© — Submitted photo
A screen grab of “Splinter Cell: Blacklist.”
It’s always an unenviable task for an upstart developer to take the reins of a proven franchise, especially if that developer is a member of juggernaut publisher Ubisoft’s family, and especially if that franchise is as beloved as “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell.”
It’s been a few years since Sam Fisher last stalked the shadows, in Ubisoft Montreal’s “Splinter Cell: Conviction,” and much like that particular title, “Splinter Cell: Blacklist,” developed by Jade Raymond’s crew at Ubisoft Toronto, changes the rules once more, but in doing so, rediscovers its roots and brings about a new high point for the series.
When we join Sam Fisher, Third Echelon, the zero accountability counterterrorism strike force, has been shut down by the president of the United States due to the rampant corruption that had plagued the organization for the past few games. In its place is a smaller unit, dubbed Fourth Echelon, led by Fisher to carry out executive orders issued by the president herself.
As it happens, a worldwide terror organization known as the Engineers have begun a sequence of escalating attacks designed to cripple the world superpower, codenamed “Blacklist.”
The first order of business for Fisher and Fourth Echelon is to slam the door hard on the Engineers before they tick off every last item on the Blacklist.
The most impressive thing about “Blacklist” — and believe me, it is an impressive game — is how deftly it juggles different play styles. Instead of ignoring either of the two directions the franchise took when it forked with the move to current consoles, it allows for players to essentially choose the way they are most comfortable in completing missions. This is accomplished through an exemplary equipment upgrade system.
Every accomplishment, be it single player missions, co-op sessions or side quests, nets money to be spent on upgrades and new goodies. Stealthier gear makes it easier to stay hidden, but lacks in protection, forcing Fisher to stick to the shadows. Armour allows him to last in a prolonged firefight, but greatly increases the odds you’ll be dealing with baddies head-on.
Balance issues arise when it becomes apparent that greater monetary awards are given for making it through a mission without alerting or harming guards, but all in all, the game tends to handle the stress of different play styles very well.
Fun and easy
Game play remains as razor-honed as it has ever been. Navigating levels and shifting between spots of cover is simple and fun, though players are advised to wait until guards have their backs turned, as they seem to develop spider-sense in the later missions.
If action becomes the only resort, Fisher can always fall back on some well-implemented shooting mechanics, including the return of “Conviction’s” Mark and Execute mechanic, which has been upgraded to be able to be used while on the move, infusing some cinematic, Bond/Bourne style action into the game. Of course, enemies get smarter and more unpredictable with each passing moment, and standard one-hit attacks such as headshots are rendered obsolete with advanced armour.
Being a Tom Clancy game, the story is equal parts gripping and ridiculous. Light is shone into the gloomy darkness of international espionage, and global terror cells come across as a scary/goofy mix of al-Qaida, the Freemasons and COBRA. Longtime fans will probably lament the loss of Michael Ironside as Sam Fisher, but other than a smaller dose of gravel, he’s still a lovable scamp.
Once the single-player campaign has been laid to rest and the Engineers undoubtedly lay in ruin, Fisher and Fourth Echelon wage war in the shadows of “Blacklis’s” finely-tuned multiplayer and superlative co-op missions.
Co-op is a great alternative for building up funds without advancing the main story, allowing friends to team up to complete various objectives, none of which are ever too similar to be boring.
“Spies vs. Mercs,” first made famous in the original sequel “Pandora Tomorrow” all those years ago, makes a huge return, pitting teams of two against one another, with spies racing to access various terminals, while Mercs hunt them down with all the fury of a fully automatic, armour-piercing predator.
Impeccably designed from stem to stern, “Splinter Cell: Blacklist” doesn’t reinvent the stealth genre, but it does give it a pretty sizable shot of awesome sauce that often gets lost behind fancy concepts and good intentions.
For all the preposterousness of its story, it provides a kick-ass single player campaign and fabulous multiplayer suite. Between this and last summer’s stunning “Ghost Recon: Future Soldier,” it’s nice to see the Tom Clancy universe on the gaming upswing again … even if the world’s villains will never see Sam Fisher coming.
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (360 version reviewed)
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Release Date: Aug. 20, 2013
Rated: M for Mature.