Hanging from a ledge on a balcony, I pressed the Back button on the Xbox 360 gamepad and grizzled superspy Sam Fisher drew an armed guard closer with a whispered a come-hither taunt. Decision time: do I toss an incendiary grenade at his feet and watch the flesh cook off his bones? Tear gas him and then run up and slit his throat? Simply aim my pistol at his face and paint the wall with his brains? Nah, I’m an old-school Splinter Cell purist, so instead I tapped the X button. Fisher reached up, grabbed the bad guy by the shirt, and hurled him over the edge to the concrete below. No one heard. That rush of having so many tools to choose from and the intoxicating freedom to execute a plan as I saw fit is the biggest part of what makes Splinter Cell: Blacklist the best game in the series since 2005’s Chaos Theory.
Very obviously an olive branch to hardcore series fans like me who were left dismayed by the franchise’s action-heavy pivot in 2010’s Conviction, Blacklist gets stealth right. (In Conviction, scenarios like the one described above don’t happen and features include built in a win button called Mark and Execute that kills up to four enemies instantly with no stealth or aiming required. Facepalming in your living room is optional.) Blacklist still has the auto-kill move, but it returns Fisher to his rightful place in the dark – though yes, there are some daytime missions. The forgotten Splinter Cell element of verticality is back, too, with ample ceiling-mounted pipes to shimmy along and ledges from which to dangle above bad guys – all the better to rain down a beating. Levels are laced with air ducts aplenty to crawl through and multiple paths to explore, all of which combine to form a sublime stealth sandbox.
Of course, it’s expected that a Splinter Cell game should give us a quality stealth experience, but what’s really impressive is that if you want to play Blacklist the way we were forced to play Conviction, you can. Between its fluid aiming and excellent camera controls it serves as a capable shooter. Silenced pistol shots to the face drop targets with a satisfying “Tss-eew,” while shotguns thud rounds into bad guy chests with authority. On a related note, one particular twist in the campaign (you’ll know it when you get there) feels more jarring than refreshing, but is mercifully short and still able to be played stealthily.
We’re effectively incentivized to play and replay in different ways by a post-mission scoring system – another feature clearly inspired by Chaos Theory – that tracks everything you do and
This multi-prong approach to level design is half of what makes Blacklist both a phenomenal stealth game and a smooth action one. The other half is the character customization, which allows you to spend cash earned by executing stealthy tasks (like stashing enemies in dumpsters) to specialize Fisher’s gadget and weapon loadout to suit your play style. I made a full Ghost variant, decked out with non-lethal gadgets like sleeping gas grenades, sticky shocker proximity mines, and a crossbow that flings disabling darts, but there’s plenty of deadly equipment available as well.
It’d be a better system if cash weren’t handed out quite so generously. Particularly if you mix a few of the co-op missions in with your campaign playthrough, you’ll almost always be able to take the exact loadout you want into any mission. If it’s not going to make us choose between gear and make sacrifices based on budget, why have an economy system at all? Considering that this is a fairly easy campaign by classic Splinter Cell standards (even played on Perfectionist mode) it could’ve used that extra element of making tough choices.
Still, the equipment helps boost Blacklist’s gameplay to highpoints in the tense moments when quick thinking gets you out of a jam. For instance, at one point I was be about to be discovered by a Heavy foe (an armored brute immune to sticky shockers and gas grenades and is only vulnerable from above or behind) closing on my cornered position. I switched to my sticky noisemaker gadget and tossed it behind the Heavy; when he turned to investigate the strange noise I was able to sneak up behind him and choke him out, avoiding a noisy confrontation.
The campaign only stumbles in a few areas – spots where we’re so outnumbered that it’s clear the designers intend for us to use Mark and Execute in order to thin the herd. Completing them non-lethally is an exercise in frustration for Ghost players, though it can be done. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between, and most are friendly to all styles of play.
Between those missions, Fisher’s airborne base of Fourth Echelon operations is cleverly used as the game’s menu. You can walk around the aircraft, talk to your team members – all of whom have new things to say after each level – and see your stats on in-game monitors. If only it were all easier on the eyes.
Any character not named Sam Fisher is rather ugly, with very little facial detail and awful hair. That just can’t be ignored in the plentiful pre- and post-mission cutscenes, most of which suffer from rampant distracting screen tearing in the 360 and PS3 versions and framerate stuttering on the Wii U (Speaking of the Wii U, you're able to quick-select gadgets and weapons on the GamePad. It's quicker than the "hold the D-pad" method required on the 360 and PS3). Out on missions the environments look adequate, but Blacklist fails to impress, let alone dazzle.
