Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
When the best stealth experiences this generation have come from first person games -take a bow Far Cry 3's machete and Dishonored- you have to wonder if grizzled vet Sam Fisher and Splinter Cell can still compete. Like any stealth master though, you don't even notice how good he is until you've been completely drawn in.
The so-so wrapping of this long-awaited return belies the high quality within though. Fans of TV’s 24/anything with terrorists will be able to spot the plot a mile off. A rogue ex-military group attempt to start World War III by threatening terrorist attacks on America if they don't pull all their troops from foreign countries. A few familiar faces from Sam's past turn up, but newbies can play the game without feeling they're missing important facts. Blacklist is a great standalone entry point to the series.
To be fair, on past form I wasn't expecting much story-wise. But the mission selection and briefing screens are miserably generic -lots of grids and grainy footage and global tabletop maps. I'm not sure why Battlefield, Call of Duty and Splinter Cell all want to set up missions the same way, but it's really boring the cock off me.
Thankfully, the game seriously pulls its socks up in most other departments. And yes, mission objectives still appear projected on the side of buildings in a fantastic stylish flourish continuing from the previous game.
Missions will take you around the world, with early ones doing some solid on-the-job training to get you used to skills -much better than training in a VR room (yes you, Revengeance). There's no denying seeing Sam sneak about in broad daylight somewhere in Someistan is bizarre and amusing. Who knows why he doesn't just wait until nightfall. It's probably because he wants to show off Ubisoft's awesome shadow effects.
The old shadow meter has been replaced with a green light that pops up on Sam's back to indicate he's in the dark. Thankfully, enemies overlook this glowing giveaway as they have his bright green tri-lens goggles over the years.
Blacklist is all about player freedom, giving you three different playstyles to tackle the game with. You're never locked into one type either, meaning you can change tactics on the fly, or mission to mission. Any encounters -or avoiding them- and objectives are rewarded with cash that can be used for upgrades, but more on those later.
‘Assault’ style is for when you want to go loud. Stealth is a dirty word to you. You're all about ditching the silencers and letting every guard know you've arrived with a shotgun to their face and a grenade to make sure.
Until you've bought loads of gear to make weapon handling smoother though, Blacklist isn’t the best-handling shooter on the market. But in all honesty, this isn’t the way you should play it. You can, but you shouldn't. Go play something that's designed from the ground up to be played balls-out, like Gears of War. But not Army of Two. Never that.
You'll get the most out this game by playing in the ‘Ghost’ or ‘Panther’ styles. Ghosts are players who don't want to disturb the stage. Ideally, they'll reach their objective without any guards even knowing they were there. If sneaking past every guard sounds like it takes forever, you're right, but it does feel satisfying.
Ghosts can knock out guards with stealth takedowns though, or with stun guns, sleeping gas and other non-lethal methods. However, if anyone discovers these dozing guards, they'll be on edge (but not red alert), leave the area without being seen or leaving any more evidence and you'll earn evasion points, which are related to the Panther style.
This last style is something you're likely to earn when the Ghost style doesn't go as smoothly as you'd like, but still under your control and reasonably quiet. Panther also rewards you for violent stealth. Swap your takedown options from knockout blows to vicious knifes to the neck and other artery-rich areas and the Panther points cash will flow. Silenced headshots are also richly rewarded. Essentially, kill everyone but don't raise any alarms. Well, until the cleaners come in the day after and demand a pay rise.
Gameplay and controls are keen to accommodate the varied approaches throughout the game. Moving into cover is handled via a tap of B. From here, you can look around for a new point to move to automatically with a tap of A. This is great for making sure you get into cover ahead without messing up. It's like an extended door switch move. The only issue I had was occasionally having to tweak the camera to a very minute angle to get the transfer prompt to appear.
The controversial Mark and Execute technique is something of a get out jail card or lazy shortcut, but it’s also entirely optional. The toughest setting removes it for you purists out there. This technique allows you to tag up to three targets (after filling a meter with stealth points first) from cover before tapping Y to have Sam rise and pop off three shots. These could be lethal headshots or three stun-gun takedowns. You can also do it on the move if you want to look a bit flashy. It does feel a bit cheaty using it to be honest if you’re going for Ghost or Panther styles, but again, the game isn’t forcing you to use it.
Cash funds upgrades of any discipline's weapons, outfits and gadgets. The options are absorbingly extensive. You never feel like you're cutting off options for a change of heart later on in the game. So, if you've been buying Ghost-style weapons, but you've decided that you may as well start putting a few of these terrorists in graves rather than the nurse's office at camp bomb-a-hospital, you’re free to make that switch.
