The Splinter Cell series has gone through a bit of a rough patch lately. Caught up in the wave of post-Call Of Duty homogenization that resulted in the creation (and quick consignment to gaming’s dustbin) of reboots like Syndicate and Medal of Honour, and just recently The Bureau: Xcom Whatever, 2010’s Splinter Cell Conviction swapped out slow, methodical stealth for co-op, stylish action and darker, “grittier” storytelling – in other words, the garish red sports cars of a video game franchise’s mid-life crisis. I quite liked Conviction, utterly nonsensical story aside, but most Splinter Cell fans balked at the change in direction. This left the future of the franchise uncertain- would Ubisoft Montreal stick to their guns and continue the series that Conviction was clearly intended to launch, or back pedal to appease the cries of their fanbase?
As it turns out they opted to do both, resulting in a half-hearted game that doesn’t feel like it has any reason to exist. Factor in enough storytelling cliches to fill a library of cheap paperbacks and a deeply unpleasant streak of virulent American jingoism and I’m starting to think it might be time to put this franchise to bed.
Rather than present us with part two of Conviction’s idiotic conspiracy plot, Blacklist starts off a whole new idiotic conspiracy plot. While ostensibly still taking place in the same continuity as Conviction and the previous Splinter Cell games (indicated by having people snark at each other vaguely about things that happened in the past and bringing back Conviction’s most annoying character), Blacklist may as well be a total reboot that picks up the dominoes Conviction knocked over and sets them back up in an arrangement more or less identical to the series’ status quo. Sam Fisher is once again a badass techno-ninja working for the American government, this time flying around on a giant plane to hot-spots all over the globe.
The story kicks off with a massive attack on an American military base in Guam. The perpetrators of the attack, a highly organized terrorist group calling itself the Engineers, publicly release a “blacklist” of further attacks due to hit American soil once every week if their demands aren’t met. What are those demands? Nuclear weapons? The capitulation of the US government in favor of a totalitarian regime? 1 million dollars? No, it’s the immediate withdrawal of US soldiers from global military bases.
This is the first big flaw in Blacklist’s story. Trying to blow up cities may be morally indefensible but it’s hard not to see the Engineer’s demands as reasonable. At several points the game comes tantalizingly close to engaging with this only to veer off into po-faced hoo-rah patriotism at the last moment. The fact that the characters never really discuss the motives of their enemies, even just to try and refute the Engineer’s rhetoric or offer some evidence of the necessity of those American bases, prompts me to view them as basically having no problem with being cast as agents of US imperialism violently propping up a worldwide hegemony. When accused of being a fascist puppet, Sam Fisher’s response is to keep beating and shooting people until the problem goes away.
This is particularly true given the game’s embracing of tastelessly grimdark tropes that stories like this are apparently now required to employ. Drones and illegal hacking are thrown into the mix like chocolate chips with nary a word spoken of the on-going real world impact these controversial methods have had, and of course our hero uses “enhanced interrogation” techniques on numerous people because in 2013 torture is the purview of heroic American patriots and not a dirty secret to be ashamed of or beg forgiveness for. At one point you convince a foreign general to help you by threatening to blow up his wife and children with a drone. Don’t worry though, it was just a bluff! Oh those wily Fourth Echelon rascals, glibly leveraging fear of real-world American atrocities that are occurring even as we speak. I can’t say it came as any great surprise when the game eventually tasked me with sneaking into Guantanamo Bay to torture a prisoner for information (yes, really). Many games have unthinkingly veered into distasteful territory in a misguided attempt to imbue themselves with relevancy, but Splinter Cell Blacklist is the first one that asked me to virtually collude in human rights abuses.
As sickening as this might all be, it was originally going to be much worse. When Blacklist was originally announced at E3 2012 the gameplay demo included an interactive torture scene in which the player jams a knife into a man’s chest and twists it with the analogue stick to get information out of him, a scene that was harshly criticized in some quarters of the press. Wisely, Ubisoft quickly decided to remove the scene in question, although frankly the fact that they were comfortable enough with it to flaunt it at the world’s largest video game convention already has me looking at them askance.
