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Covert Compromise: Splinter Cell Blacklist hands on

Friday, 12th July 2013 08:22 GMT By Dave Owen

Splinter Cell Blacklist developer Ubisoft Toronto is looking to offer something different amid a glut of similar shooters. Dave Owen goes hands on to see if it succeeds.

Splinter Cell Blacklist

Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, Splinter Cell Blacklist hits PC, PS3, Wii U and Xbox 360 from August 20 in North America and August 23 across Europe

Blacklist is billed as a return to the stealth roots of Ubisoft’s series. Here’s a clip of Sam being all stealthy to prove it.

The game also comes with a neat Spies Vs Mercs multiplayer mode. We’ve got footage of it running here.

There’s even co-op play with Sam and his pal Isaac. Check out this gameplay footage of them both in action.

The ‘white man with a gun’ protagonist in video games has come under heavy fire as we near the end of this console generation. This is a result of the wealth of near-identical shooters that have dominated the market in recent years.

Ubisoft Toronto is looking to distinguish the upcoming Splinter Cell: Blacklist – the sixth game in the series – by combining a return to its stealth roots with an accessible approach that they hope will win over casual shooter fans.

I went hands-on with the first three missions of the game to see if Sam Fisher can be more than just another white man with a gun. Early signs are not promising.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist opens with several large explosions. A British bad guy and his team invade a US military base and slaughter all soldiers on site before blowing it sky high. Sam Fisher’s helicopter is caught in the explosion and he crashes just outside the besieged compound. It’s a bombastic, if somewhat familiar opening that introduces a brief tutorial mission.

The good news first: stealth is back, and Sam is immediately ordered to stay out of sight in the shadows. The bad news is that a number of generic third-person shooter elements were equally as prominent; straight away there was convenient waist high cover in abundance.

The group behind the attack calls themselves The Engineers. We soon discover that this was the first in a series of attacks called the Blacklist. The Engineers will unleash one new attack against the US every single week until all American troops deployed overseas are withdrawn. In response the US government establishes The Fourth Echelon. Sam Fisher assumes command of the team dedicated to foiling the terrorist plot.

Sam’s new position sees some interesting additions to the series. The Fourth Echelon is gifted an airborne base called the Paladin that acts as a hub for the entire game. An interactive map (or Strategic Mission Interface) allows any game mode to be accessed at any time. So you can jump straight from a single player mission into co-op or multiplayer without exiting to another menu.

There’s an integrated social aspect too as friend activity is also displayed here. This seems unlikely to have a huge impact on the overall experience, but it certainly streamlines the interface. The Paladin can be customised too. I built an infirmary so that Sam would recover better when injured during a mission. Other options included an improved holding cell and a weapons development lab.

This focus on customisation extends into all elements of the game. The first full campaign mission takes Sam to Benghazi to infiltrate a militia stronghold and retrieve a hostage. Your loadout can be altered before launch with a huge array of kit.

Smoke grenades can be swapped out for sleep or tear gas. A sticky camera can make way for an EMP or surveillance drone. The visual options of Sam’s iconic goggles would make a Predator jealous. New kit is unlocked by currency earned in-game through successful takedowns, evasions, etc. It’s a deep system that supports, incentivises, and rewards individual play styles.

The majority of kit is geared toward stealth. The light meter of previous games has been replaced by the neat visual marker of a light flare on Sam’s gear when he’s sufficiently bathed in shadow. Success often relied on a careful and considered approach. The wealth of tools at my disposal presented several ways to remain undetected.

I could engage aggressively but quietly with silenced weapons and lethal takedowns from cover, or use noisemakers and smoke grenades to distract guards and leave them alive. In open combat it only takes a few shots to down Sam, so stealth was usually the best option. Lights can be switched off, bodies hidden, and walls and ledges thoroughly traversed. In many ways, it felt like a classic Splinter Cell experience.

Tactical Espionage… Action?