Ubisoft promised depth and options and they've delivered. Not just in how you equip Sam or take on enemies. The stages themselves are excellent. They may be in the usual locations -mud hut village in the Middle East, docks in England, chemical facilities and offices- but you're spoilt for choices on routes and options.
Even if there's a rough A-B line, there are underground tunnels, pipes to climb, ledges to shuffle on and tents to slice through. With so many routes available, replay value is very high. Be prepared for harrowing self-punishment when attempting pure stealth runs on return journeys.
You will get annoyed though. Some of the checkpoints are a bit long, which will hurt stealth purists keen to reload the last checkpoint every time they raise the alarm. But as you improve, you may find that you're enjoying the challenge. You'll earn more cash for playing quietly, but it's the inner-satisfaction that feels like the best reward. I know what you're thinking, but no, I'm not a fan of the likes of Dark Souls.
Enemies are reasonably smart and most certainly deadly in open combat, but are prone to your vast array of tactics. If they open fire on your position, it’s easy to manoeuvre around and flank them, as they’ll focus on your last known position. They can also be drawn in by whistling or setting up a noisy sticky camera, making stealthy takedowns much easier. It’s a good idea to pack lots of gadgets.
Extra cash can be earned in side missions, many of which result in instant failure if guards raise the alarm, which old-school series fans will enjoy. Additional money is rewarded for finding intel during stages and by hitting milestones with various gadgets or weapons. If you really want to earn some money though, get involved with the multiplayer.
Split-screen or online two player co-op is an absolute blast in Blacklist. Some stages have been specifically designed for two players, while others can be attempted solo as side-missions. We’d advise taking a friend though as many of them are instant-fails if you’re spotted. I was heart-broken after getting all the way through a stage in pure Ghost fashion only to be seen inches from extraction. I killed everyone upon reloading.
These missions involve clearing enemies from multiple areas, usually as quietly as possible and others may involve hacking terminals and other routine tasks. Distracting guards with two players is a lot of fun and can be such a fluid experience if you team up with a like-minded player. Headset communications are advisable, but by no means essential. We’ll be keeping an eye on this mode as Ubisoft are bound to have more missions lined up the DLC pipeline.
In addition to co-op, series fans will be happy to see the return of Spies Vs Mercs. This 4-8 player mode pits Fisher-like spies against armoured soldiers. The spies have to hack terminals in traditional third-person view while merc players have to defend them from an FPS viewpoint.
Spies are able to climb around with the skills you’re used to from the main game, while the mercs handle like a chunky FPS. Both sides’ strengths and weaknesses are supposed to balance for intense games, but I found that the mercs generally win thanks to their stronger weaponry and enhanced armour, meaning most two round matches can end in a stalemate. However, skilled spy players with expensive upgrades will be able to dominate the mercs. But for the most part, it’s much easier to prevail as the mercs as all they have to do is kill any spies that are in the area of the terminal currently being hacked. Annoyingly, spies can only attempt to hack one of the three terminals at once, making it very difficult to divide the merc forces.
Upgradable loadouts for both sides make it worth sticking with though. This mode can be played 4x4 or in the classic 2x2, which is arguably the more intense version. Additional modes include extraction (steal/save the intel) and team deathmatch. TDM has mixed spy/merc teams making it sometimes difficult to know who is on your side until it’s too late, plus a lot of the predatory feel from regular Spies vs Mercs is lost.
As far as the co-op and Spy Vs Mercs modes go though, they’re essential online gaming. Having your cash winnings usable in the single-player game is a great decision from Ubi too, as it encourages you to dip in and out of multiplayer or co-op frequently to fund some cool new toys. And there are so many toys for you out there, whether you want to drift through like a Ghost, stalk your prey like a Panther or light up a cigar for full-on Assault.
- Many routes through levels
- A genuine freedom to how you take on enemies
- Multiplayer is excellent, especially the co-op
- Forgettable story
- Some checkpoints are cruel
- Mercs have the upper hand in most SvsM games online
The Short Version: Ubisoft promised us they knew what they were doing and hats off to them, they really did. Blacklist could well be the series highlight thanks to the huge amount of options you have at your disposal. Stages feature multiple routes and enemies can be engaged or ignored as you please. Co-op means you’ll be playing long after finishing the story and fan-favourite Spies Vs Mercs could become loved by more players than ever before. Good to have you back Sam.