Splinter Cell has always been about stealth more than anything else. At least, it was, until 2010's Splinter Cell: Conviction made it more about flashy kills and an artful, black-and-white aesthetic. I wish I could say that Blacklist, Ubisoft's next entry in the franchise, was a full-on reboot, resetting the series all the way back to its sneaktastic roots. But I can't, because it's not. Though you'll spend much of Blacklist trying to go undetected, there's plenty of focus on action here as well.
There's a silver lining, though. Ubisoft's goal with Blacklist was to deliver fans the best of both worlds: the action, style and pacing of Conviction with a more challenging and versatile old school feel. From the two levels of Blacklist that I played, it seems that they may have accomplished just that.
One of the biggest new additions to Blacklist is the Paladin. Four months after the events of Conviction, our hero Sam Fisher is once again a member of the elite Fourth Echelon, a spec ops group that routinely thwarts terrorists and saves the country/president/world. And he's got a new mobile base to match: the Paladin, a hi-tech spy plane that serves as the game's hub world.
You'll return to the Paladin after every mission to watch a debriefing cut scene, purchase upgrades to your equipment and to the plane itself, change your loadouts for missions, and take on sidequests. The Paladin's command center is also where you'll access multiplayer and co-op (you can even see your friends' multiplayer locations on an interactive map) or choose the next single-player mission.
Within the Paladin's belly you'll be able to talk to characters both new and old: Charlie, the token hacker/comic relief; Briggs, the hardened sidekick; Grimm, Fisher's long-time compatriot; and a host of scenery NPCs punching away at keyboards and control panels. Grimm, Fisher and other familiar characters look and act differently than they did in Conviction, despite the story picking up mere months afterward. They're familiar, but not the same. The animation has improved, though, and that's evident during every line of dialogue.
They'll have something new to say between every mission, and it's from them that you'll access side missions—nicely wrapped up in the form of each character's personal projects and intuitions—and upgrades. Those include everything from changing the scope on your favorite shotgun or the color of Fisher's night vision goggle lights to improving the tech within the Paladin, which will in turn help you out during missions. Upgrading the cockpit improves your radar, for example, while the cockpit itself will be visibly altered, showing a nice attention to detail.
There are a ton of those upgrades—weapon attachments, body armor, gadgets, goggles, infirmary improvements that speed up healing on the field, a modified hull ramp that lets you change equipment mid-mission—you name it. You'll be spending a lot of time in the Paladin, but the plane and those in it will offer something new between every mission. Still, you're not here for the hub. So let's get on with the first mission.
BENGAZI / DAY
The first level I got to play served as a fine introduction to Blacklist. Everything from the game's controls to its UI and aesthetic have been fine-tuned since Conviction. The left trigger now causes Fisher to raise his weapon and aim, which is more in keeping with other shooters, and make's Blacklist's firefights feel more natural than Conviction's. Getting into cover has been moved from the left trigger to "B," and you no longer have to hold the button down to stay down. The game is decent at detecting when you want to be in cover and when you want to move freely.
Thankfully, Blacklist doesn't go black-and-white when you're successfully hidden, like Conviction did. That's not to say there's less of an emphasis on stealth; you just won't have such an obvious indicator of when you're effectively hidden. It was nice to have that feedback in Conviction, but it's nicer to be able to actually see in Blacklist.
This first level took place in Bengazi in broad daylight. Fisher moves in to extract a person of interest while Briggs provides sniper support from the rooftops. The target has been moved by the time Fisher arrives, though, and you've got to sneak and fight your way over the rooftops, through buildings and across streets to the abandoned police station where he's being interrogated. After all, no one interrogates Fisher's targets but Fisher (and sometimes Grimm).
Old elements like hiding bodies in dumpsters and dark corners make a return, and the game will recognize if you "ghost" a level, or make it through without being detected. There's less of an emphasis on simply shooting out lightbulbs, thankfully, and you can be even more creative here, whistling or making noise to get enemies' attention and then slipping past them. On the other hand, you're still able to mark and execute multiple enemies at a time. You can play with a mix of ghosting, stealth kills and full-on assault, though you'll be rewarded most for sticking to one style.