I was momentarily heartened at a sub-plot that has Fisher trying to stop a blood-thirsty American public from railroading the county into war with Iran by gathering intelligence absolving them of involvement with the blacklist, but of course Iran is still defined solely by the burning fury with which it hates America (and why might that be? shhhh) and you still get to shoot and stab your way through scores of Iranian special forces soldiers and blow up several army jeeps with a drone, a move that I think would probably make the whole “not starting a war” thing pretty moot. Blacklist similarly tries to have its cake and eat it when it comes to the motivations and identity of the Engineers themselves. They’ve got bases in Iraq and their leadership seems to consist entirely of shifty eyed middle eastern dudes, yet any mention of Islam or a political agenda specifically connected to the Middle East as opposed to just anti-American sentiment in general is carefully avoided, and most of the Engineer foot soldiers who improbably manage to set up heavily armed militia groups in the middle of crowded cities are just random guys from whatever local area you happen to be in. Near the end of the game the Engineer leader- a former MI-6 operative named Mahjid Sadiq who defected to set up the Engineers for reasons that are never explained – boasts that he has the support of “twelve nations” whose identities are never elaborated on except to confirm that Iran isn’t one of them. It’s as if Ubisoft realized that making a game about middle eastern sleeper cells infiltrating western society and waiting to erupt in a fiesta of violence at a moment’s notice may not be the best PR move and tried to change them to a global coalition of disgruntled anti-US rebels so no one could accuse them of being xenophobic shit heads. Well, I’m accusing them of that because the whitewash isn’t nearly enough to fool anyone.
Wait, this is starting to sound oddly familiar…….
This suggests that someone at Ubisoft realized what they were about to unleash on the world and did a quick pallet swap to try and avoid potential controversy.
In fact, if you remove all of the random nameless soldiers – in other words, the guys put in to make this a video game instead of a movie – you’re left with an organization of terrorists composed entirely of men either literally from the middle east or descended from people who are. Why that’s an odd coincidence, isn’t it?
Maybe this won’t bother you. Maybe you’re a right-wing military tech fetishist who gets a raging erection from words like “sitrep” and “exfil”. But Blacklist’s plot isn’t just abhorrent, it’s also bad by any measure of quality. The Call Of Duty method of story telling- string a bunch of random levels and locations together by having the characters pull information out of their asses during cut scenes and loading screens- is in full effect here, with a strong premise that quickly devolves into globe-trotting incoherence, each new level seemingly designed to look cool rather than fit into the plot in any way. Toward the end of the game the developers either ran out of time or gave up as the villain’s grand terrorist scheme abruptly switches focus toa sub-Bondian geopolitical caper. During the last level I literally had trouble understanding why any of the characters were doing any of the things they were doing, or even who I was fighting. Given all of this it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the final boss fight is an anticlimactic quick time event, followed by a cut scene that may as well just have been the old “a winner is you” screen, followed by an even more disappointing post-credits scene so pointless I feel angry on behalf of whatever restaurant owner the developers cheated out of profit by putting it in instead of spending the money getting lunch.
The characters that populate this drama certainly don’t help. Returning from the earlier games are Anna Grimsdottir and a version of Sam Fisher who looks as though he’s dying of cancer for some reason, who between them would struggle to fill half a thimble with personality. The newcomers are Briggs, who manages to somehow be even blander than Fisher, and Charlie, a particularly irritating version of the Zuckerbergian Cool Nerd stereotype. Ubisoft appears to have not wanted me to like any of them, given that they spend a good 70% of the game snarling at each other. The other 30% is split between nonsensical military chatter and painful attempts at comedy. I’d hesitate to say that Sam Fisher was ever one of the great memorable game characters, but he had a certain gruff personality to him, helped by Micheal Ironside’s gravelly voice work. This time around Ubisoft Montreal decided to jettison Ironside and draft in the esteemed talent of Some Guy, a move that proves disastrous as Guy sounds about 30 years too young for the role and sleep-walks through most of his lines when he isn’t doing an impersonation of Christian Bale’s Batman.
