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Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Graphics: 8.9
Gameplay: 9.2
Sound: 9
Control: 8.7
Replay Value: 9
Rating: 9

Splinter Cell is back. Many fans of the esteemed franchise will tell you that Chaos Theory was the best entry and that the previous installment, Conviction, went off the rails a little. With Blacklist, the developers remember precisely what made this series so damn good; they put a premium on stealth, give us back all those nifty gadgets, add depth via customization and upgrades, and provide us with diverse, satisfying missions. As a huge bonus, the gripping, original multiplayer enhances and diversifies an already rewarding experience.

The production values allow the latest Splinter Cell to shine. I found some of the character models to be somewhat off-putting but besides that, we enjoy a highly detailed environment and a slick, refined visual presentation. The animations are numerous and fluid, the level design is excellent, and the graphical variety borders on outstanding. The exotic locales are quite immersive and allow the player to appreciate his surroundings. Factor in a dynamic structure that takes advantage of such visual flair, and you end up with an immensely effective backdrop that keeps us riveted.

The sound reaches similar heights in terms of technological excellence and diversity, as the soundtrack keeps the intensity pegged. The designers keep that great score on the down low during periods of stealthy silence, but it swells with insistent urgency when the action hits a new octave. There are some top-notch voice performances as well, but I definitely miss good ol’ Michael Ironside as Sam Fisher. Eric Johnson does a good job but nobody can properly replace that gruff, appropriately gravelly tone of Ironside’s. Still, with outstanding balancing and variety throughout, the audio excels.

Being a fan of this franchise since the original launched back in early 2003, I know one incontrovertible fact: At the center of Splinter Cell beats a heart that encourages, rewards and ultimately adores stealth. This is why I was disappointed with the direction Ubisoft took with Conviction; Sam turned into more of an action hero, much of the stealthy greatness of past iterations mystifyingly disappeared, and I was left with a merely average third-person shooter. Sure, stealth was an option at times but it felt bland and uninspired; it played second fiddle to heavier action.

And while the developers can’t help but make Sam an action hero again (guess it’s a requirement these days), the aforementioned heart of the franchise has returned. Stealth isn’t simply an option; it’s the recommended play style. You get more points – and consequently, more cash for purchasing upgrades – by playing as a Ghost; i.e., non-lethal enemy takedowns, hiding bodies, never getting spotted, etc. You get the second-most points for adopting the Panther style, which is also based around invisibility but includes lethal attacks. You can go full-on Assault if you wish, but it’s clearly not the focus.

The US is under attack from terrorists who have one demand: Either remove our soldiers from the hundreds of countries where they’re stationed, or continue to suffer terrorism attacks on American soil every seven days. The game begins with a destructive attack on a military base and obviously, the criminals in question are ruthless and extremely efficient. Sam must go back into action and this time, he’s better equipped than ever before. In fact, everything about his new adventure features improved equipment, from his Ops Suit to his government aircraft, the Paladin.

The latter acts as the game’s hub, where you can talk to team members and customize the Paladin and Sam’s loadouts. It’s straightforward and simple, and it allows players to experience a level of freedom and customization heretofore unheard of in Splinter Cell. For the first time, the money you earn in the field will go towards a plethora of upgrades. You can purchase new weapons and gadgets (some are only available on the Black Market, which must be accessed by being very, very thorough in your questing), and you can pick up other enhancements. For example, you can buy tactical mesh for parts of Sam’s suit that minimize movement sound.

You can customize up to three separate loadouts for Sam, and don’t forget that the Paladin can be upgraded as well. The plane has all sorts of extremely useful – although comparatively pricey – updates that will make your life on the ground easier. If you choose to play the game almost entirely as a Ghost or Panther, you’ll want to pick up familiar gadgets like Sticky Cameras, Smoke Grenades, and the silent but deadly Crossbow. One of the first upgrades I nabbed was Sonar for my goggles, which allows me to sense bodies through walls. See, that’s the kind of intel I can really use in the field, you know? Stuff that goes beyond night vision.

