Sliding in and out of the shadows, silently scaling precarious environments, waiting in the depths of darkness for the opportune moments to attack are all stealth mechanics that scream “bad-ass!” They empower players with very unique feelings of control and dominance, the predatory type delivering a kind of action game satisfaction that the secret agent in all of us yearns for. Yet somehow only a few titles seem to have successfully delivered this stealth promise. Thief, Dishonored, Metal Gear Solid, Batman Arkham City and Mark of The Ninja, among others, represent a small handful of titles over the past decade that have managed to bring the stealth dream to fruition.
The very first Splinter Cell stands shoulder to shoulder alongside these great games, epitomising just how satisfying stealth can be. From there the series has evolved, introducing new mechanics and gadgets allowing for more creative freedom in the field, continuing to drive that all important player satisfaction. However despite the vast improvements made with each new title, it wasn’t until the fifth game in the series when developer Ubisoft managed to remove an increasingly frustrating thorn from the series’ side: how do you keep the player empowered in a stealth game when stealth fails?
This fifth entry, Splinter Cell Conviction, melded Sam Fisher with Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne providing more effective third-person action combat where stealth had failed. No longer were players powerless or automatically thrown back to checkpoints when a guard spotted them. Now, in Fisher’s sixth stealth/action adventure, Splinter Cell Blacklist, the stakes are higher, the action is smoother and the stealth is more polished making this the best game in the series and one of the best stealth games this generation.
Blacklist‘s development was handled by Ubisoft’s newly-formed Toronto studio, led by Assassin’s Creed creative director Jade Raymond. You’d be quite easily forgiven if you expected a lot less of the game given this is the team’s debut title, however you’d be delighted to discover that you really can’t tell.
Demonstrating a firm commitment on Ubisoft’s behalf, Blacklist improves upon the stealth/action hybrid template Conviction so effectively established; the studio has decided where the series is going and how it will evolve creatively in the years to come. Evidently, they’ve made a great decision.
To put it simply, the stealth is impeccable. Like a mouse thrown into a snake pit, you, the snake, will delicately plot your victims’ fates, drawing their attention and tickling their curiosity into intricate traps. The environment is your playground, the enemies are your toys and masterfully eliminating each assailant without so much as a whisper is pure video game ecstasy. Don’t want to touch your toys? Provided you have the skills, completing a level without a soul knowing of your existence is a toilsome test that can infuriate through failure, but exhilarate through success.
Just how much toil you’re tested by will largely depend on the layout and design of the level you’re playing, which is superb in every mission. Ranging from cavernous mining tunnels rich in darkness but sparse in maneuverability to the exact opposite in the form of sunshine-soaked refineries, creativity and an understanding of your environment are your most powerful tools. Not to discount your tangible tools and gadgets, which for the most part are incredibly useful too. The hovering Tri Rotor – craftily weaving through environments Fisher cannot access, tagging, electrifying or detonating near enemies – is the most useful addition to your arsenal, delivering greater tactical options and enriching the stealth experience.
In previous installments – and this problem isn’t restricted to the Splinter Cell series – inadequate controls and rough animations deterred the spy-simulation experience. Sam would often take cover behind the wrong wall, jump to an overhanging pipe instead of up a ledge and, out of pure technical fault, stiffly animate himself into a light source when attempting a sly vault, jump or clamber. It’s with unquantifiable alleviation that these issues have become nonexistent in Blacklist, and this is partially in thanks to Ubisoft Toronto’s new performance capture studio, which has taken their quality of animation to the next level.
Movement is almost melodic as Sam meanders maze-like milieus without pause, again highlighting the fluid level design and creative execution.
Somewhat of a double-edged sword, the newly implemented performance capture system requires body animation capture and actual voice and facial capture to be performed at the exact same time, and so came the decision to replace the aging Michael Ironside with younger Sam Fisher voice actor Eric Johnson. Thankfully, Johnson steps up to the challenge and delivers a solid performance as the weary agent, as does the surrounding cast of Fourth Echelon.
The team’s story is just that: more focused on the team, and each character’s role adds to the narrative, keeping the relationship dynamics fresh and interesting. It’s nothing revolutionary, simply well thought out and ushers in a new angle of telling a solid action story similar to 24.
Ubisoft hasn’t been shy to mix up other aspects of the game either. Fourth Echelon HQ is airborne aboard military aircraft Paladin, which is upgradeable compartmentally and will provide in-game benefits to players in the field. This new base of operations also allows Fisher to accept side quests scattered all over the world from different crew members, giving the narrative flow plausibility and more importantly, the player creative control. These can range from taking out weapon smugglers in Uganda to horde-like missions defending embassies in Yemen, keeping objectives fresh and encouraging different play styles or mastering of one in particular.
The play styles are broken into three categories: Ghost being pure stealth, Assault being balls-to-the-wall action, and Panther combining a bit of both resulting in sneaky lethality. The gadgets and weapons you choose to equip to your loadout at the beginning of each mission play a primary role in deciding what play style you’ll be better prepared for. Equip proximity mines and a shotgun and you’ll obviously score more in the Assault style, whereas proximity shockers, sleeping gas and a silenced pistol will earn you Panther style points. Any play style will earn you credits, which you can then use to purchase more gadgets, weapons and upgrades for both of these and Fisher’s suit, however you’ll gain more credits for specialising in a particular style. It’s a fair balance that rewards skill and drives the accomplishment of self-motivated player goals as well as in-game challenges, again earning players extra dough.
These extra funds become very beneficial, especially early on when your weapons and gadgets aren’t the crème de la crème. You need to decide carefully which items will best fit the objectives and environments of the upcoming mission; thankfully, your team is always there to recommend which of your arsenal will prove most effective.
When your arsenal starts to represent something more Fourth Echelon-worthy, you’ll begin to see the A.I adopt the necessary precautions to nullify some of your tricks straight away. Stocked up on tear gas? Guards now have filtered masks. Cruising by using your electrical crossbow? Let’s see how it stacks up to shockproof armour. Blacklist puts the intelligence in artificial intelligence and it’s all the more gratifying for it.
However, while the NPCs provide an intensity that the stealth genre can be very proud of, it’s nothing compared to the pulse-pounding frenzy that is the multiplayer mode, Spies vs. Mercs.
Originally introduced in the series’ third installment Chaos Theory, Ubisoft Toronto has updated the fan-favourite mode for the modern era of stealth gaming and it is a masterpiece of multiplayer design. While there are many variations of the SvM formula, the 3-on-3 mode proved to be the most addictive. Spies are tasked with hacking three different terminals on a map, while the Mercs – playing in first-person mode – must prevent this. Facing human opponents online is nerve-racking. Playing as Spies is easily more enjoyable because, while both parties can be viewed as either the hunter or the prey depending on how you play, the sense of power gained from sitting perched in the shadows and toying with your enemies is gloriously conceited, in the best possible way.
The single tiny negative to be found in Blacklist is in the visuals. Far from bad, the textures can be viewed as weak in comparison with many gorgeous titles of late. However the game was built using a modified version of the Unreal Engine 2, which in itself is an achievement for the studio.
At the end of the day, Blacklist presents itself as a natural evolution of the ideas founded in Conviction. Taking everything great about classic stealth and combining it with contemporary action themes, it delivers on the promise of the genre. Fans of the series will feel right at home and newcomers will wonder what they’ve been missing out on for all these years. Blacklist is one of the best stealth games of the generation and a perfect debut title from Ubisoft Toronto.