When sh*t hits the fan, it's time for Sam Fisher and his Echelon crew to go to work.
In Blacklist, players will once again reprise the role of NSA super spy Sam Fisher. This time around, a powerful, secretive, and very much 'dug-in' organization known as the The Engineers are determined to destroy America within one month if their demand isn't met. They'll do this by executing major terrorist operations each week known as the blacklist. It appears that what The Engineers want is for all American forces in foreign countries to just go home. The President activates 4th Echelon, whose tech, intel, and everything else is now aboard a plane known as The Paladin. Here, Sam and his crew -- which includes long-time series NPC Anna Grimmsdottir along with newcomers Briggs (tactical support) and Charlie (hacker/tech dude) -- will take on The Engineers in order to put their blacklist to a stop and save our asses.
For those familiar with the Splinter Cell (SC) campaign structure, you're likely to feel right at home. Mission objectives are relayed to you via your OPSAT, your subdermal comms keep you in touch with your crew, and mission objectives are cast onto walls on the environment just like in Sam's previous outing, Conviction. Honestly, the coolest part of the campaign mode isn't the story, the level design, or even the gadgets -- it's the fact that you can go through each mission and seamlessly change how you play between three different, yet all very satisfying styles: Ghost, Panther, or Assault. Each mission can be completed in total stealth -- or, you can be mostly stealthy, but still drop a few baddies along the way which is Panther-style. Finally, if you prefer a more combative approach, you can go full on Assault.
Before you launch each mission, you can customize your loadout or use the recommended setup. What items you can equip and how upgraded they are depends on how many points you have earned. Points are earned for just about anything and everything in all modes of play, single and multiplayer. Additionally, four difficulty settings that you can toggle between anytime are tailored towards these styles of play, too. Beyond Rookie and "Normal" is Realistic and even Perfectionist. The latter two difficulty settings give the best play experience; in these modes, your Execution gauge fills slowly, combat and stealth difficulties are cranked up, sonar vision can't see through walls, and there is no restock of ammo and gadgets at cache sites.
Regardless of difficulty setting, the core gameplay remains very familiar for those of us who have played a SC game before. It's all about sticking to the shadows and using your wits and gadgets to make the one vs many battle feasible, whether through stealth or careful tactical combat. I would say that Blacklist is the most fleshed out campaign yet, in terms of ways to play and what gear you have at your disposal. Another new and welcomed component is the ability to walk around the Paladin and talk to the NPCs, including Sam's daughter via phone, in between missions. The primary characters can also give you side missions of different types to hop into, more on those later. It's your call when the mission launches -- they aren't just back-to-back as with previous SC games.
On the other hand, the level design and story felt too familiar and generic for the most part, which dampens the experience, but certainly doesn't break it. I can imagine designing levels for not only stealth but also assault styles of play is a challenge. Thankfully, on a side note, Splinter Cell is not an annually released game. Anyway, while I didn't find the story or level design to be all that compelling, the options you have as a player between customization and how you want to play, combined with the speedy checkpoint load times, makes for an experience that encourages experimentation and replay. Various dead drops and terminals to hack act as collectibles, too. These gameplay elements combine to make an enjoyable campaign, even if is only about eight hours, and less if you're focused solely on the objectives and not on thoroughness and playing as a ghost.
One way to extend your campaign experience is to mix in side missions and the online modes that are seamlessly integrated into the SMI. I can't remember what SMI stands for, but it's the computerized surface aboard the Paladin that the team gathers to coordinate the next mission. When accessed, you can go from one campaign mission to the next, or hop into an online game of co-op or Spies Vs Mercs. The NPCs aboard the ship can give you optional side missions that cater to each play style, too; these can be fun distractions if the campaign is wearing you out or you just want something less committal, but still want to score some points or work towards some of the numerous, optional challenges the game offers up. These challenges are plentiful, and you can check your status on all of these in one part of the menu. All modes and play styles are part of the challenge system, and there is a high pay-off weekly challenge, as well as lots of daily challenges posted up for you. Completing these nets you many thousands of additional points to spend. A ranking system is also integrated. Oh, it's worth pointing out that while Blacklist does not have an online pass, you must register with Ubisoft for a UPlay account if you want to do much with multiplayer. A message popped up when I didn't sign into UPLay that I was in Limited Mode until I did sign in. This restricted me from advancing beyond rank five, from hosting private matches, from customizing my spy or merc loadouts, and I could not see all "playlists." UPlay doesn't cost anything, but it's interesting that this restriction was instituted.
In previous SC games, I never spent much time in multiplayer, but I am finding the co-op opportunities in Blacklist too fun to pass up so far. I'm not sure I would even say that Blacklist does anything completely original either, it's just that what's offered here works really well. Numerous games have co-op play whereby players must work together to survive waves upon waves of enemies. Doing this in Blacklist is a lot of fun because you can, and will honestly have to at some point, switch styles. A ghost only approach requires coordination and patience, something a random matchup doesn't always have. Going full assault is especially difficult after several waves, but it's sure fun trying. I thought it was a great idea that players can elect to cash-in their earnings after every five waves by gracefully exiting the mission. Both players have to meet at a certain spot and hold X for this to happen, though. Watching the after action report, and seeing the numerous categories upon which points are awarded is kind of funny; there must be like a dozen different categories and multipliers and things like that.
The Spies vs Mercs mode spans fourteen maps with matches ranging from nail-biting intense to boring, depending on the competition and your teammates. There's a bit of a learning curve, and for that, there is a option on the multiplayer menu to go into matches with only beginners.
Whether single player or multiplayer, the presentation is overall well done, but, surprisingly lacking in one major area: graphical fidelity. I'll be honest, when I first started Blacklist, I thought something was wrong -- like the textures didn't fully load up after the opening cutscenes or something weird like that. The graphics just couldn't be this soft, almost blurry, could they? I mean, it wasn't game-breakingly bad, don't get me wrong, but the visuals absolutely lack any real pop you would expect from an Unreal Engine game. I actually tried the game out on another PS3 on another TV and the results were identically disappointing. The fact that Michael Ironside isn't doing the voiceover work for Sam Fisher was a letdown, too. If you're new to the franchise, it probably won't matter to you. But if you're used to hearing the confident, gruff voice of Ironside as Sam Fisher since circa 2002, you'll notice the difference, and it's not positive. Other voiceovers, effects, and all that is solid though.
With that, let's get to the summary...