Review: Splinter Cell: Blacklist is an espionage game best played with a bang, not a whisper
At a Glance
Splinter Cell: Blacklist doesn’t waste any time. Immediately overwhelmed by enemies, you have to find a way to take them out—or not—and make you way to the objective without running afoul of enemy patrols. It’s stealth at its finest, though Blacklist pushes the barrier of just how violent and confrontational a Splinter Cell game can become before it no longer bears any resemblance to a stealth action game.
That isn’t to say Blacklist punishes you for playing stealthy—quite the opposite, actually—but there’s a notable shift in how Sam Fisher is portrayed in Blacklist as opposed to previous Splinter Cell games. You can still sneak through missions using nothing but your wits and non-lethal takedowns, but you are constantly placed into situations where it’s impractical and nearly impossible to do anything but shoot your way out.
Get ready to go loud
Sure, you can still distract guards by whistling or using sticky cam gadgets, but the challenges you face as Fisher are often difficult to surpass with a stealthy playstyle. Despite this shift in tone, Blacklist stays true to Splinter Cell's legacy of vulnerable protagonists. Sam Fisher can't take much punishment so if you get spotted, you better move or do something quickly before the enemy raises the alarm—once you get detected, you’re as good as dead.
Even on the lowest difficulty (which I was extremely tempted to drop to on more than one occasion) it only takes a few shots in you to put you down, and there’s no reviving like there is when you're playing cooperatively with friends. It’s almost as if the developers couldn’t decide whether to portray Fisher as a superhuman action hero or a vulnerable stealth operative, settling on an uneasy mix that's most easily played as a straightforward killing machine.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Splinter Cell functions perfectly well as a standard action game. The plot follows a typical action movie formula almost perfectly, but manages to include enough surprises to keep things fresh. I didn't anticipate a few of the plot twists, which is always a nice feeling in a video game.
I also didn't anticipate Blacklist's loose mission structure. Past titles, especially Conviction, have been quite linear. When Blacklist opens up only 30 minutes in, offering you multiple mission varieties—solo, co-op, competitive—without shattering the illusion of narrative urgency, I was hooked.
That’s something that Blacklist constantly excels at: keeping you in the moment with a thrilling espionage narrative while also allowing you to venture off and do your spy thing elsewhere, perhaps with a friend.
Unfortunately, that’s all there really is outside of missions. If you play all the way through the main story without touching a co-op mission along the way, they feel meaningless and disjointed when you try to go back to them. So while these co-op missions are excellent, they would have been much more compelling if they had been incorporated more clearly into Blacklist's plot.
The return of the Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer mode—among others—is one of my favorite parts of Blacklist. It pits two players as spies (playing from third-person perspective) trying to hack into computer terminals while two mercenaries (playing in the first-person perspective) try to stop it. This distinct split in player perspective neatly exemplifies the troubling duality of playing Sam
Fisher in the campaign: one team is clearly meant to be sneaky, while the other works best when they solve problems with bullets. As a merc, you have to be more alert and attentive to your surroundings, as you’re constrained by a limited perspective that leaves you unaware of anything happening behind you. As a spy, you can constantly keep an eye on what's going on all around you but can't stand up in direct combat against the mercs, who are equipped with body armor and assault rifles. It’s a classic Splinter Cell multiplayer challenge that's still a delight to play after all these years.
The triumphant return of Spies vs. Mercs is a clear callback to classic Splinter Cell, but don't let it fool you: Blacklist is an action game in stealth-espionage clothing. This change in direction may spoil what you love about Splinter Cell, but it doesn't spoil the game itself: Blacklist is still exceptionally and I never felt bored throughout the eight- to ten-hour campaign—though I did have to retry a few areas countless times until I finally got it right.
Those moments of frustration feel like classic Splinter Cell, but the rest of Blacklist is something altogether fresh. If you take your time, find a buddy willing to hop in and out of co-op when you need it, and embrace Blacklist as the embodiment of an all-out summer blockbuster action movie wrapped in a hyper-serious core of modern-day military drama, you'll probably enjoy yourself. At the very least, you're certain to have a blast playing Spies vs. Mercs with a buddy.