At least it can claim story superiority over the rest of the series. Blacklist’s terrorism-in-America plotline is grounded enough to be believable and its villains developed and human enough to not seem cartoonish. It uses Splinter Cell’s continuity to great effect as well, bringing back characters and story threads from Conviction in a way that strengthens Fisher’s motivations.
It’s difficult to understand the motivations behind the quasi-reboot of Sam Fisher himself, though. Oh, he’s still Sam, and nothing about his character’s backstory has overtly changed. But veteran voice actor Michael Ironside is gone, taking his distinctive baritone and sarcastic wit with him. In his place is a rather generic “I’m the boss” take on Fisher that’s gone from grumpy to full-on angry and whose tension with his crew isn’t nearly as interesting as their fraying emotions with each other. By the story’s climax, nearly everyone is angry at each other, but they’re forced to work through their frustration for the good of the mission. It’s a rare case of character relationships successfully complement the drama of a video game plot.
New lead actor Eric Johnson can’t really be blamed for Fisher’s shortcomings. He’s saddled with a mediocre script, and in fact his only real crime is being miscast. He sounds 30 because he is (34, technically), despite Sam Fisher being depicted as a mid-to-late 40s combat veteran with graying temples and a daughter in her 20s. When Fisher’s on the phone with her, it just sounds...wrong.
Naturally, in Blacklist’s riveting pair of multiplayer modes all character concerns go out the window. The 14-mission cooperative campaign is practically another game’s worth of content unto itself. (Technically only the four Briggs missions require two players. The rest can be tried as solo challenges if you like.) More Splinter Cell is always appreciated, though it’s strange that these are all designed in such as way that active cooperation is almost entirely optional.
Only once – when my partner and I had to simultaneously shimmy up pipes on opposite-facing buildings in order to coordinate a synchronized dispatching of snipers in windows who would’ve blown the opposite spy away had either one of us faltered – did I feel like I was truly cooperating with my partner. The rest of the time it felt like more of a two-player mode than a co-op one, though in Blacklist’s open-ended playground it’s still a treat to tag-team a group of bad guys. Yes, there are buddy moves like a boost and dual breach, but it’s nothing like the tight-knit teamwork required in Chaos Theory’s groundbreaking co-op mode.
Perhaps recognizing this, the designers split Blacklist’s multiplayer missions into batches of three or four, with each set assigned by a different member of your Fourth Echelon team and reflecting that person’s play style. Charlie’s quartet of scenarios are a Horde mode in which you must survive wave after wave of progressively more difficult opponents, while Grim’s ops are pure ghost jobs that are failed if you’re spotted. I much prefer the latter myself, though I appreciate the variety. Even the Charlie missions are a hoot to tackle in different ways – non-lethally one time, then guns-blazing another. The only mission that falls flat is the second of Briggs’ set, which devolves into an exact rip-off of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s classic AC-130 Spec Ops mission where one player rains missiles from above and the other tries to survive on the ground. We’ve just seen that one too many times, and it’s a misfit in a game that’s supposed to be about stealth.
It’s the long-awaited comeback of asymmetrical multiplayer mode Spies vs. Mercs – last seen in 2006's Double Agent – that’s likely to be the most enduring portion of the powerful Blacklist package. It pits Fisher-esque spies (playing in third-person view) against slower, well-armed Mercenaries (playing in first-person). In both the 2v2 Classic mode that mimics the original Pandora Tomorrow mode as much as possible and the new 4v4 Blacklist version (that adds customizable loadouts) the cat-and-mouse battles between the diametrically opposed classes makes for some of the freshest multiplayer in gaming today. You’re wholly dependent on your partner in Classic, though the larger player groups in Blacklist mode invite welcome chaos as the spies try to hack the terminal and the mercs try to stop them.
All in all, though, the new Spies vs. Mercs is not quite as good as its progenitor because it lacks some of the more inventive features. For instance, neither team has gadgets that enable them to listen in on the voice chatter of their rivals, nor can the spies grab mercs from behind and taunt them over the mic, but it’s an impressive modernization. It plays much faster than ever – spies can slit the throats of their foes with a run-by tap of the X button, for example – and most if its game modes are home runs. Team Deathmatch is the exception to that. It allows you to have spies and mercs on the same team, but it’s both unappealing and confusing since you’ll have a tough time deciphering who’s a friend and who’s a foe. Uplink, on the other hand, is where the mixed teams shine, as tug-of-war control points organically funnel all of the action to one hotspot, and here cooperation between classes allow for more creative and intelligent strategies. I’m going to be playing this for weeks, if not months, just as I did in Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory.