Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Review: Splinter Cell: Blacklist

When was the last time you went three weeks without an Internet connection? After a few days, it becomes damn frustrating not being able to check Facebook, see if Gareth Bale has signed for Real Madrid yet, or...well, ahem, anyway. This was the scenario that faced me when my copy of Splinter Cell: Blacklist arrived on launch day, and continued for another week after. Funny how these things work out though, as without being able to access any of the online features I was able to devote my time to the game in a specific order, rather than taking little nibbles of the huge stealth feast on offer. And what a feast it is, as despite it's many faults, Splinter Cell is back and it's one heck of a ride.

Anyone who played Sam Fisher's last outing on the Xbox 360, Splinter Cell: Conviction, will know that the series took on a much more action orientated approach, much to that chagrin of Splinter Cell purists. Perhaps as a reaction to the popularity of action games such as Call of Duty, the game was good, very good in fact, but didn't feel like a Splinter Cell game, certainly not what we were used to. What Ubisoft have done with Blacklist is adapt like Sam Fisher in a sticky situation and, rather than choosing stealth or action, have chosen stealth AND action. The game can be played in three different ways, which you are judged on at the end of each mission. Ghost, where you get the most points/money, encourages you to go through levels unnoticed, using the shadows as your ally and going around, rather than through, hostiles. Panther is the middle ground, scoring you on lethal and no lethal take downs, staying quiet but also racking up a kill count. Assault, as you can imagine, is all out war. Get yourself tooled up with heavy weaponry and explosives, and kill everything and anything you see. You can master every level in each of the play styles, so the game encourages you to take different approaches every time you play. There is also an in game accomplishment system which gives you money and satisfaction from meeting certain criteria (including the aforementioned mastery of levels) which again pushes you to try the game in different ways.


It felt quite apt not having any internet and playing this game while the Guardian was revealing more about Prism, and how the NSA and CIA may well be monitoring what we do with the help of GCHQ here in the UK. Set against this back drop the game has been released at an almost perfect time, with both NSA and CIA playing an important albeit unofficial role in the story of Blacklist. I love stealth, military type stories, whether it be forgotten 'classics' like Body of Lies (DiCaprio, Crowe, directed by Ridley Scott? No?) or even widely panned films like Miami Vice, to even buying into the Bourne based games and really enjoying the story of the COD games. So while I can see why some may want to forget the story and just get on with the game, for me the Blacklist plot is like a wet dream of intel, double crossing and intrigue, all wrapped up by the eponymous hero Sam Fisher. Fisher is back but with a different voice, Michael Ironside replaced by younger model Eric Johnson, to mixed success. He pulls off a gruff, if slightly laid back, Fisher...but that's it really, he is all a bit one note, and some of the witticisms the Ironside made his own fall a bit flat here. Whether or not this is Johnson or the script writer's fault, Sam is tough but a bit emotionless. Which is understandable, the situation he is in requires focus and relentless commitment, but he is allowed to be human too.

That situation is an attack on America by a group calling themselves 'The Engineers', made up of terrorists and former agents gone bad, and led by the rarely seen Saddiq. They announce that they will be making these Blacklist attacks under names such as "American Blood", and it's up to Sam and the team to stop them. After an opening mission with old pal Vic Conte, the game's hub then becomes Sam's warship The Paladin, which is a flying fortress that doubles up as the games menu system, allowing you to access solo player, co-op, multi player and leader board options, or just have a wander around the plane and annoy your team members. Sam is joined by former pain in the proverbial Anna Grimsdottir, Vic's chum and tech wizard Charlie, and fellow ground operative Isaac Briggs. A mini soap opera takes place over the duration of the campaign, with every one falling out, not talking, but ultimately re uniting to take the Engineers down at the end. The thoroughly enjoyable, if slightly anti climatic, campaign lasted me about 12-15 hours on normal, but as previously mentioned the re playability is high and there are two higher difficulties to attempt as well.


Level design is strong, if not a little rinse and repeat every time. Sam's journey takes him across the globe, from London to America via Iraq and Iran, but each location feels fairly similar but just with a different lick of paint. That's not to say the levels are bad, they aren't at all, in fact they are highly challenging and enjoyable, but depending on your play style you have two options essentially. Either get your weapons and armour sorted and blast your way through, or take cover and quite literally look to either side of the map for your route around the enemies. Ok, it isn't always as simple as that, but nine times out of ten you will succeed by following one of those templates. The game does throw up a few nice set pieces to mix it up though, especially one where you are surrounded by hostiles, Grim remotely switches the lights out, and you have to think quickly to disappear and then take down every one in that room before advancing. Graphically the game goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. Sam himself looks great, his greying hair and beard clearly defined and his suit looking the bees knees (or the panthers paws perhaps...) and levels on the whole looking really tasty. Lighting has always been a hallmark of the Splinter Cell series, and here it is presented in all its glory, gliding in and out of shadows is glorious, and the developers have clearly worked hard to make every inch of shadow count and be purposefully placed. The different terrains are beautifully presented, and are stylistically different enough to make you feel you are in a different part of the world on every mission.

