Guest Review - Splinter Cell Blacklist (by Alfred Tang)!
One of the biggest games of the year is finally here! Guest writer, Alfred, gives us his in-depth look into it.
An avid fan of the stealth gaming genre, I have enjoyed every instalment of the Splinter Cell series of games. I have always enjoyed shooting out lights, messing with guards, and doing silly things in general to spook guards from the safety of the shadows. Splinter Cell is my second-most favourite game that allows me to do so in a modern setting.
Sam Fisher returns in Blacklist, and he is just as badass as he always was - but with more personality. Ever since Splinter Cell Conviction, we have seen Sam Fisher's dark side and his willingness to take drastic action. We see more of the same, although without spoiling too much, all I can say is that we as players do not have too much of a choice in the path of the story. We do not face many moral dilemmas, and although that may not be the point of a stealth game, it could serve to strengthen the identity of the individual characters in the game.
The Introduction stage to the game leads you into the story masterfully, including a step-by-step tutorial about the gameplay. Controls such as taking cover and performing takedowns are explained, all while telling the story. It leads the player smoothly into the missions, with the fresh memory of what drives Sam to take the actions he does... but soon after, you forget about it until it is mentioned again.
In my opinion, such a point should be reinforced that it would not be forgotten at all. It should remain in the sea of the player's subconscious. Actions taken should immediately call to mind that element.
The characters were believable enough, but Blacklist does not deliver a captivating experience. We see Sam's determination, and his refusal to give in despite physical difficulties. We see his genius in stealth at work throughout the story - from hiding in the shadows, to hiding in plain sight.
We see Briggs and Sam have some interpersonal conflict about the right course of action. We see Briggs receiving reprimands. But we do not see enough to know his character, not even if the player chooses to speak to him more while inside the Paladin.
Splinter Cell Blacklist's villain is believable and charismatic, but we do not see enough of him; we do not see them having enough conflict throughout the story to build a strong enmity. This weakens the effect of the final fight on the player's emotions, and also weakens the ending.
By the time I had finished the game, I had forgotten that Sam had a daughter, that there was a character named Briggs, and that Sam even had a personal motivation for completing these missions in the first place.
Having played every Splinter Cell to date, I have to say that the story in Blacklist is on par with the rest. As far as I am concerned, it is no more and no less; no better or worse. It isn't terrible, but for a game of its class, it could have done much better.
The game looks beautiful, even on Medium settings, which is what I played on. The interface is nicely designed and the heads-up display doesn't get in the way.
The pre-rendered cutscenes look good and up-to-date, and the way the camera dives into the mission screen and sends you right into the mission is - although not a new concept - nicely done.
Combat, movement and takedown animations are good and smooth. I also like that they are generally more realistic, as compared to the earlier Splinter Cell games. I especially like the inclusion of the karambit, rather than a regular knife. From what I know, the Splinter Cell team decided to do facial, voice, and action capture with the same actor (for Sam Fisher). It is a good move, graphics-wise, because movements are much more true-to-life in general.
I have no complaints about the graphics, despite not running on the maximum possible settings.
Voice acting is the biggest point I will focus on. Overall, the voice acting throughout the story fleshes out the characters. When you mess with the guards, their reactions sound decently realistic.
Character portrayals are decent, and movie-standard. Silence is applied correctly, the characters respond interestingly to each other, and the soundtrack emphasises the intended mood of the various chapters very well.
In game, if you listen to guards, they will speak in their native tongue, until you get closer to them. As you get closer, you will hear them speak to each other in accented English, which seems to portray Sam's knowledge of various languages. It also conveniently guides players as to the enemy's plans.
Our villain sounds charismatic, although the British accent is somewhat distracting. His name (and thus race and nationality), once you find it out, will bring that into question a little bit, but it is still acceptable regardless.
The most significant change in voice, however, and which is immediately noticeable to Splinter Cell veterans, is the loss of Michael Ironside in favour of Eric Johnson. Ubisoft's reasoning was that they needed to do motion capture, which I suppose is acceptable seeing as Ironside is a little aged and may not be suitable for action scenes. It isn't all good, though - Eric Johnson sounds generic; Michael Ironside is the heart of Sam Fisher.
Sam Fisher is no longer the Same Fisher, with this different voice, but it is acceptable because the voice actor and direction stay faithful to the spirit of Sam Fisher - slightly gruff, decisive, and tough. For that reason it only loses a little bit off the Sound score. (This is more than I can say for my absolute favourite stealth game series, but that's another story altogether.)
The sound is alright overall. Nothing spectacular, but the switch in languages in the middle of the game is one thing I really enjoyed.
