I promised my thoughts on Splinter Cell: Blacklist and after a bit of a delay (Blame the excellent Saints Row IV for that) here they are.
I’ll start by saying I’m not really blown away by Splinter Cell: Blacklist. It’s by no means a bad game but there isn’t anything particularly special about it that jumps out at me. It’s a typical stealth game with a bland story and characters generally devoid of any sort of personality.
We will start with the story. It starts interesting enough with a group launching a terror attack against a U.S. military base in Guam. The group demands that the United States call all of its overseas troops home and threatens to launch a terror attack against the United States each week until the demand is met. The President (a Hillary Clinton look-alike. This situation and the even more cringe-worthy David Petraeus appearance in Call of Duty Black Ops 2 shows the danger of trying to predict politics and being left looking incredibly foolish in the process.) of course turns to Sam Fisher who immediately agrees to throw back on the ops suit and the goggles with little hesitation despite being hunted by his former employer in the last game. What has followed is a typical paint by numbers spy story. There are good guys and bad guys and everything is black and white. The supporting cast and crew are basic stereotypes (the civilian hacker that mistrusts official government channels, the hard-case officer who always pushes to do things by the book, the rookie operator who is eager to prove himself, etc. etc. etc.) that seem to clash simply in the name of trying to squeeze some sort of drama out of the very plainly written story. There are "twists" and "turns" of course that are supposed to surprise but really don’t. I just can’t help the feeling that I’ve seen this type of story done better countless times before.
The voice acting is serviceable. Much like the rest of the package, it isn’t bad but it isn’t particularly memorable. Gone is the growly, murmuring, sarcastic voice acting of Michael Ironside as Fisher. In steps a much younger voice actor in Eric Johnson. Johnson is easier to understand when he speaks and does what he can to try to make the script interesting but he can only do so much with the dry material he is given. I don’t view Johnson as an upgrade over Ironside or a downgrade. He’s just different. Ironside’s Fisher was more volatile emotionally whereas Johnson’s Fisher seems to be far more cold and calculating. It takes some getting used to after hearing Ironside’s voice for so long but eventually it settles in. Many of the other voice actors return from Conviction which makes the switch even more jarring at first. Overall I felt like Johnson did a good job with what he was given and he should do a fine job of carrying on the legacy of the character in future installments. Especially if he is able to get more interesting material.
The gameplay is reminiscent of what you saw in Conviction. There are some new gadgets to play with (including the tri-rotor last seen in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier) but by and large there are no sweeping changes to the overall feel of the game. You now have the choice of using lethal or non-lethal gadgets during combat but the application of the fighting techniques and the gadgets is similar either way. The animation or the smoke grenade just tends to be a different color. No matter which version of a gadget you use it pretty much works the same at the end of the day. A scoring system is also introduced and that is where I start to have some problems with the game.
My problem with scoring systems like this and many other games is how deceptive they are. Developers will often claim that you can play a game any way you want to and reap similar rewards but you will often find that there is one playstyle that seems to get a little bit more of a reward than another and to me that is where you start to see the illusion of choice. The very second that you reward one playstyle more than another is the second that you as a developer tell me as a player that that style is the way the game is the preferred way you want me to play. That type of system is all over Blacklist. Sure you can charge in guns blazing or use lethal takedowns but Blacklist does everything in its power to make you want to avoid combat completely or use the non-lethal gadgets. You get way more points (which translates to more money to buy upgrades) for playing this way. I often find myself attacking situations in ways that I really don’t want to do all for the sake of getting extra money for upgrades and that is really a shame. I think the premise that avoiding combat and using non-lethal takedowns is somehow superior to other methods of attack is a false assertion to begin with. I actually think it is harder to play the assault style than it is to play the ghost style. You don’t have many hit points and I found that guns did so little damage that situations were often more difficult when you engaged enemies in open combat. The gunplay is overall incredibly weak and I often felt like I was firing a bebe gun at opponents who could take me out in one hit. Yet for all the trouble that it takes to down an enemy you get a third of the points then if you simply walked by that same enemy and hid in a ventilation shaft. I found myself hardly using the mark and execute system from Splinter Cell: Conviction and that was really the only thing that got me interested in the series up until that point. It just doesn’t pay to do it. Had I known this was the way things were going to be set up I probably would have skipped the title honestly. I’m never going to be that guy that loves to watch patrol patterns and crawl past people in a cardboard box. I don’t view that as skill. I view that as having a lot of time on your hands. If you want to make a pure stealth game just make the pure stealth game. I just find it kind of irritating that a developer says he will reward me for playing how I want to play only to find out that I get half the reward for doing things the way I want to do them.
The illusion of choice extends to the missions themselves. Often times you will see two characters arguing with each other about what to do next. Instead of offering you a choice as to which course of action that you wish to take the story instead follows a linear path where Fisher makes his decision without your input. If you are going to present two options how about letting me pick one? Also there are moments when you interrogate terrorists. After the interrogation is complete the game offers you a choice. Pull the trigger or let the terrorist go. If you pull the trigger the terrorist is dead. If you don’t pull the trigger? The terrorist grabs the gun and squeezes the trigger and kills himself with your gun. The outcome is the same. Why even make it a choice? Just have him kill himself and move on to the next objective. That scenario summarizes my problem with the game. For all the choice it seemingly offers it seems to push you down a linear path no matter what you decide to do. It feels empty.
The game itself also often devolves into a game of trial and error or as I like to call it in games like this error and trial. There are some tools that allow you to see the positions of enemies but inevitably I found myself skulking around a corner and silently walking by four patrolling enemies only to charge headlong into a fifth enemy that couldn’t be seen from the vantage point I was at. Needless to say everybody in the area is then alerted. It often feels cheap and annoying.
There are also optional co-op missions given to you by the supporting characters in the game. These missions appear on the map alongside the primary story quests and I found this to be a little confusing. Not so much about what my goal was or why I was going to a separate area but how the decision to take on the side mission affected the narrative itself. From what I’ve found, completing or not completing the side missions doesn’t seem to have much impact on the main missions. They are just there. The main story seems to progress the same way whether you do the side missions or not. Again it seems to be another illusion. Presenting something to you that seems to be important but at the end of the day really isn’t.
For all my problems with Blacklist it isn’t a terrible game. It looks really good and it can be really satisfying when a plan comes together. The hand to hand takedown animations are fantastic and using a sleeping gas grenade on three enemies watching television and watching them all go limp never gets old. There is certainly fun to be had with the gadgets. It just isn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be. I was hoping for more of Conviction but what you end up getting is a hybrid of Conviction and several earlier games. If your looking for a more aggressive stealth experience it may be worth waiting until Batman: Arkham Origins hits this October. The predator gameplay from the Batman titles is really the one mechanic that got me into stealth games. Stealth games used to symbolize being incredibly weak and inept to me where as the original Arkham Asylum and later Splinter Cell Conviction showed that when done right stealth gameplay can actually empower you. I miss that feeling in Blacklist. I often feel weak.
I view the ceiling for Blacklist at around an 8. The floor is somewhere around a 6. It will probably end up somewhere in between there when all is said and done. I’ll let you know after I finish the main campaign. Stay tuned.