Ubisoft have done a Square-Enix on the Splinter Cell franchise, and what previously was a candid and rampant Washington DC punch-in-the-face-a-thon, is now something much more slithery and sly. There was something endearing about the final chapter of Ironside’s Sam – where he, a dusty, creaking old and tired brute went on the rampage in order to save his daughter, and the president. It was gritty, rough, raw, and the differences between it and previous games were completely justified by the narrative. This isn’t.
This time, Ironside is out, and Ubisoft have conscripted a dry, mumbling soap-star with about as much emotion and charisma as Sylvester Stallone’s lips. Ironside’s Sam was a canister ready to explode, but it never did. That’s what made him interesting. He was a bottled-up killer. Unfortunately for us, Eric Johnson simply feels like a moody 30 year old on Valium. That’s not where the strangeness ends for this character transfer. The graying Sam in Blacklist is clearly around 35 years old. It’s like he’s been infected with that aging serum from an early season of the X Files. None of this feels very thought through, and that’s a running trend with Blacklist.
I’m tackling this from quite a unique position. I’m a huge fan of the original games, but I’ve also put around 150 hours into Conviction. Both the original titles – aside from Double Agent, which had its own problems – and Conviction knew what they were. The original Splinter Cell games were stealth with in depth victory parameters and unique level design. Combat was to be avoided pretty much at all costs. Conviction was the opposite, it was a brutish, 24 style action game about scouting out a box-design, and killing as many guys at once with a single shot. They’re all awesome, because they all knew what they were.
In comes Blacklist with the horrendously lazy tag-line: “play however you want!” We have genres for a reason, and we have franchises within those genres designed to offer something unique and differentiate from other games. Why change Hitman from what it was into a cover shooter? Why change Tomb Raider into a cover shooter? Why is Splinter Cell now just a cover shooter? The reason is simple: Ubisoft put too much money into this game for it to sell to anything remotely considered a niche audience. Without this review turning into a rant, that’s fundamentally the problem with Splinter Cell – everything has been compromised in order to maximize sales. I have no problems with trying to make money, but the cost is a watered down, mechanically weak, very generic stealth-action title without a soul.
I’m not mad because they’ve changed Splinter Cell, I’m mad because with all the perks of high production costs, it’s a game still riddled with awkward animations and bugs. Firstly, I couldn’t run the game in my native resolution of 1920×1080 – to that, I had to play in border-less windowed mode. Secondly, graphical glitches plague from start to finish. Characters faces would be plastered on my gear in the customization screen, the propellers of a jet would just have a strange blurry square texture spinning around, and I would frequently have to restart sections of the game because of crashing during a loading screen – including after I’d finished the final boss. That, and frequent object pop-in, pop-out, and dodgy stealth mechanics, being seen for an inexplicable reason started to grate on me very quickly.
Once it did work, basic level design for the entire game was thus: move from predictably placed cover to cover, or climb a pipe. Alternatively, use a vent shaft. Traverse too many enemies on screen at once until you get to the end. The narrative reason for this, the story, was that you were in pursuit of a terrorist. Every mission is therefore this: he might be here, let’s have a look. He’s not. Okay, let’s try again. He’s not, alright, next place. Rinse, repeat. This is all broken up by inexplicably placed UAV sniping/firing missions and, I am not kidding you, first person shooting segments with Sam’s colleague. Let’s just shove every single mechanic ever into the game, shall we?
There is absolutely no challenge here. This is a spectacle shooter. Although the “play how you want” thing is true, it’s not really viable. There’s an overwhelming sense that if you’re spotted you should just restart the checkpoint, and yes, I believe that’s true – this is a Splinter Cell game. However, the levels are designed with cover-shooting in mind more-so than they are stealth. And so is character customization. On your flying-base, you can customize your gear from spoils of each successful mission. You can equip Sam with three custom builds, and each item of clothing from head to toe will either increase armour and decrease stealth, or vice versa. This means that this Splinter Cell game has been designed to allow players to remove stealth entirely, and increase armour.
