Splinter Cell: Blacklist
- Street Date:
- August 20th, 2013
- Reviewed by:
- Brian Hoss
- Review Date:1
- September 10th, 2013
- Game Release Year:
- Wii U
- Ubisoft Toronto
- ESRB Rating:
- M (Mature)
When 'Splinter Cell: Blacklist' was first introduced to the public, the game was dripping with all the sexiness that is becoming common for Ubisoft trailers. There was just one problem, underneath the historically cool montage of US Presidents was some gameplay that did not look much like a stealth game as a new version of Sam Fisher ran around middle eastern settings kicking enemies in the face and holding Jack Bauer-esque (if not worse) interrogations. While franchise fans cheered and jeered, Ubisoft quietly shuffled the game about, which lead up to a somewhat inconspicuous release.
Speaking of inconspicuous, playing this one-time Xbox only franchise on a Wii U was an unexpected quirk for me. Ultimately, this quirk brought with it a few others that likely colored my experience with the game. The question is, does the latest Sam Fisher rate playing?
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
'Splinter Cell: Blacklist' is not easy to play, and neither did I have an easy time trying to judge the quality of so many aspects of the game. As a casual fan of the series, my expectations were in check. Being honest though, the game started off quite badly. Bad as in, under other circumstances, I would have quit in frustration.
The game has a single player campaign, challenge missions that can be played solo and co-op, a SMI metagame, and a multiplayer mode vast enough to stand alone. Not to mention a haul of weapons, gadgets, and gear to unlock, purchase, and equip. Unfortunately, before any of that can be can be accessed, there is a tutorial level. Even before the tutorial level, there is a lengthy set of pre-rendered cut scenes to sit through.
For me, Tom Clancy's books are well researched thrillers that when they are at their frequent best, present a plausible set of circumstances. Sadly, translating this plausibility to other mediums has not really happened. (Have you seen 'Sum of All Fears?') For Tom Clancy's games, the plot lines and characters are traditionally generic and forgettable. In the action heavy 'Rainbow Six' and 'Ghost Recon,' this is not an issue, but 'Splinter Cell' faces a tougher standard.
For whatever reason, Ubisoft elected to half reboot Sam Fisher with a new voice actor, but the character's age and relations stay pretty much the same. In the game's opening, which splices in footage of the Blacklist terrorists attacking Guam with footage of Vic and Sam palling around on the opposite side of the base, all of the characters, good, bad and in-specific, look the same. The is may have been some kind of statement about soldiers all looking similar, but the overall effect of which is less than strong. What is odd here and throughout many of the game's cut scenes is the choice leave the player out. In games like 'Rainbow Six: Vegas,' 'Ghost Recon,' and even 'Far Cry 2,' the player remains with the character rather than just a spectator. Whether it is the beginning of 'Half-Life' or 'Batman: Arkham Asylum' keeping the player in the scene (even if all they can do is look around) helps to keep the player engaged.
The subsequent tutorial section is so bad that I was ready to give up on the game. The game forces the player along a single path full of poorly scripted bad guys, who look and animate like something more pre-alpha. Any attempt to fight results in a stream of bad guys flooding the small area. The idea must have been to force the player to be stealthy, but the sequence was one of the least polished parts of the game by far.
Graduating from the tutorial brings the player to the Paladin, an airplane that serves as Fourth Echelon's base of operations, and "puts Air Force One to shame." The Paladin is something of a poor imitation of the Normandy from 'Mass Effect' or other similar BioWare titles. Fisher's support team (Anna Grímsdóttir, Briggs, and Charlie) are spread about the Paladin and there are a few additions as the game goes on. Reaching the Paladin opens up the other game modes, as well as the arsenal goodies to buy for Fisher to use.
The Paladin itself can be leveled up using money earned in missions, and this leveling can open up weapon and loadout options, upgrades Sam's health, as well as a personal radar, which majorly affects gameplay.
The game attempts to challenge the player into picking one of three playstyles, Ghost (full-stealth, no kill), Panther (stealthy but lethal), and Assault (shoot to kill in a loud manner), but stops way short of truly encouraging any one style. Players trying to stick to the Ghost style will still be forced to snipe a patrol from a UAV or watch as Fisher knifes as an interrogation technique. At the same time, assault and panther style players will repeatedly face sections where any sort of interaction with a bad guy scrubs the mission.