However it's not all luscious graphics and lovely vistas. I was trying to think what the character model of Charlie reminded me of. Was it a frog? A particularly sore looking thumb? Nope, it was a character from Game Cube classic Eternal Darkness. As much effort that went into Sam as possible clearly took away from other characters, with some early animations especially ropey. Throw in a few rocks that were so pixelated I crouched behind them for 3 minutes just to admire their awfulness, and some crashing waves in one cut scene that wouldn't have looked out of place on N64 game Waverace (yes N64) and it's clear the art department were left to get on with this game as quickly as possible, cutting (or maybe just pixelating) a few corners here and there. It should also be noted that loading times in the game are absolutely awful. In game is fine, so it doesn't disrupt your flow mid mission, but even starting the game up and getting to the Paladin takes about five minutes. Starting a mission takes another three or four minutes to get going, which is almost unforgivable. Nintendo's own games like Pikmin 3 have loaded up fine, but with Lego City and now this showing the console up, it makes you wonder why Nintendo ever abandoned cartridges.


Taking a leaf out of ZombiU's game pad use, Blacklist has your weapon inventory displayed on the pad at all times, ready to make choices whenever you want. And I have to say, it works brilliantly. This game is the perfect example of using the game pad in a sensible and constructive way. Because of the stealth element, having the time to plan you attacks and quickly choose your weapons or gadgets is perfect. If we were re doing the initial launch day adverts for Wii U, for example, instead of having that bit where the chap is playing ZombiU and flapping about, getting in a panic and ultimately dying whilst trying to enter a door code (way to advertise a console!), this would see you stalking your prey, choosing your load out, and ruthlessly dispatching all enemies and feeling like a boss while you do it. The game pad does suffer though when you try and use the old snake cam gadget, or one of the aerial assault sections. It's as if Ubisoft expect you to be playing the game with the pad bolt upright facing the TV at all times. When it isn't, which is...err...all the time, the pad becomes completely uncalibrated when it throws you into one of these scenarios, forcing you to physically move around the room in awkward angles to use it, or just switch it off and use your analogue sticks.

The game has plenty of cool moments though, even simple things like when choosing your solo mission you're asked if you want to launch it or back out. Some work better than others, but mostly the thumping music in the background and the extreme close up of Sam's grizzled face get you ready for action in an exciting way. One set piece involving escaping from a building under attack is exhilarating too, although left slightly anti climatic when, expecting a Batman style escape, the cut scene finishes before you get to see Fisher high tail it on out of there.


So the campaign done, you are then presented with with a dearth of options to keep the Splinter Cell experience going. It's easy to forgive some of the graphical or game play faux pas when Ubisoft have just included so so much in this game. It's huge. Once my Internet was sorted the game came alive, my SMI hub (a big map in the Paladin, essentially) was buzzing with online leader boards and challenges from friends who had played the game, pushing me to beat high scores or fastest run times. A geographical based hunt, following terrorist activity across your map, is good fun and forced me to use google to work locations out based on vague hints of where the next step might be. 

Specific co-op missions are also introduced, of which there are more than solo player. You can actually play them on your own, which I did whilst the Internet was down, but playing with a partner gives access to different routes through the levels which are easier than doing it on your own. These levels again give you more money and there is the promise of something good if you complete all of them, three each between Grim, Briggs, Charlie and Kobin. Briggs' missions are only available as co-op, and it's here the Wii U has been let down by Ubisoft, with the inclusion of online co-op only. Ironically on the weekend of launch I would have been able to do local co op, so felt a bit let down by this omission. Or maybe it's Ubisoft making a stand against Nintendo's own reluctance to go online with their games. Either way it isn't ideal as co-op is a lot of fun and would have been nice to play it locally, but then I personally wish Pikmin 3, Nintendoland and more had been online multi player so I won't air those concerns too loudly.


Finally Spies vs Mercs makes it's welcome return to the series having been MIA in Conviction. Sadly due to my Internet issues I haven't been able to experience much of this. In fact having got my Internet re installed I was sat in a lobby for a good 10 minutes without any one else joining in, so it seems that Wii U isn't perhaps isn't the destination for online shenanigans. I managed to get one game in however, with half the game spent as a Merc, which put me in first person mode trying to hunt down the Spies, who were trying to hack consoles to earn points. Half time came, roles were reversed, and my team came out on top. Poor chap I was playing with must have been wondering what he had let himself in for, he was level 22 whilst I was still a fresh level 1. Once I have played more of the multi player I plan to update my impressions both here and on the forums, so keep an eye out for that.

The overall package of Splinter Cell: Blacklist is superb. There maybe some graphical imperfections here and there, horrendous loading times and daft story to some (not me). But they are far outweighed by such depth to the experience, Ubisoft really pushing the boat out and highlighting the fact that you don't need a yearly update to a franchise to keep it relevant, and in fact waiting three years means you can produce one solid and, more importantly, spectacular game. See you in 2016, Sam.

N-Europe Final Verdict

It's been three years, but my goodness it was worth the wait. A few technical flaws should not stop you from picking up the latest in the Splinter Cell series. Outstanding game play and absolutely loads to do should keep you sneaking in the shadows from now until Christmas.

  • Gameplay5
  • Playability4
  • Visuals3
  • Audio5
  • Lifespan5
Final Score



Sam Fisher is back!

Huge game

Great game play

Good use of Wii U game pad...


...but also some poor use of Wii U game pad

Awful loading times

Some graphical anomalies

Story might bore some

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