Blacklist begins with a rather graphic cinematic that shows a terrorist organization known as ‘The Engineers' making it known that they are coming to America. The Engineers have taken exception to the US posting troops overseas and have developed a list of targets (a black list if you will) on US soil that they will attack unless America withdraws their troops from 153 countries.
Enter Sam Fisher, commander of the newly-formed and clandestine ‘Fourth Echelon'. Answering only to the President, Fourth Echelon is responsible not only for taking out The Engineers and halting their Blacklist attacks, but also disbanding any and all ‘Third Echelon' operations (Third Echelon turned out to be corrupt in a previous game). If that sounded complex, don't worry – basically your job is to take out the bad guys in whichever way you see fit.
Blacklist is a third-person stealth or shooter game, depending on how you want to play it. The actions you take are scored in one of three categories; Ghost, Panther or Assault. Ghost actions are things like remaining undetected, leaving enemies alone or taking them down non-lethally. Panther actions are killing while remaining undetected (using lethal takedowns and silenced weapons), while Assault actions are taking on enemies in open combat, using loud weapons and explosives.
All of the campaign missions (except for one or two) take place in large environments giving you the ability to explore your surrounds and find alternate paths to your objectives. Objectives are always highlighted, but finding a good path to the marker is quite challenging. If you want to take the stealthy approach be sure to keep your eye out for vents to jump into, and pipes to climb up (enemies are smart generally, but they never look up). If you want to be aggressive you can, but Sam doesn't have a lot of health, so you still have to be careful.
As far as actions go, Sam can crouch, go into cover, take down enemies with the push of a button, and use a variety of weapons and gadgets. New to Blacklist is the ability to mark and execute enemies. You mark up to three enemies at a time by looking at them and pressing R2. Once at least one enemy has been marked and you're in range, you press triangle to execute all marked enemies.
Using cover is crucial. You can move between pieces of cover simply by aiming at them and pushing the ‘x' button. If you do this you're significantly less likely to be spotted. If you are spotted, a Sam Fisher silhouette appears in your last known position and enemies will swarm to that spot. You can use this to your advantage by flanking them if you're quick enough, or you can try to evade them until they're no longer on alert.
There are a ton of weapons to buy, but given I was trying to play stealthily I didn't invest in any until after I finished the game and wanted to try a more ‘front-on' approach. There are a number of gadgets to buy as well, including sticky noisemakers used to grab an enemy's attention, an EMP to take down electronics and sleeping gas.
There are a couple of different multiplayer modes, including both co-operative and competitive play. If you speak to your crew-members on the Paladin they'll have side missions for you, which can be done either with a co-op partner (online or split-screen locally) or solo. The only missions that must be done in co-op are Briggs' missions. These missions take place in smaller locations than regular campaign missions, but they are just as challenging and enjoyable.
The competitive multiplayer is known as Spies vs Mercs, and involves teams of 2, 3 or 4. Interestingly, even though the main game is played from the third-person perspective, competitive multiplayer is played in first-person perspective. Matches are played over two rounds with the Mercs trying to defend terminals while the Spies try to hack them. There are a couple of variations to this set up, but all modes involve one team defending something and the other team trying to take it.
After two rounds whichever team secured the most terminals, intelligence or uplinks wins. It's remarkably simple but also a lot of fun. The Merc feels underpowered at first, but as you unlock equipment that can disrupt anything a Spy can throw at you, the balance becomes more even. Kills with a Merc also feel more rewarding because the odds are stacked against you. As a Spy it's great fun to use stealth to take down unsuspecting enemies. The end result is that it's fun to play as both Mercs and Spies, and the lure of unlocking better gear will keep you coming back to level up.
As far as issues go, the cover controls can be a little irksome because you'll often cling to a spot just next to the cover you wanted, particularly in tight spots. The cover issues are spotlighted in one section on a train late in the game. In the cramped confines of the cabin Sam is often completely unable to go into cover, resulting in frequent insta-deaths.
A smaller issue is that your equipped weapons change without your input about half the time you restart a checkpoint or die. There isn't a clear reason why the weapons change, but it's definitely annoying when you don't notice your non-lethal weapon has changed to a lethal one when you're tagetting a zero-kill playthrough. And finally, gadgets, while cool, just aren't that necessary. Oh, loading times are a bit of a pain too.
I'm a big Michael Ironside fan (he's awesome in Total Recall!) but for the first time in a Splinter Cell game he doesn't get to voice Sam Fisher in Blacklist. I can understand long-time fans feeling aggrieved by this, but to be honest the new guy (Eric Johnson) does a fine job in the role. All of the voice actors do a credible job actually, though nothing really stood out to me. The music builds the atmosphere well, but most of the time you won't even notice it as the sound effects are given precedence for the most part. The ambient effects such as enemies having a chat, and the ability to lure them with a whistle or quiet word return, and are put to good use.
I enjoyed my time with Splinter Cell Blacklist; it's polished and entertaining, and allows you to play a variety of ways from stealthy to all-out assault. Playing stealthily it reminded me a lot of Hitman Absolution, but with a more military flavor. There are a couple of small issues with the cover system, but outside of that Blacklist is a game well worth checking out if you're a fan of the genre.
Review By: Mike Allison