Tthe most frustrating aspect of the 'Splinter Cell: Blacklist' campaign is not the forgettable story, but the bits of gameplay lifted directly from other games. One level ended with Fisher having to run from an incoming UAV attack and jump to chopper 'Mass Effect' style. Another forces the player to use the trirotor from 'Ghost Recon' to knock out the power. The previously mentioned UAV sniping is right out 'Call of Duty.' The mark and execute feature, which works so well with a team in 'Ghost Recon' just does not belong in 'Splinter Cell.'
At times campaign levels open up, and really give players options, including hidden paths, dead drops, and laptops, which are all worth points. These open sections can be like a playground of paths, but often are spoiled by certain level gating techniques. (and annoying guard dogs.)
Fortunately, by setting the campaign aside and tackling the 4E side missions (there are four types from the four major Paladin co-inhabitants) the exhilarating gameplay hidden underneath the game's second rate campaign, is front and center.
In the more focused 4E Challenge levels and in the game's Spies vs. Mercs, which I loved back in the days of 'Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow,' all of the chaff of the single player's sporadically styled presentation and tempo falls away. Playing in the campaign rarely made me feel clever, and certainly not like the go-to member of black-ops team, though there were a few fun moments, usually when I was able to chain together knockouts. Sam has such an arsenal at his fingertips, that some capabilities, like being able to peak under doors, felt pointless (if classic). At the same time, the simple collision detection of box could undo fifteen minutes of stealthy effort.
It was only after switching between playmodes repeatedly, did I figure out where the game's secret sauce lay. Moving through a level undetected is just ok, but being hunted by enemies, is way more fun. In the challenge missions, and in Spies vs. Mercs, being hunted initiates the "I am a badass" feeling. Suddenly, the objectives takes on a 'Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker' like simplicity, and Sam Fisher's versatility and level agility become key. Even the game's questionable cover system seems less forced.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
The beginning tutorial level looks awful. The scripted Humvee crash, poorly animated enemies, and confusing level narrative are followed by an all-too-common (for the Wii U version at any rate) lengthy loading time. Whenever the Paladin is loading in or out, the load times are ridiculous and lack any kind of progress meter. The game suffers from the typical Unreal 3 texture detail issue, where the best detail can load in a second or two after the level is visible. Plus some areas, like the chopper on the Paladin, always seem low-res. What's worse, unlike just about any other similar game on other console's, the game was far too dark, and the game's built-in brightness adjustment could not come close to correcting the problem. I was forced to bump up my set's brightness by 25%. In several levels, I routinely found areas (say by hanging off a ledge) that had no detail. Brightness and loading times aside, the game looked as good as most other current-gen Unreal 3 games, at least on a console. I expect Fisher and Co. look much better on a PC.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
There is little to complain about in the audio department. The music suits the game well, and remains subtle most of the time. In levels where the enemies use drones, the audio experience is especially good as the drone and/or drone operator can be heard moving around. Peeking under doors or using the trirotor produces just the right synthetic reproduction. Again, the shame is that so many cut scenes pull the player's view back into cinematic view instead of in scene.
For this Wii U version, I had some has concerns regarding the multiplayer. Spies vs Mercs demands the player rank up before unlocking more modes, which instantly segments the players. Fortunately, my fears were allayed, when I found that enough people were playing online to be able to get a match going at any time. Likewise, Ubisoft has done a good job replicating the achievement system that the Wii U lacks with the game's accomplishments. Hardcore players can try to perfectly tackle each level and challenge on Perfectionist difficulty, while the rest of us can be happy picking up all the bonus items.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
Having griped about some of the issues of the Wii U version, I am happy to say that two Wii U specific features are really enjoyable. First, the Wii U GamePad lets the player directly choose weapons and gadgets with just a touch, even while maintaining the normal weapon and gadget wheel system. Even more surprising for me, was how much fun it was to use the game's off-screen mode. If I wanted quickly play for ten minutes without firing up my home theater (say while waiting for someone), the game happily obliged, lengthy load screens and all.
While 'Splinter Cell: Blacklist' has some flaws, there is a fun game experience hidden beneath some of the forced aspects borrowed from other games. Ultimately, I found that the game's story and attempts to make levels feel like big scripted set pieces to be less than satisfactory. Meanwhile, actively hunting or being hunted by the game's enemies was exhilarating, and the multiplayer mode is in keeping with this "hunt or be hunted" feel. And yet when it comes to a 'Splinter Cell' game, it is just a shame to have to say ignore the campaign
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