Sam Fisher is back and is rarin' to go on some more special ops. This time, he'll have the help of some old friends, as well as some new ones, in order to stop a deadly plot hatched by a terrorist group that calls themselves The Engineers. Should you turn off all the lights, flip on your night vision goggles and play Splinter Cell: Blacklist? Or is it a title that's better off alone in the dark?
Whether or not you're an longtime fan of the series or a newcomer to Sam Fisher's adventures, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is very approachable and almost feels like it could be a fresh start to the series. Yes, all of the covert, stealth action returns, but there's enough new content here to make you feel like you're playing a completely different game than the past titles in the series.
Blacklist stars former agent Sam Fisher and takes place about a year after the previous game, Splinter Cell: Conviction. This time, Sam's charged with being the head of a new unit called 4th Echelon and stopping a plot by terrorists called The Engineers. Their aim is to put into effect a plot called the Blacklist, which is a series of terrorist attack on the United States in order to get the government to pull all of its troops out of foreign territories and send them back home.
Fisher is joined by technical operations manager Anna "Grim" Grimsdottir, hacker Charlie Cole and former CIA officer Isaac Briggs on a large plane called the Paladin that acts as their base of operations. This is the central hub in which you'll control Fisher to check on assets, upgrade your equipment, make modifications to the plane and talk to your compatriots. Most importantly, this is where the SMI, or Strategic Mission Interface, is held. You'll use this computer to choose from story-based solo missions, solo/co-op missions and even the multiplayer mode, Spies vs. Mercs.
Once you select a mission, you'll be treated to a short cutscene before you're able to tweak difficulty settings, leave the SMI or launch the operation. Before each op, you'll have a chance to optimize your gear. It's imperative that you read through the mission briefings and follow the computer's recommendations for equipment. You don't want to pack shotguns and loud assault rifles on a mission in which one of the objectives is to remain undetected.
A little bit of preparation and smart planning can go a long way, especially when operations can take up to an hour to complete. You'll want to make sure you're properly equipped, lest you have to keep restarting because you keep alerting every enemy of your movements thanks to your suit not being suitable for stealth.
Once you're on the ground, you can complete missions however you want, providing that you hit all of the necessary objectives first. Your performance is graded into three style categories: Ghost, Panther and Assault. Ghost actions are the most difficult and task you with moving through environments unseen, while remaining non-lethal. This means that you can't alert any enemies, but if you do, it also means you can't kill them. You'll have to take out your foes using a variety of non-lethal equipment, such as stun guns, sleeping gas bolts fired from a crossbow or even a good ol' fashioned sleeper hold.
Panther style also involves you being unseen, but very deadly. This is the most ninja-like approach to the game, meaning stealth kills will rack up major points. Just make sure you hide the bodies after you take down your enemies, since the sight of some freshly offed dudes is sure to arouse suspicion from patrolling guards and dogs.
Assault is the most straightforward style and earns you the least points. This is, after all, a stealth-action game, but at least the option to go loud is there for impatient players. Just note that if you go this route, you might get annoyed by the sound of guards being alerted and your "last known position" outline popping up at all times. For those unfamiliar with the LKP mechanic from Conviction, it is a silhouette that pops up whenever you're detected by enemies. This silhouette represents the spot and position in which the enemies think you're located. You can use this to your advantage by waiting for enemies to check the spot and then flanking them for stealth kills.
As you go through the main story's missions, you'll rack up quite a bit of money. As head of 4th Echelon, it's up to you to decide where these assets should go. Will you upgrade the Paladin and gain access to bonuses like faster regeneration in the field? Maybe you'll want to purchase weapons on the black market to use against the enemy? Or maybe you'll just want to upgrade your current gear to turn yourself into the baddest, most silent killing machine ever? The choice is yours, but you'll get so much money from completing ops and unlocking in-game achievements that you'll likely get very beefed up before too long. But don't worry, because the game remains challenging, no matter how good your loadout becomes.
If you need a break from the single-player campaign or the co-op missions, you can always dip into the Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer mode. Much like the name implies, you'll either take on the role as a Spy or as a Merc. Both factions play very differently, and you may find yourself favoring one over the other. As a Spy, you play in the game's usual third-person view. You get access to gadgets that let you cloak yourself or drop smoke bombs in order to stay hidden. You're very weak as a spy, but at least you can climb, hide and maneuver around levels. As a Merc, you're a hardy soldier who's armed to the teeth. You get tools that help you spot Spies and stop them in their tracks. But, perhaps most importantly, you'll play in first-person shooter mode with a limited field of vision. In order to stay alive, you'll have to be aware of your surroundings, lest you become a victim of a Death From Above strike or a one-hit melee kill from a Spy.
Some games that you can play in SvM include Extraction, Uplink Control, Blacklist and Team Deathmatch. Whatever mode you play, you'll switch teams at half-time and try to complete the objective, whether it's the Capture the Flag-flavored Extraction mode that tasks you with stealing intelligence, or the Conquest-like Blacklist with its many "capture points" which are hack sites. With so many options for multiplayer, you'll be busy long after you've finished the game.
There is a whole lot to do in Splinter Cell: Blacklist and even more challenges to complete, depending on how you play the game. It's not perfect and often has some graphical hiccups (disappearing characters during cutscenes are a norm), but the highlight of the experience is the gameplay. I do suggest turning the brightness on your TV all the way up since scenes tend to get really dark, even with night vision or sonar goggles equipped. You might think that it might detract from the gameplay, but trust me, it gets super dark.
Blacklist might not feel as tightly-woven of an adventure as Conviction, but it offers a lot for you to do, alone or with friends. And because of that, this is one operation that's worth tackling.
This review was based on a copy of Splinter Cell: Blacklist for PlayStation 3 that was purchased for review.