Control is always critical in such games. If you’re going to be stealthy and silent, you require a masterful understanding of the control and if it’s unreliable, everything goes to pot. I have to say, I’m not enamored with the control in Blacklist, although it’s still completely functional. I just can’t decide if I like the “snap into cover” mechanic via the Circle button. This pins Sam to a wall or obstacle, which qualifies as cover. It seems that simply moving up to a wall in a crouched position isn’t quite the same thing, which means you have to use that sticky cover. The cool part is that you can instantly move to another safe location with the press of a button.

It’s streamlined and it does work, but I kinda miss being able to fine-tune my position exactly as I want. You can still move back and forth in cover, but getting out of it requires a relatively violent motion that seems jarring. I also notice that Sam’s platforming abilities have oddly improved with age; he can climb, sidle, and in general, maneuver quicker than ever before. It’s not necessarily a downside but it is a slight nod to the “faster and dumber” trend we’ve seen in video games. For the most part, the third-person shooting and hand-to-hand combat works very well, so those who go Assault shouldn’t be disappointed. Sam does earn access to significant firepower.

The single-player missions are extremely varied and encourage you to experiment with just about everything in your inventory. This really makes you carefully consider each purchase, and completing a mission with tons of Ghost points coming your way is quite fulfilling. The story is actually decent, too, and in fact, it may be the best narrative of any series iteration. That doesn’t mean it’s great; it just means it’s interesting, mostly well written, and effectively performed. And of course, I love the trial-and-error aspect of stealth games and that’s definitely here in spades. Some people hate it but the stealth perfectionists take full advantage.

The action hero aspect comes into play when you fill up a certain meter. This is accomplished via enemy takedowns; when the meter is full, you can access a special execute option that is all sorts of flashy. You mark multiple targets with R2, hit Triangle, and Sam goes to town: The game slows and the hero rips off a quick series of deadly shots (this can also be done with the Stun Gun). It’s great when a lot of enemies are between you and your objective, and it spices up the slower-paced stealth-oriented gameplay. Lastly, the multiplayer is a huge draw because co-op fans are going to have an absolute blast; it's the best co-op action since Borderlands 2.

The co-op maps require that buddies work together, remain in constant contact, and execute skillfully and tactfully. There’s a wide variety of objectives, too, so your tasks will be diverse. The Spies vs. Mercs mode from Pandora Tomorrow has returned – two stealthy spies vs. a duo of runners and gunners – and that’s a glorious contrast of play styles. Whether you’re working together or playing competitively (Team Deathmatch is always fun), the money you earn can be used for more upgrades. I wouldn’t expect multiplayer modes to be so important for a game like this, but they are. The experience expands exponentially with these online alternatives.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist does it right. It blends the glossy production values and some unrealistic action with the authentic, engaging, and startlingly challenging demands of pure stealth. It encourages the latter and punishes you for acting rashly. In my eyes, it’s the proper successor to Chaos Theory, as it holds true to the franchise’s roots while still offering a few modern, flashier elements. I miss Ironsides as Sam, I’m still iffy on the “sticky cover” mechanic, and the story isn’t fantastic, but the AI is consistently impressive (be aware; they’re not stupid robots!), the missions are diverse and challenging, the fresh customization is awesome, and above all else, the stealth is back and it's better than ever!

The Good: Highly detailed environments. Good soundtrack. New customization and upgrading is great. Choice is evident but stealth is most rewarded. Mostly top-notch AI. Diverse, challenging missions. Engaging, unique multiplayer.

The Bad: “Sticky” cover mechanic causes minor control issues. Story has its moments but still could’ve been better.

The Ugly: “Nothing wrong with the new voice for Sam, but man…I do miss Ironsides.”

8/27/2013   Ben Dutka