The gameplay is what kept me playing the game, despite the less-than-spectacular story. I particularly liked the Fourth Echelon side missions.
The missions are conducted from the mobile Fourth Echelon base, the Paladin. On the Paladin you can interact with the various characters for responses, or to purchase upgrades with in-game cash.
When you start a campaign mission, dialogue often ensures, followed by the camera panning to show the SMI screen and then diving into it, then the load screen, and going straight into the mission.
Your location is identified as you enter the mission, and as you progress, your objective is flashed on walls and other such things conveniently available in the scene, accompanied by instructions given on the radio.
The Execute (Press To Win) function from Conviction returns. It provides automatic headshots, which result in instant kills for unarmoured enemies, and helmet removals on armoured ones. I advise against overusing it; I only needed to use it a couple of times throughout the entire game. Otherwise, I only used the Mark function to mark three enemies that might get in my way.
There are many routes and gadgets which you can use to pass through various areas. Instead of shooting the lights out and heading in the direct way, which is a Splinter Cell tradition, you can flip light switches and turn off generators. Instead of killing everyone, you can climb pipes, or go outside of windows (features present since Conviction, and wisely retained).
The cover function also helps to hide you from view, and performing cover-to-cover movements even while in the open also reduces the probability of you being spotted.
What I enjoy most is the non-linear nature of the objectives in the missions. You are sometimes given multiple objectives, with a number of ways of reaching the objectives. Each route is designed around a different play style. The score ratings and equipment upgrades reflect this as well; you can choose to go full stealth (Ghost), stealthy-lethal (Panther), or totally classy and violent (Assault). This deserves a good score in my opinion; it gives players freedom to choose how they want to play.
Controls are good and feel convenient enough to play with by default. No major complaints, except for the mapping of some controls such as takedowns and opening doors. By default, the control for both is the E key, and this makes takedowns from behind opened doors a little wonky because you may end up closing the door instead of taking out the target.
The various difficulty levels also work quite well. I played on Realistic, and it is my favourite setting thus far. There is enough allowance to make mistakes, and enemies take more than a single bullet to the chest to kill. On Normal, you can sometimes take them out with one shot, which in my opinion makes the game too easy. That said, a well-aimed headshot is an instant kill no matter what difficulty, so long as your enemy is not wearing a helmet.
The AI controlling the guards is not too difficult either even on Realistic. It provides a decent challenge, but keep in mind that the game was designed with stealth routes in mind and you will be able to sneak past them. Their detection speed, reaction speed, and damage dealt vary based on difficulty levels.
I have only played Co-op on multiplayer, and have not tried Spies vs Mercs because connection problems on Co-op ruins my mood. I had wanted to play online with a friend but it seemed impossible to do so. More on that below.
However, even before that, I have already had lots of trouble. I had problems with installing this game, initially. My disc drive has trouble reading discs; it could install up until only a certain point then it stopped reading and crashed the install, so I had to try to gain access to a digital copy.
I tried to do this on Steam, but the key that came with the game would not work on Steam despite the fact that Blacklist is available on Steam. Instead I had to consult people who knew more, and was told to download Ubisoft's uPlay and try to activate it there. To my relief, it worked, and it installed, but my troubles did not end there.
Ubisoft seems to insist on using uPlay rather than the established and convenient Steam. Rather than being a "convenience", it's just another program to install. It does not make my life easier. In fact, it makes things more difficult.
But the worst thing is that even if I'm using uPlay, I can't connect and play with my friends. This is the first game I have ever played that has such an inconvenient multiplayer system. I invited my friend to play, and he received the invite. He accepted the invite, but he could not enter my lobby. We tried it the other way around, and it still didn't work. This is the first game for which I have ever had to manually open ports on my computer to play online. Co-op only worked after we both did so. It went smoothly thereafter.
Three weeks later I tried to get back on it again to play Co-op with the same friend, but it just didn't work. I gave up trying because it just took too much effort to figure out. I have never had so much trouble playing online before.
I hope this gets fixed soon, as I was really looking forward to spending hours online with my friends. Let's cross our fingers.
If it had been easier to connect with my friends and play online, I might play the game more. The core offline gameplay was enough to keep me going for about a week, playing nearly every day. Past that it was the Co-op, which worked at first. Online mode will keep people playing for a little while, but I got bored of it very quickly. I often play versus mode on my games, but this was just too painful to even start up because I couldn't connect with my friend to play together.
Splinter Cell Blacklist has good gameplay, but the story and presentation lack somewhat, in my opinion. While not particularly spectacular, it still delivers what is expected of a Splinter Cell game.
Special thanks to Ubisoft for providing the game!