Many people will be shot, stabbed, or otherwise relieved of consciousness over the course of Splinter Cell Blacklist’s campaign, but the most significant casualty is the loss of Michael Ironside as the voice of Sam Fisher. Exiting the series due to Ubisoft Toronto’s new focus on full performance capture, Ironside has handed the role over to newcomer Eric Johnson, whose interpretation of the series’ super-spy is imbued the charisma of a plank of wood.
Fisher has become a facsimile of Mass Effect’s male Commander Shepard, now leading his espionage outfit from the bowels of an explorable cargo plane. There are no love interests on board, however; unless one counts the awkward bromance with Fisher’s co-operative mode partner, Isaac Briggs (you just KNOW they’re going to bang as soon as they get back on board). The plot is a terrible season of 24, with a villain played by one of the side characters from the show, whilst mission briefings see mo-capped mannequins huddling around a word map, exchanging concerned glares and spitting Clancynian techno-babble.
This brand of gibberish has always been Splinter Cell’s modus operandi. The difference is, it was once delivered with a world-weary charm through Ironside’s Fisher. One only has to recall the dialogue of the impromptu interrogations in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory to see an intelligence and wit that Blacklist has snuffed out. But the move to performance capture isn’t necessarily the culprit. Elias Toufexis – better known to PCPP readers as the voice of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s Adam Jensen – steals the show as villain-turned ally Andriy Kobin. The capacity is there for a realisation of the Sam Fisher we know, but it is absent in Blacklist.
More time is spent fetishising the curves of Fisher’s new knife, now symbolic of one of the multiple approaches to Blacklist’s gameplay. This is a stealth game that supports a wide spectrum of non-lethal, deadly and loud acts of violence. It’s clear that, whilst Chaos Theory was the third iteration of a hardcore stealth formula, Blacklist is the second iteration of Conviction’s flashier, accessible nu-stealth.
Blacklist is the second iteration of Conviction’s flashier, accessible nu-stealth
The thrill inherent to the series no longer comes from sneaking because any other option spells death, but from sneaking because it is the cleanest option; one that requires a heady combination of mastery and restraint. A full scoring breakdown at the conclusion of each mission – one slightly weighted toward rewarding a non-lethal ghost approach – helps to reinforce such goals that have now become player-defined rather than demanded by the system. What elevates Blacklist far above Conviction is that it now has the capacity to support such player expression, whereas Conviction’s tunnel vision thrusted Sam Fisher ever forward, putting skulls through television sets and clearing entire rooms in seconds.
That Mark and Execute function is still present, but it’s no longer the instant-win button that littered the DC Metro area with corpses in 2010. Its effective range seems smaller, and it’s limited to no more than three marks at a time (Conviction’s four – eight in co-op! – was ludicrous). Enemy archetypes have been introduced that throw a spanner in front of Fisher’s perfectly-aimed bullets, too – heavy infantry, wearing bullet-proof helmets, and riot shield-wielding bastards require positioning from above or behind to eliminate.
Sneaking within these systems is a lot like playing with a rubber band. Undisturbed, there is a relaxed pace to the methodic disposal of hostiles. As players are pushed to attempt riskier, faster manoeuvres, the rubber band stretches, becoming taut with palpable tension if Fisher gets spotted. It’s then that Blacklist’s systems come into their own; what previously felt like concessions made for accessibility transform into crucial tools for players to improvise, react and overcome equally responsive and deadly AI. Though the performance capture flounders in the campaign’s cutscenes, in this unscripted gameplay it lends the animation of Fisher’s deadly hugs a startling, brutal efficiency; his dives between cover a desperation and urgency.
That visual effectiveness also highlights how cover is more important than shadow, and how positioning within the environment is more important than manipulating it. Fisher can break lights and hide bodies, but there’s little reason to do so when levels are designed as a linear series of small sandboxes, rather than whole and consistent locations. Each checkpoint locks the door behind Fisher, allowing the geometry to flush from what would be the game’s console-based counterparts, as those systems have the memory of a goldfish. Most of the checkpoints still allow a satisfying range of options for movement and gadget-based trickery, though less-engaging scripted sequences come in hard and fast toward the end of the singleplayer and co-operative campaigns.
Most of the checkpoints still allow a satisfying range of options for movement and gadget-based trickery
But it’s the return of the asymmetric adversarial multiplayer where Blacklist’s mechanical nuances feel most appropriate. This fast and brutal interpretation of Spies versus Mercenaries takes the game’s economy-based upgrades and separates them into distinct classes that demand coordination to succeed. Though there are only a handful of maps to run, gun and sneak through, there’s enough variety in the game modes on offer to keep you playing long after you’ve exhausted Fisher’s own outings. The balance of superior information for the Spies with superior firepower for the Mercenaries is near-perfect.
It is faster and more accessible than Chaos Theory’s own adversarial mode, but then, that’s true of Blacklist’s singleplayer and co-operative offerings, too. This is Splinter Cell for everyone, and though it may not be a better Splinter Cell game than Chaos Theory, it’s easily the best one since.