Sam Fisher is different nowadays. His gruff voice has smoothed, and he's not always keen to stick to the shadows. Sam isn't worse for the wear, but he isn't always the man you remember. Nor, for that matter, is Splinter Cell.
Just as Splinter Cell: Conviction represented a metamorphosis for the stealth series, so too does Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Blacklist nudges Sam further into action-hero territory; where Conviction's story was personal, Blacklist's narrative is about what Sam does, not who he is. As in its predecessor, your mission goals appear as text projected into the environment, but that text no longer reflects Sam's state of mind. Blacklist is all business, and the Tom Clancy-inspired, jargon-heavy dialogue of its early hours reflects as much.
The boilerplate story focuses on a group of terrorists seeking to annihilate a series of targets in the United States, though the overfamiliarity of the setup is frequently trumped by tense story beats that rival those of any good political thriller. A confrontation between Sam and a colleague signals an overall increase in narrative tension, and the real-world locales you sneak through communicate the high stakes by the very nature of their political importance. Returning operations manager Anna Grimsdottir rattles off technospeak at a faster clip, resident hacker Charlie Cole gets even more annoyingly precocious and hyper, and the secretive Fourth Echelon team grows more and more desperate as the finale draws near. This isn't a story about Sam, but rather, a story about surreptitious warfare. Information is power.
Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that Sam Fisher's presence isn't as commanding as it's been in the past, in part due to the replacement of longtime Fisher actor Michael Ironside. New actor Eric Johnson does a creditable job as Sam, though he doesn't possess Ironside's gravel-throated urgency. Nevertheless, the entire cast effectively communicates Fourth Echelon's calm-under-fire efficiency, as does Blacklist in general. Snazzy digital displays and computer terminals fill out the group's airborne headquarters, the Paladin, and each mission begins with the camera rotating into position above the base's main map before zooming into it. It's a fitting transition into a gadget-filled escapade across a dreary rain-drenched rooftop, or through a heavily guarded trainyard.
You need to get used to Sam's new digs; everything you do in Blacklist is performed there, from upgrading your gear to initiating multiplayer. Rather than accessing menus, you explore the aircraft and speak to your comrades, making the Paladin as much your interface as it is Sam's. The entire scheme feels unnecessarily convoluted and disjointed at first, and the game doesn't do a very good job of introducing you to its structure, though curiosity (and a bit of trial and error) should get you up to speed. But the player-as-Sam logic soon clicks into place, giving even the stand-alone cooperative missions context within Blacklist's fiction, rather than treating them as distinct and unrelated tasks.
If you played Conviction, you'll know at least some of the drill: as Sam, you slide in and out of cover, sticking to darkness and skillfully taking down opponents in various satisfying ways, or just avoiding them entirely as you make your way toward your high-priority target. The cover system is as rewardingly smooth as it was before, making you feel like a slippery agent of death as you dash into position, often with the press of a single button. In fact, Sam is more acrobatic in this go-around, getting a few chances to climb up cliffs as if he's taken lessons from Assassin's Creed's Altair. Blacklist is as eager to reintroduce older Splinter Cell mechanics as it is to showcase new ones, however. Sam is back to his nonlethal pre-Conviction methods--that is, if you want him to be. You can knock out targets with your fists or a stun gun if you're so inclined, or put them to sleep by tossing a sleep-inducing grenade, though you can't complete Blacklist's campaign without getting your hands a little dirty. You can pick up bodies and dump them elsewhere, too, which might also make you think that Blacklist is a return to the series' roots.
However, Blacklist doesn't feel much like Chaos Theory and its ilk, even when it's giving you the tools to be the silent type. Actually, it often urges you to be silent, instantly failing the mission if you're caught, or pitting you against heavily armored guards that are best dispatched from the shadows or circumvented entirely. But if you aspire to action-hero heights, look no further than the invigorating mark-and-execute feature, which lets you tag enemies and then execute them in a slow-motion flourish with a tap of a button. Now you can pull off such maneuvers on the run, taking down enemies with close-quarters kills (or perhaps dealing a headshot) and firing a bullet into a few other nearby skulls, or even snapping a neck or two if your targets are a hair's width from you.
Pulling off a succession of kills in this manner is a blast, but it isn't required, and the nature of Blacklist's ever-varying level design and mission requirements makes it an infrequent pleasure. Blacklist's best levels are highly structured, intricate melanges of ventilation shafts, rooftops, cover-adorned streets, and interior cubicles that allow you to shimmy and slink around, paying careful attention to each guard's behavior and putting your array of devices to the test.
One such device is a drone that you remotely pilot, marking terrorists and taking them down with a dart. Other gadgets are familiar ones: sticky cameras, remote noisemakers, and so forth. The most interesting situations encourage experimentation, giving you a reason to try out your gadgets and guns, testing the limits of the AI, which often (but not always) displays real smarts. A patrolling guard might remark on how a previously closed door is now open and come to investigate, or quickly pirouette as he passes a darkened cubbyhole that could serve as a predator's prime hiding spot. Keeping a vulnerable Sam out of harm's way in these scenarios is enjoyably tense, though some missions are easy to accomplish on medium difficulty. On harder difficulty levels, most missions are arduous and gripping, and two episodes--one in which you must work under a time limit, and one in which you tail an unlikely ally--crank up the drama even further.