Unfortunately this was frequently undermined by prevalent heavy-handed action elements. These opening missions were heavily checkpointed, the next objective marker never more than 50 metres ahead. This often made the missions feel frustratingly restrictive. Although each area contained multiple routes, the strict checkpoints made exploration feel arbitrary.

Environments felt as if they had been divided into arenas, each filled with all-too-convenient waist high cover. This often stymied my stealth options. I had all these gadgets at my disposal, but little opportunity to use them creatively.

Another action ability that felt unwelcome was Execution. This allows you to designate targets and press a button to dispatch them automatically. It worked better here than in, say, Hitman Absolution, as targets are designated in real time and had to be in close range, which encouraged more strategic deployment. But it still felt at odds with the stealth, offering a get-out-of-jail-free card for difficult situations.

It was genuinely startling how many shooter clichés were packed into two missions. The Benghazi mission ended as an escort-the-hostage affair and forced me into direct combat against waves of enemies. The second full mission, an infiltration of a militia base in Iraq, opened with sniping enemies from a helicopter in a sequence that could have been snatched wholesale from a Call of Duty campaign but for the clumsily tacked-on stealth element.

If I alerted a guard the mission was failed. The same mission went on to present generic torture scenes and ended with a mad dash through the fire and falling rubble of a collapsing building. Frankly, it could have been a mission from any shooter released in the last three years.

This mission also introduced player choice in the form of moral decisions. Upon pinning a particular foe to the wall I was given the option to shoot or spare him. My decision seemed ultimately meaningless, as he ended up dead either way. It’ll be interesting to see if this is developed further over the course of the campaign. There’s certainly room for it within the central theme of terrorism and overseas conflict.

Any serious commentary seems unlikely. Everything I saw was delivered with a near-cringe worthy earnestness. Generic military teammates spouted acronyms while a sarcastic hacker sidekick said things like “Hold on, just putting the finishing touches of awesome to this puppy!”

It was all tied with a bow of pro-American sentiment that made me feel uneasy about how many dark-skinned foes I graphically slaughtered in Libya and Iraq respectively.

Multiplayer

Although sound issues and a crashed Xbox 360 limited my experience of the multiplayer, it seemed free of the campaign’s problems. There might be real reason to celebrate the return of the Spies vs. Mercenaries game mode.

We played ‘Blacklist’ mode, which featured teams of 4 four and customisable loadouts (the other option is ‘Classic’, where teams are limited to pairs with predetermined kit only). Spies use stealth and cunning to hack terminals, while Mercenaries assume a first-person viewpoint to stop them.

Customisation here was just as extensive as the campaign, with so much kit to unlock that players are bound to return time and again. This went a long way to encourage different play styles. Spies have severely limited offensive options, meaning their gear must be carefully chosen.

As a Spy I died numerous times from running too hastily into a firefight. Before my console crashed it was clear that multiplayer puts a strong focus on strategy that made playing on either side genuinely tense and competitive, and could offer a refreshing take on online multiplayer shooting.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist might prove to be divisive amongst fans of the series. On this evidence, Ubisoft Toronto’s attempts to give the game a broader appeal might undermine what made the series so popular in the first place. It remains to be seen if the seemingly disparate stealth and action features will begin to mesh as the game goes on. So far, Blacklist feels competent but compromised.

Disclosure: Dave played the first three missions of the Xbox 360 version of Splinter Cell: Blacklist at a press event in London organised by Ubisoft. Catering was offered but not accepted.

Splinter Cell Blacklist hits PC, PS3, Wii U and Xbox 360 from August 20 across North America and August 23 across Europe.

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13 Comments

  1. Metroid455

    ugh this is what I didn’t want from the sounds of it, too much action and not enough stealth/over simplified stealth mechanics -__-
    going to download the demo first and see for myself, Perhaps asking for a proper Splinter Cell game is too much to ask for nowadays.

