Stealth games have always had a special place in my heart. Hiding in the shadows, stalking my unsuspecting prey, scanning the environment for my next vantage point. Then Bam! I’m discovered. Mission over. Try again.
Well that was the way with the original Splinter Cell. Brutally hard and unforgiving. Failure was only a footstep away. Each and every encounter was a tense game of cat and mouse, trial and error. It was all worth it, if you could get that magical run through. Ducking into doorways, split jumping into the darkness, ninja style. As the series progressed our tools and the game allowed for a more experimental approach to each level. Stealth was still the only way to play but now we could toy with the enemies, lure them from their assigned patrol routes into the darkness for a meeting with Mr. Ironside.
The third outing for the stealth actioner was Chaos Theory. Perhaps the best stealth game ever made? It was a triumph of tension and power. On the higher difficulty settings guards had Hawkeye like accuracy and the eyesight to match. By now Sam Fisher, star of the show, was a fast and efficient killing machine able to tackle these challenges. These games were never unfair or unbalanced. If you failed a mission or were killed, it was probably, no definitely, your fault.
When Sam Fisher arrived on the current gen of consoles it was a mixed bag of delight and disappointment. Splinter Cell: Double Agent brought shiny new graphics but aside from that nothing had really changed. Sure we still got some of the best stealth action available but it just missed the magic of Chaos Theory. Then came the reboot. Sam was going rouge, no more gadgets and no support. Splinter Cell had clearly taken inspiration from the Bourne movies with this one. Although, still a stealth title at heart, loud guns, close quarters combat and savage interrogations were the new tools in the arsenal. And I loved it. The trial and error gameplay made way for a much more kinetic and fluid game. If you messed up and were seen, now you had the chance to use that to your advantage, leading your attacks to a position, then gutting them all from behind. Splinter Cell had changed, and it worked.
Splinter Cell fans would have to wait three years to see another outing from the gravelly voiced assassin. Is this new Stealth-um-up worth the wait?
Sam’s back on the government payroll, heading a team on a mission to stop the evil Blacklist from unleashing a series of escalating attacks on the US. Our new home is the Paladin, it’s basically a small hub, only it’s a plane. The story is typical of the Tom Clancy series. Shady government officials, black market dealers and war torn villages all make an appearance. The story maybe full of stereotypical characters like the geeky tech guy Charlie and the out-to-prove-himself new recruit Briggs but it’s enough to keep you engaged and allows you to jump all over the globe chasing down the nasty English baddie.
If you’ve played Conviction, the last Splinter Cell title, you’ll be right at home here. Well, after you get used to the new control set-up. First-person controls take place of the previous layout. Left trigger for tight aiming, A to jump, right clicky stick to crouch. It fits the gameplay and gives a little more focus on the gunplay. The controversial ‘Mark and Execute’ makes its return. This feature allows you to mark several targets, then with a single button press, Sam will pop their heads in cinematic slow-mo. Its been called the win button by many but here, unlike the previous title, its used a little more sparingly. If you’re playing on the realistic difficulty you are required to take out several enemies before you’re awarded with the instant kill button. It’s a risk/reward system that will bitch-slap you if you balls it up.
The variety of the enemies also means the Mark and Execute isn’t always the easiest option. Heavily armored, shotgun-packing meatheads will shrug off a well-placed headshot, simply losing their helmets. Clearly, they’re pretty attached to these helmets as they go bonkers once it’s gone tearing the place apart looking for you. Night vision wearing enemies can spot you even in the darkest of air vents. This variety means you are constantly having to change your tactics and strategy.
The new gadgets come in handy with the challenges ahead. The tri-copter from Ubisoft’s other tactical shooter, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is now part of your ever-expanding toolset. This cute little thing can buzz around an area, marking targets or taking them out. This does take away some of the tension from an unknown zone. Throwing out your practically invisible spectator camera and knocking out four bad dudes then marking another three can reduce sections into a walk in the park. The thing is, you won’t want to use the Tri-copter for that. The awesome fun comes from moving through these areas like a terminator in slippers. That first totally clean mission, not a hair on Mr. Balaclavas head, no sniffer dogs put to sleep. It’s glorious.
Multiplayer and co-op fans will be in for a treat. The brilliant asymmetrical multiplayer Spys Vs. Mercs makes its return from Pandora Tomorrow. This is like no other versus game. Players choose either the fast and mobile Spy’s, these guys play much like the single player, with the ability to scale walls, scurry through vents and bring sweet death from the shadows. Merc’s on the other hand play in first person. Hulking heavily armoured and trading mobility for firepower, their job is to stop the spy’s from hacking terminals. It’s a welcome return. Gameplay for the Merc’s is reminiscent of Alien Vs. Predator (the old one, not that new thing). The Merc’s limited field of view and lack of speed puts you on edge, you’ll empty belts of ammo into the dark corners, footsteps behind you bring panic and confusion. Like wise for the Spy’s, you’re incredibly vulnerable, a few bullets and your dead. Speed and tactics are your best weapons. You have the much loved SvM Classic and SvM Blacklist; these modes task two teams, fighting for control of three terminals. Uplink and Team death match feature mixed teams; I found these to be the most fun. With the standard SvM gameplay you are always aware that the enemy is the opposite of you. If you’re a Merc you know the Spy’s are in the vents and balconies on the area. The same goes for the Spy’s; Mercs are going to be on the ground looking up like cyborg stargazers. The mixed team games are a savage concoction of flash bangs, auto rifles and death from above. If you want a change from the usual FPS based multiplayer you can’t go far wrong with Spys Vs. Mercs.
Level design across the whole game is fantastic, multiple routes through every section of the game means you’re constantly looking for more efficient ways to cause beautiful neck snapping death. Ledges, rails, windows, air vents, drain pipes all give you new options and tactics. Go loud and you have to deal with the increase in enemies and their aggressive searching, slip through a level like a shadow and you may never need to engage an enemy. This is where the new play styles come in. Ghost, Panther and Assault points are awarded for your actions with in the game. Go silent but deadly (ha) and you’ll be awarded points in the Panther grade, silent but non-lethal, you’re a ghost. With the multitude of paths through each level theres a huge amount of replay-ability. Also worth noting is the co-op element to the game. This plays out much like the single player, with your split-screen or online partner taking the role of Briggs. All but the single player campaign can be play in co-op. Two players opens up the game to yet more tactical options and routes.
The game runs on a heavily modified version of the Unreal 3 engine, pushing it to its very limit in regards to lighting and atmospheric effect. Unfortunately the current gen consoles struggle with this somewhat. Blacklist suffers from some horrific screen tearing on almost every cutscene and its not limited to the top and bottom of your screen. Frame rate drops are also apparent when several enemies are attacking or when witnessing large levels of on screen destruction. In no way do these detract from the core gameplay but its worth noting when the game world looks as lovingly created as this.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist has an awesome amount of content and replay-ability, its bursting with tactical and strategic options. Weapon load outs and suits offer up another set of choices. While the online component offers something refreshingly different from the crowd.
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