Not every scenario produces such intensity, however, and missions progress erratically whenever they're bent to fit riveting narrative events. Top-down sniping sequences dull the sheen, as does one mission that has you taking down a series of gunners while their attention is fully diverted. In one sequence, a group of intruders may fail to enter a room when they are meant to, the thrill of crashing through a window turning into a bizarre ambush resulting from a breaking script. The final showdown fizzles as well, falling back on an action-game cliche instead of giving Sam (and the player) the triumph he deserves. When Blacklist imposes restrictions or new rules, it loses momentum and focus; it's when you are given full use of your toolbox, and a carefully constructed playground, that it soars.
In spite of its similarities to Conviction, Blacklist pulls away from its predecessor in notable ways. The screen no longer washes out when Sam is hidden; instead, the lights on his suit indicate when you are safely cloaked in darkness. There are no more interactive interrogations, either, nor are there any noteworthy environmental kills in the way of Conviction's chandelier assassination. Thankfully, Blacklist retains the previous game's excellent cooperative play, bringing two players together and allowing them to take down waves of enemies, collect information without raising an alarm, and act as each other's guardian angel when the mission feels all but hopeless.
It's with other players that Blacklist comes into its own, centered as its cooperative maps are on careful and intelligent progression rather than scripted action-movie events. Some co-op tasks have you collecting data without grabbing the attention of the sentries that walk the hallways, the snipers that aim their laser sights in your direction, and the dogs that sniff out your hiding spot. There are opportunities to revel in your own cleverness, such as when your buddy peeks under a door and clicks his tongue, grabbing the hound's attention so that you can sneak in a different doorway and make your way to the rooftop helipad above. Your heart pounds when you hear the warble that indicates a guard is onto you, and then exults when you avoid alerting him--or breaks when the mission is aborted.
Your foes don't follow the same patterns each time you play a mission, so it's rewarding to return to cooperative maps time and time again; you can even play many of them on your own if you'd rather. Communication is key when playing with others, whether you seek to avoid raising an alert, or are out to take down progressively more challenging waves of inquisitive gunners. Your earnings are also key, seeing as how you purchase upgrades (a minimap, quieter boots) and gizmos (proximity mines, suppressed submachine guns) with funds you earn by playing the game. Your progress is persistent across all modes, so no matter how you play, you're earning moola.
That moola is also spent on enhancements and weapons for Splinter Cell: Blacklist's excellent competitive modes. Pandora Tomorrow introduced the beloved Spies vs. Mercs mode, which pitted a team of two slinking spies against a team of two gunners that play in a first-person perspective. As Pandora Tomorrow/Chaos Theory fans might tell you, there's nothing quite like this asymmetric competition, and Blacklist gives you a classic version of the mode in which persistent upgrades are ignored and you rely only on your wits--and your knowledge of the map.
You'd think that playing Blacklist as if it were a first-person shooter might be less intense than staying undercover, but the looming threat of a silent killer is always weighing on you. The way your flashlight partially illuminates the darkness while you walk and lowers when you sprint enhances the fear of assassination, as do ominous sound effects, such as the bleep that rings out when your Aliens-esque motion tracker detects a nearby intruder. The spies are out to hack designated terminals; the mercs must gun down the perpetrator responsible for the hack. The setup gives rise to knuckle-biting standoffs in which mercs light up the shadows, looking for a secretive spy unwilling to be gunned down while the hack progresses. When one round is over, the roles switch, and the players soon discover who's got the skills to call themselves master operatives.
Blacklist offers more than classic Spies vs. Mercs, however, and several other modes allow you to equip your hard-earned upgrades and exercise your cunning with more than three other players. Two of them even let you mix spies and mercs into the same team: four-versus-four Team Deathmatch and a conquest-type three-versus-three variant called Uplink Control. Mixed teams can give rise to thrilling moments, with a merc chasing an enemy spy into an ambush, or a mine turning a careful plan into a messy explosion. Spies vs. Mercs still stands above the rest, however; watching the countdown as the hack progresses is a stressful endeavor, whether you're seeking the pesky hacker causing the trouble, or trying to get the drop on a merc packing an AK-47.
There's no doubting Splinter Cell: Blacklist's excellent production values. It's a great-looking, great-sounding game that sizzles with the high-tech ambience and language that characterize a typical Tom Clancy product. Sam's solo trek is a very good expression of Blacklist's various gameplay systems. But it's with--and against--others that the game hacks into your pleasure centers, so while Sam Fisher may not be the man you remember, Splinter Cell: Blacklist has too many sweet adventures in store for you to miss them.