Splinter Cell is one of those series that suffers through repetition. There are so many of the buggers, the most recent being the borderline-psychotic Conviction, that only the die-hard keep track, and to everyone else it's one amorphous blob of banjo-legged throat-slitting. But Blacklist is far more than a production-line piece of gristle. It's not merely an exemplary slice of, forgive the oxymoron, action-stealth – but also contains the best Aliens game in years.
No you didn't misread that, so hit the jump and find out why.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a game that wants to be described as 'badass', but fortunately it also comes with some excellent customisation options. You know Sam Fisher's little goggle lights? You can make those pink. And give the body a swanky navy finish. Blacklist's scenario is yer average 24-aping Man Saves America setup – so something about snapping all those foreign necks while glowing like a fairy tree just tickles me pink.
Blacklist needs one rather obvious housekeeping notice: if you're at all tempted by this, get it on Steam. I've been playing on uPlay and it's a monster; the first time I booted it up, Blacklist spent fifteen minutes downloading and then around the same installing some release fixes. OK, I'll give you that one. The second time, it did the same sorting out version 1.1. The third, it merrily began work on version 1.2. All over two days. Ubisoft need to fix this shit, because it's awful.
The rest of Blacklist is great! And one of its neatest tricks is integrating singleplayer, co-op and multiplayer into Fisher's gigantic new proxy-wang, the Paladin – a plane that hosts himself and crew between missions, with a central map of future options alongside annexes where you fiddle with loadouts and upgrades. If you want to be a cynic then yes, it's basically a very fancy menu, but the way it continually updates with data and integrates all of Fisher's options gets me hot.
Blacklist's campaign is a bit of a reverse-ferret from Conviction – for those who missed it, the latter's idea of espionage was smashing heads into solid objects, plus the odd bit of hiding while enemies snarled WE'RE GONNA GUT YA DANGLIES FISHER. Then you'd smash their heads in. Blacklist returns to the more classic spy theme of hiding in the dark, and builds its gadgets and rewards around three styles of play – Ghost, which means you're Mr Sneako Unseen; Panther, which means hiding but also killing enemies; and Assault, for cigar-chomping types who don't see why they're hiding from these commie assholes anyway.
I'm not one of those elitist types who insists every game has to be played on Hard (or 'Realism' in this case), but Blacklist is definitely one of those singleplayer experiences at its best when the enemies aren't wearing blinkers – on Normal, unless you're literally playing the mariachi in broad daylight, the baddies are just a tad too slow on the uptake.
It's rewarding playing like this because the beauty of Sam Fisher as an avatar isn't in the truly impressive range of toys he has, though they're fun, but in his lithe mastery of environments – from silent, staccato movements along cramped corridors to fluid clambering around more open arenas. Blacklist is a linear game, of course, but within this it's rarely guilty of being a straightforward one; there's always more than one way to skin these cats.
The best thing about these environments, and this is a thread that runs through the other modes, is the shadow. Pools of darkness come to feel like home before long, with light sources begging to be shot out or shut down, and this plays off beautifully against the enemies' gun-mounted flashlights – which, particularly when they know you're in the area, begin to sweep across the black in flittering, deadly patterns. When you're guiding Fisher through a brightly-lit area it feels horrible, exposed, like someone's flicked on your bedroom light at 6am.
I didn't go into Blacklist's campaign expecting much, to be honest, and I left impressed. Sure the story's Clancyballs but, as far as super-serious spy thrillers go, it cracks along at a fair old pace with more than a few digs at and echoes of current geopolitics. There are foibles: the cover mechanic can be a little sticky, which sounds like a bigger deal than it is in practice, and it's often fond of ending levels with set-pieces that rather ruin the effect of all your previous sneaky-sneaktime. But as far as Splinter Cell games go, this is probably the best I've played in a decade of 'em.
The surprising thing is that it also includes – hold on to your hats – the best Alien game of recent times too. The Spies vs Mercs multiplayer mode, removed from Conviction, makes a truly triumphant return here and is amazing thanks to, of all things, mixing in a firstperson perspective with standard thirdperson play.
How it works: an area has terminals A, B and C. Two spies want to hack those terminals, but only one can be hacked at a time. Two Mercs want to stop this with big guns. The spies are controlled in thirdperson and work just like Fisher – they can clamber all over the place, have various gadgets that can stun or disorient the Mercs, and up-close or from certain vantage points can perform an instant kill. When one starts a hack, they have to stay within a reasonably-sized boundary and wait it out for just over a minute; but the Mercs are instantly alerted and start rushing to the scene.
The Mercs are controlled in firstperson and move slower than the Spies – lumbering is the word, though they can sprint. What is immediately obvious when playing, and perhaps isn't when reading about it, is how much this limits your field of view compared to the thirdperson perspective. You've got a motion sensor to help. You've got all the hardware you need to kill anything in plain sight. And you're looking at a narrow sliver of a level, illuminated brightly by your gun-mounted torch, and around is naught but dark and the sound of scuttling.
Playing as a Spy you feel vulnerable. They can't take much damage, and if a Merc sees you the chances are it's respawn time. But playing as a Merc is terrifying. You and your buddy stick together, sweeping rooms with the torch beams and watching each other's backs, but as soon as that hack starts you've both got to hightail it to that part of the level – and in that room you both know, with absolute certainty, there's an ambush waiting.
Should you split up and sweep the room faster? It seems like a good idea, and then a few seconds later your mate shouts out. You run back only to see his corpse and... nothing. Your motion detector beeps – there's something up ahead and to the left. You step forwards, licking your lips with nerves, and the knife slides between your shoulderblades.
This 2vs2 mode, Spies Vs Mercs Classic, is the greatest! I love it, and though the Alien comparison might not make much sense it's exactly what this feels like. You do kinda need a friend with Blacklist and to be using voicechat to get the best experience, but come on. It has one minor problem which needs patching: I had a few games against very high level players who'd memorised every spawning position and indulged in some douchebaggery. That was the exception rather than the rule, but unless the spawns are further randomised it'll only become more common.
Blacklist has other multiplayer modes, which I've dabbled in, but the 4vs4 Spies Vs Mercs mode seemed much more incoherent and blasty – which is down to not only the increased headcount but high-powered custom loadouts (Classic has a fixed setup). There are also a load of campaign missions that can be played in co-op – some of which can only be played in co-op – and, while I'd love to pretend I've played all of these, me and my buddy got halfway through the first wave-based challenge then decided to play some more Spies Vs Mercs Classic. No regrets.
Spies Vs Mercs is properly amazing, and the cherry on top of a great package. I've always enjoyed the odd Splinter Cell game, whilst never quite having a poster of Sam Fisher on the wall, but Blacklist is one of the most pleasant gaming surprises of the year.
And one tiny thing to finish off with, which kind of ties in to Sam's goggles – Splinter Cell is a po-faced world, but that doesn't Blacklist is without humour. There's an early campaign mission where you creep into a building via the roof, on hostage rescue duty, and end up on a gantry overlooking a bunch of terrorists. You make a mental note of the flashlight positions, then find a pipe and silently slide down.
At ground level there's candystripe, hot-dog-stands, and bunting strewn all around. Sam moves through the darkness towards his targets, those pink goggles flare, and the infectiously jolly christmas song in the background gets ever-louder. “We can hardly see the top, Daddy's axe goes chop-chop-chop...” It's about a tree, of course, but you can't help cracking a smile. These guys are toast. And those hostages, just like you, are in very safe hands.
Splinter Cell Blacklist is out now.