    #1 1 year ago
  2. Ekona

    Sounds like more of the same as SCC.

    Which, for me, is perfect and exactly what I was after. Really looking forward to this now :)

    #2 1 year ago
  3. actuallyisnotafox

    @1 looking at the trailer it seems all action, theres never a light hearted moment, which if you played the original splinter cells there was the odd jokes, there was wistling in a steam room and one guy thinking it was his friend hitting on him, or sam saying “looks like you didnt shave this morning” its small but its adds a sense of humanity to the character rather than just being an all out manly man (in my opinion :p).

    EDIT: basically this could be the next hitman, the way people saw blood money to absolution (i guess?)

    #3 1 year ago
  4. Belmont

    I think things like Paladin being upgrabale, that SMI, choosing load out before missions and stuff like that is good. I also didn’t have that much of a problem with the action in Conviction, I don’t know whether it has more of it here. But the tone and the story can be a problem.

    #4 1 year ago
  5. xxJPRACERxx

    In the intro it’s written “Ubisoft Toronto” but in the right table it’s “Ubisoft Montreal”.

    #5 1 year ago
  6. Dave Owen

    @5

    Ha, sorry about that. It’s actually a joint effort between both studios!

    #6 1 year ago
  7. bpcgos

    @3 Totally agree with that.

    @Ekona

    Have you ever been playing the first SC trilogy??
    If not, than you definitely should try it, and not just play it but feel it. :D
    Its totally different from todays 2nd SC trilogy where you feels very restricted due to have walking in a straight path ahead without a chance to looking back.

    #7 1 year ago
  8. Deadpoolfan

    Does Dave know that Execution was in Splinter Cell Conviction? Has he even played it? Not being sarcastic it’s just that he first compared it to Hitman Absolution instead of SCC which (I could be wrong) was the first game to use it in the way it’s used in modern TPS.

    #8 1 year ago
  9. Ekona

    @7 I did play the original on the PC many moons ago, but felt the stealth side of things was just too strict for my taste. I’m not the greatest gamer in the world by any means, and so I prefer things that are a little more accessible which is certainly what SCC was.

    If I got something wrong there when trying to sneak, I could just shoot my way out of it, not have to restart and try again completely. I find that quite frustrating in games: As an example, I gave up on The Last Of Us last week after 30% as it was just too hard. And that was on Easy!

    I can understand why fans of the early games aren’t keen, but if SCC sold more (and I’m assuming it did, if they made another one in the same style) then I can see why they’d stick to it, and I for one am glad.

    #9 1 year ago
  10. mreko3230

    “If I alerted a guard the mission was failed.”

    Ugh…

    #10 1 year ago
  11. karma

    I used to enjoy the Splinter Cell games, up until Double Agent anyway. Back before devs designed their games based off focus test opinions and broad audience appeal. So this is another game i’ll be knocking off my wish list by the sound of it.

    Linear scripted design and autonomic gameplay mechanics may look cool, but they offer zero interactivity and engagement for the player.

    I want simulated worlds with dynamic A.I. and deep interactive gameplay.

    #11 1 year ago
  12. Bomba Luigi

    I still play Splinter Cell 1-3 now and then, I Love these Games. And it can even Happen that I replay Double Agent from Time to Time. But after that… Conviction wasn’t really a Splinter Cell, not a bad Game, but not what I want from a SC. And Blacklist, well I will not even Buy it. I prefer to enjoy the old Titels again.

    #12 1 year ago
  13. manamana

    Splinter Cell is dead long time ago. Ubisoft totally lost it. Also with Ghost Recon, they have managed to fuck a good series up. Tom Clancy’s name stood for agents, espionage and political thriller games but that’s a long time ago. Nowadays everything is streamlined to appeal to the masses, interactivity reduced to a minimum, lacking fun and the nice touches #3 was talking about.

    The Division looks too good to be true.

    #13 1 year ago

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