This compromise means that levels are stuffed full of enemies, making “stealth” simply a matter of using the obviously placed vents, or moving from cover to cover – many times, there aren’t even shadows to worry about. If that’s too difficult for you to manage, then you can equip some goggles which show you the location of every enemy near you, through walls, and you can tag them permanently. Hello everything-that-was-wrong-with-Future-Solider.
What had been teased as an interesting story is dragged out into a series of cat-and-mouse chases, split apart by separate optional missions you can do by talking to one of the games characters, notably Corben, from Conviction. These missions are hit and miss – often miss – but you’ll find the most classical Splinter Cell action here, particularly one of Grim’s missions which sees Sam infiltrating an offshore fort in the UK. It’s beautiful, and the level design is great. Picking off guys throughout the level, or leaving them alone, is a genuine challenge with real replayability.
Unfortunately, most of these missions have Sam thrown into some generic desert type environment where he’s to fend of swarms of generic Asian/Middle Eastern people, or kill them all without being seen. They suffer from a serious lack of check-points, which are problematic because often the dodgy scripting or clunky animations will do you no justice. When seaking, Sam will finish each step – there’s no way to creep and stop dead on demand by input from the player. Likewise, moving around cover often gets you seen because, for some reason, they can see the top of Sam’s head bobbing around as he’s shuffling. Sam is also too slow to drop from objects, and hanging from below something as an NPC stands above you will, in Blacklist, have you seen and killed.
There will be many people reading this who still enjoy the challenge of shuffling and going cover-to-cover being unseen. But that’s a challenge set by yourself, and certainly not by Ubisoft. I felt the same way about Conviction; it was enormous fun to go room to room, topping guys without being seen, pulling some cool tricks as a sort of Jack Bauer saving his family. This doesn’t have the same vibe at all. There’s no narrative drive. Every stage feels like a lost cause, and the weak, repetitive level design will have you frustrated as you wait for two mindless NPC’s to finish off their superfluous conversation before setting about moving on their predictably scripted path.
To forgo the boredom, or challenge, Ubisoft have kindly bundled digital deluxe editions with a fantastic suit and tactical crossbow, making the game even easier. This crossbow will down any enemy, regardless of where you hit him, so long as he’s not wearing a mask, and the suit will mean you can play 70% of the game without needing to upgrade. I can’t say the differences in how the enemy reacted to Sam changed depending on the gear to the best of my knowledge, but everything felt very off regardless of what I had Sam wear.
As a stealth game, Blacklist has no redeemable factors. A few levels will have Sam acting like Fisher when getting from checkpoint to checkpoint along scripted corridors without enemy interference, but as soon as the enemies come, this is a game entirely about using a pole, a vent, or cover, or gunning your way through. Dodging the same enemies, the same way, for an entire 7 hour experience isn’t that enjoyable, and it wasn’t that enjoyable in Hitman either, but if you want to play Splinter Cell the way it was meant to be played: a brainless “deal with the consequences and use a bunch of gadgets, lel” experience, then it’s simply alright.
I quite like the way of going from mission to mission, talking to your team, and using the PayDay 2 style ShadowNet, but upgrades which change the basic mechanics and rules of the game so dramatically are superficial enhancements to something lazy and mechanically weak. Enemies have helmets, so I can’t pop heads-hots anymore, I’ll out-gadget them. I can’t crawl in the shadows anymore, they have goggles, I’ll out-gadget them. This one has a riot shield, I’ll out gadget-him. These are layers of needless fluff, when in reality, what this should have been is player wit, with classical gadgets – without ridiculous gadgets – vs one or two deadly enemies, along a corridor with multiple, not-so-obvious options, with variable mission failure states.
Instead, it’s 7 hours of mindless NPC’s fumbling around in the dark, with a clunky, youthful-but-graying, uncharismatic imposter in a Sam-suit, playing cat-and-mouse to an end that is entirely predictable from the moment you see the teaser trailer. As a Splinter Cell game, aside from any potential nostalgia, this is terrible. As a cover shooter, which is how I’m rating this title, it’s alright. The same as the others.