For its gameplay Blacklist tries to merge Conviction’s stealth-action with the classic Splinter Cell sneaky-sneaks, an approach that works out less like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and more like just ramming two square pegs together in the hope you’ll get something usable out of it. In theory the game encourages you to play any way you want, rewarding money for three different play-styles conforming to either pure stealth, pure action or Conviction’s blend of the two. In practice it doesn’t quite work out like that. Levels appear to be large and sprawling to allow for multiple different play styles a la Dishonored but there’s usually one clearly optimal stealth route with another area stuffed full of bad guys for players who want to shoot their way through. You won’t want to do this, as without significant upgrades Sam keels over dead if enemies so much as cast a shadow on him and his guns are all hilariously pathetic in a straight fight. Yet the stealth approach suffers from the opposite problem of being too easy. The improved agility and Mark and Execute mechanics that have been ported over from Conviction add a pleasing sense of fluidity to sneaking around levels and shooting dudes in the head but they also make you far too powerful, rendering Sam’s inventory of stealth gadgets almost completely unnecessary. On all but the highest difficulty Sam can instantly knock enemies unconscious seemingly just by placing his hand in the vicinity of their face, a move that works even from the front on enemies who’ve seen you and have their gun aimed at your head. If you have good timing you can literally sprint around some levels knocking everyone out with your super vulcan face rub, or just crouch behind cover until they inevitably wander over to you. In one late level I hung from a ceiling pipe and repeatedly dive bombed enemies who came one by one to investigate the rapidly growing slumber-pile accumulating directly beneath me until I had cleared an entire area. If all else fails you can just deploy the tri-rotor, a ludicrously over-powered miniature drone that can fly around levels and zap enemies with stun darts.
The illusion of choice is also frequently broken by the game just straight-up forcing you to play either pure stealth or pure action, including two jarringly out of place first person shooter sections. This really contributes to the impression that Ubisoft just didn’t know what direction they wanted to take with the game and decided to throw in as many ideas as possible in the hope that one of them would stick. Occasionally they appear to have grown tired of ideas like “stealth” and “gameplay” and shoehorn in barely-interactive action set pieces like shooting jeeps with a drone (gotta chase those sweet Call of Duty dollars) or moving very slowly through a rapidly-descending hacked plane (you can hack god damn fucking everything in this game- I half expected the story to end with the heroes firing a USB stick into Sadiq’s ear canal and hacking his brain to induce a heart attack).
To be fair to Blacklist, not every level has this sense of disjointed incoherence. A few sections of the game, usually those that go for straight-up sneaking around in the darkness stealth gameplay, manage to feel well designed, but they do so only by removing the illusion of choice that the rest of the game indulges in. It must also be said that there’s a lot of content here for people who find the game appealing, including a wealth of co-op or single player side missions that, from what I played at least, feel much close to the classic Splinter Cell atmosphere that the main game often lacks.
I also have to talk about Blacklist’s multiplayer, the “Spies vs Mercs” mode that was a big fan favourite in earlier entries of the franchise. The genius of this is that it pits spies, who are played in the normal third person viewpoint, against mercenaries who who are confined to a deliberately slow and clunky first-person view, thus elegantly solving the problem of how to make stealth viable in a multiplayer game. I didn’t get a chance to try co-op but if it’s anything like Conviction’s it’s probably a pretty fun time. Whether or not this extra content justifies buying the game and just skipping the main story mode is up to you; I rented my copy and focused mainly on finishing the single player mode in the short amount of time I had available. Everything, including multiplayer, is accessed from the same in-universe interface in Fourth Echelon’s giant spy plane and some of the side content is unlocked by talking to NPCs, a few of whom only become available after beating certain missions, but it doesn’t seem as though you’d have to play much of the single player to get access to everything.
But ultimately I played Blacklist for the main story mode, and I can’t view it as anything other than a disappointment. It’s a game with no identity or unifying design philosophy of its own, a game where half the levels feel as though they were lifted from popular shooters of the last five years and where even the graphical style appears to have been tailored to ape Battlefield 3 as much as possible. I get the feeling Blacklist was made just so Ubisoft could have a geopolitical ‘murica-centric game on its 2013 earnings report, that if you looked at the whiteboards from early design meetings you’d see phrases like “middle eastern bad guy” and “green laser-maps that the camera zooms in on during loading screens” and not a whole lot else. Having been tasked with continuing the franchise, the developers don’t appear to have gone about it with any great level of enthusiasm, simply grabbing random bits and pieces of earlier games and shoving them in a bag with worn-out FPS tropes and Call of Duty-esque trappings. The result is a game that very occasionally turns into something entertaining but is for the most part a joyless, dour, nasty hodge podge of half-baked ideas.