You can also switch quickly between lethal and nonlethal kills in the new weapon select wheel. Going nonlethal makes things more challenging, since the animations take longer and knocked-out enemies can be woken up by curious colleagues. And enemies are smarter—I was flanked more than once by enemies I couldn't detect using Fisher's limited-range radar and goggles.
One of the most versatile bits in Bengazi comes when you have to make your way past a hallway full of enemies and down a staircase to the ground level. There were a ton of different ways I could have gotten through it, but I chose to use some gadgets. A smoke grenade at my end obscured my movements and attracted the guards; then I slipped out a window, shimmied to the other side, and dropped some sleeping gas down the stairs.
There's another interesting moment in the middle of this mission when Grimm notifies Fisher that a high-value target is nearby; you have to take him out peacefully and secure him for pick-up by other forces. It wasn't difficult, but I'm hoping that later missions will provide more opportunities for surprise objectives and extra challenges like that.
The main target turns out to be Sam's old frenemy Kobin, and he's just as surprised to see Fisher as we are to see him, letting out an exasperated "You've got to be fuckin' shittin' me" at being hauled from the frying pan into the fire. The lame interrogations from Conviction are gone, though Fisher escorting Kobin out with one hand on his neck and the other holding a pistol provides for a tense escape. A straightforward last stand-type encounter, with waves of enemies charging into Fisher's bullets, ends the mission tidily.
LONDON / NIGHT
Kobin reveals in the between-missions scene that he'd turned himself in in Bengazi because a relationship with a particularly nasty customer—Kobin's an arms dealer now—went decidedly sour. He's thrown in a cell in the Paladin's brig, and you can talk to him if you like (he's even got a side op you can embark on, though it wasn't accessible during the preview).
The story gets a bit muddled here, but the next mission sends Fisher off to a midnight-black London, and it's much more a return to form for the series. It's night. Rain splashes all around, obscuring vision and sound. You'll take full advantage of Fisher's night vision goggles, popping them on for seconds at a time before moving between cover. His radar (provided you've upgraded the Paladin) and silenced weapons—include a badass shock crossbow—prove invaluable as well.
You begin on a rooftop and have to sneak your way down into the bowels of a decrepit mill crawling with surprisingly well-equipped and perceptive bad guys. One bastard had an endless supply of exploding RC cars, and though I thought I was well-hidden, once he knew I was there he kept searching until he found me. He got me with those things more than a few times.
Not that Fisher isn't well-equipped too. The myriad upgrades and versatile loadout system aren't the only thing Blacklist borrows from last year's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier; if you played that, you'll recognize the flying drones that you can deploy in Blacklist to do your recon for you. They're equipped with nice shock darts, though if they're seen enemies will go on full alert. Other gadgets from Conviction, like the sticky camera and EMP grenades, return as well.
The best part of this mission comes right at the end: you've got to sneak into the back of a truck to investigate its cargo without alerting any of the guards or workers that you were ever there. That means no killing or interacting with them in any way—no smoke grenades, no shooting out the lights, nothing. Just a cleverly-timed noise here, some patience there while a guard turns his back, and a bit of luck.
Naturally, Fisher discovers some sort of chemical weapon in the truck. It wouldn't be Splinter Cell without a threat to national security, right?
There's one more thing I wanted to talk about, and that's Perfectionist mode. For all the Splinter Cell fans who complain that the games have become too easy, that they're focused too much on action and not enough on stealth, that new moves like mark-and-execute ruin the challenge, Perfectionist mode is for you.
On Perfectionist, you can't resupply or change equipment during missions. what you start with is what you have to work with. You can still mark targets in order to track them, but the quick execute function no longer works. You have to take enemies out the old fashioned way. That's made even more difficult by their more acute senses—they'll hear you and come investigating much more frequently. To top it off, Fisher's signature goggles don't even see through walls anymore.
I had trepidation when I cranked the difficulty up to this mode, but after crouching and creeping my way through the nighttime mission for a second time, this one on Perfectionist, I was sold. This is the only way fans will want to play once they try it out.
I can't say for sure that Splinter Cell: Blacklist will strike the perfect balance between stealth and action, or challenge and fun, but from what I've played it has a decent chance. If the single-player game proves longer and more replayable than Conviction's, and with multiplayer and co-op more well-integrated with the rest of the game, Blacklist may be the return to form—and the return to fun—that fans have been waiting for.