: Conviction rewrote the formula to bring Splinter Cell into the modern day and, whilst it had its detractors, it displayed a confident and enjoyable development of mechanics and story.
In short, Conviction showed that Splinter Cell was willing to grow up with its target audience. Blacklist undoes this growth, fusing in old mechanics with the main gameplay of Conviction in an unsatisfying display of confused development vision.
Set directly after the story of Conviction, Sam Fisher is placed in charge of the new Fourth Echelon division in order to stop a series of blacklist attacks a terrorist group plans to make on American soil. Far from the personal and emotionally engaged revenge narrative of Conviction, Blacklist relies on every cliche under the sun.
Fisher is still cantankerous and gruff but, whilst this seemed like the unfortunate reaction of a desperate man in Conviction, here it just makes him seem like a douche. Add in the loss of Michael Ironside as a voice actor, and Sam Fisher isn’t the same character we knew and loved. He has been reduced from a real person into an action stereotype and cipher, and it’s a sad transformation.
The change in Fisher’s voice also makes him seem like a much younger character, an issue highlighted by his new character model. Anna Grimsdottir also returns looking ten years younger. It begs the question of where this game was meant to fit in to the Splinter Cell timeline. It’s meant to be a direct sequel, but it never feels like one.
New characters Charlie and Briggs join the fray as intel and field ops agents respectively. Charlie is the stereotypical “comedy” character who is the butt of all the jokes. This humour comes off as too predictable and, far from offering a light relief from the action, it just watered down any dramatic tension the limp story almost built up. By comparison, Briggs is the worst character ever in a game. He is every generic soldier rolled into one, and makes even this new Fisher look like an enigma by comparison.
The story, predictable as it is, takes you through the expected globe-trotting stages. There is certainly a variety in where you wind up, but the levels lack the memorability of previous Splinter Cell maps. Level design is fairly robust, with the three gameplay styles being equally viable in each stage.
You are ranked on ghost, panther and assault points for various levels of subtlety and, whilst this evokes the feeling of gameplay choice, I wasn’t such a big fan of all my moves being boiled down into three fairly simplistic categories. Similarly, cynical sniper and on-rails shooting sections totally remove any of the gameplay options on offer. Even that awful Iraq mission in Conviction had a cool narrative switch up, but Blacklist’s equivalent sidelines are a total waste of time.
Many of the old Splinter Cell gadgets and tactics make a return, with sticky cameras and drones adding in new gameplay opportunities. These are a welcome addition, but the new controls scheme that houses all these complex actions breaks the fundamental success of Conviction. In order to make Splinter Cell more like every other shooter, the cover button is now B. It locks you to cover until you press B again. Conviction used the left trigger, and the smooth analogue controls of sliding in and out of cover allowed you to react to any situation effectively. Blacklist’s cover locking by comparison kills this flow, and too many times I got caught out in cover and was lit up before I could even unstick myself from the wall. Conviction had a rhythm to it, a majestic gameplay grace that Blacklist goes to great lengths to destroy.
In between campaign missions, you are free to walk around Fourth Echelon’s flying base. You can upgrade the base and Fisher’s gear to suit your play style and, whilst there are plenty of options, many of them are a little too easy to acquire. It didn’t take me long to get my perfect loadout, at which time my sense of progression plummeted. The mission map where you progress the campaign is an interesting addition at least. It has the problem of separating the campaign missions so they don’t all feel like a continuous adventure. The upside of this is that all co-op and multiplayer modes are on the same map, making the entire game feel more unified.
It is in these multiplayer modes that Blacklist claws back some of its credibility. Co-op is almost as fun as it was in Conviction, and the combat options suddenly open up with the inclusion of a second player. Many of these side missions throw in cool optional elements like holding off waves of enemies or avoiding detection completely. Coupled with the fact that many of the levels are better designed than they are in the campaign, and you can see where most of your time should be spent. You can also do most of these levels solo, if you’re more of a lone wolf.
The big multiplayer addition is the return of the asymmetrical Spies vs Mercenaries mode. Returning from Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Double Agent, SvM sees two teams trying to hack or protect data terminals. The hacking spies control like Fisher does in the main game, whilst controlling the defending mercenaries switches you to a first person perspective.
Customisation options and player progression have been added for Blacklist’s multiplayer effort, and these new additions help it to steal the show. Matches are tense, varied and strangely tactical. Here’s hoping a strong community builds up around Spies vs Mercs, as there’s a lot to love here.
At least, being a blockbuster action title we can expect polished visuals, right? Apparently not. You’ll notice the artistic flourishes of Conviction are absent, with the black and white colours to signify you’re place in the shadows replaced by a dissatisfying and easily missed light on Fisher’s back. The levels take the place of the monochrome stealth indicator, posing in all sorts of shades of grey with little interest or colour in sight. Animations are more satisfying, but are ruined by the plastic sheen that ruins all the character models. This is not a game you’ll be playing for looks alone.
Conviction was one of my favorite games of 2010. It redefined the Splinter Cell series with fast stealth action, flowing gameplay and an oddly pointed story about personal revenge. Conviction was like a decent action movie; fun, frantic and at least partially memorable. Blacklist, by comparison, is a mediocre B-movie. It’s not good enough to enjoy, but not so bad that you can laugh at it. It takes everything good about Conviction and totally misinterprets it. It is a sad and disappointing experience seeing how Splinter Cell has devolved and, unless you plan on getting it primarily for the awesome Spies vs Mercenaries mode, Blacklist is a game that is difficult to recommend.
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360.