Super-spy Sam Fisher is back to save the day once again, but somehow things don’t feel the way they used to. It’s almost as if Sam is a completely different person than the one we met more than 10 years ago. He sounds different, acts different and even looks a bit different. But hey – people change. Consequently, Splinter Cell: Blacklist isn’t the Splinter Cell we got to know and, in my case, love. Blacklist is Splinter Cell for a new generation, one who likes to choose the way they play, be it with stealthy spy Sam or action hero Sam. This, however, doesn’t mean the game is significantly better or worse than its predecessors; It’s just (you guessed it) different.

Unlike the very personal story of Splinter Cell: Conviction, Blacklist isn’t all about Sam. He is but one character in a familiar plot of global terrorism, political conspiracies and military jargon (basically, everything Tom Clancy). Joining Sam is his team in Fourth Echelon: uber-professional handler Anna Grimsdottir, tech geek (and slight comic relief) Charlie Cole and former-CIA tough guy Isaac Briggs. The team, led of course by Fisher, is tasked with stopping a terrorist group, known as The Engineers, that targets the US and its troops overseas. It is the kind of story that starts off pretty predictable, and stays that way till the very end. However, it is the places you go and Sam’s frequently questionable actions that make Blacklist so immersive and thrilling.

The single-player campaign takes Sam and his team all around the world to real-world locations, each looks and plays differently than the last. Some have big open spaces filled with baddies, where cover is crucial for both combat and stealth, while others are cramped full of air ducts and pipes so you never have to get anywhere near an enemy. Thanks to some great level and visual design, it’s always clear where you need to go and what you need to do in each area. Every time Sam enters a new area, or receives new intel from Grimsdottir, big bright white letters appear in front of him, showing his next objective. These messages are always perfectly integrated into the environment itself, and never seem out of place. They feel more like Sam’s mental notes than a gameplay element directed at the player.

To get through the levels and reach the objectives, Blacklists offers the player three playstyles: Ghost, Predator and Assault. Naturally there are areas in a level that are more suited for a specific type of playstyle, but the choice is ultimately up to the player. You can choose whether you want to “ghost” through an area – sticking to non-lethal weapons or avoiding the guards altogether – or take a more direct approach with grenades, mines and automatic rifles. Blacklist rewards players for sticking to one playstyle through a mission, but the fact is, mixing between the styles is much more fun.

You see, Splinter Cell: Blacklist tries to have its cake and eat it too. It tries to please core fans of the franchise by keeping a stealth-centered gameplay (sometimes even forcing it on the player), while also appeal to newcomers who like shooting fancy guns from behind cover. This, of course, results in a game that’s neither a stealth game, nor an action game, so playing it like one or the other isn’t very fun… Sticking to stealth can become very frustrating at times, due to the small amount of feedback you get from the game. You only get a short notice before an enemy spots you, and thanks to clunky controls, it’s hard to disappear quickly into the shadows. Well, clunky might not be the right word for it – Sam is still very nimble for his age, and can climb on pipes and ledges, or slide between cover with one press of a button. Unfortunately, maneuvering Sam around cover can feel like driving a truck at times; controls are not as tight as they should be in a stealth game.

On the action side, well… Sam is no Robocop. He can take very little punishment, so engaging in an open gun fight isn’t the best course of action. The game does give you access to all types of cool guns, but you won’t get to use them all that much (unless they are suppressed). Some enemies wear helmets and other protective gear, so bullets don’t do as much damage as, say, an incendiary grenade. As with many stealth-based games, you should only fire a gun as a last resort, since it would most likely be the last action you take before reloading a checkpoint.

Still, once you find a good balance between stealth and combat, and customize Sam’s gear to perfectly match the way you play – the game starts to hit its stride. Gadgets are fun to utilize (especially the small drone Sam can use to scout the area ahead and zap enemies into unconsciousness), and the “mark and execute” mechanic is as satisfying and adrenaline-pumping as it was before.

One of the main reasons, at least for me, that Splinter Cell: Blacklist feels a little strange is the fact that Michael Ironside is no longer the voice if Sam. With all due respect to Eric Johnson, who does a great job at creating a serious and distant Sam, it’s just not the same without Ironside’s gravel-coated pipes. The rest of the cast does a credible job at giving a voice to their characters’ personality and expressing a real sense of urgency as things go from bad to worse.

When Sam isn’t out tracking down The Engineers all by himself, he can join Briggs in some co-op side missions. Most of those missions can be tackled solo if you feel like the lone wolf type, but it’s obvious they are designed to play with a friend. Some missions will see Fisher and Briggs fending off waves of enemies until extraction is possible, or “purging” an enemy complex of evil-doers, or just sneaking through a guarded installation to grab sensitive materials. Working together is not essential to complete the missions (since it’s possible to play alone), but the gameplay is so much better if you do. Clearing a room with a perfect synchronized execution is as close as you can get to feeling like true special ops operatives. Also, knowing there’s someone there to watch your back allows you to be more daring and have more fun. That’s, of course, if you have a good partner who compliments your playstyle and doesn’t just go gallivanting off on his own, getting himself killed.

But the ultimate “guns vs. stealth” test is the game’s multiplayer – specifically the Spies vs. Mercs mode. This asymmetric game mode pits two spies against two armed mercenaries. The objectives are pretty clear – the spies need to hack the designated terminals, while the mercs have to stop them. Playing a spy is a lot like playing classic Splinter Cell; sticking to the shadows, using gadgets and taking the enemy by surprise is the only way to gain the advantage. And if you think playing as a merc from the first-person perspective is a piece of cake – you are dead wrong (with an emphasis on “dead”). Your flashlight is hardly enough to illuminate the screen in front of you and paranoia soon sets in as you start seeing spies in every dark corner or jumping out of your skin every time your motion tracker beeps. It’s an intense mode for spy and merc alike, since you cannot carry over all the gadgets and weapons you unlocked in other modes. Your only advantage over the other players is knowledge – get familiar with the map and you’ll know exactly where to hide or strike.

The game offers a few more multiplayer modes where you do get to keep all your precious upgrades. Four-versus-four Team Deathmatch or three-versus-three Uplink modes allow teams to mix spies and mercs together, creating some great opportunities for clever strategies; using mercs to draw the enemy’s attention while spies flank in the shadows, for example. Still, they all feel pretty standard and uninteresting compared with Spies vs. Mercs.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a mix of classic Splinter Cell and something new, creating a well-produced experience with an interesting single-player campaign and fun multiplayer modes. The game’s inability to choose whether it wants to be a stealth game or an action game results in some frustrating moments, especially when confining the player to a certain playstyle. Still, it offers enough variety and intrigue to avoid my blacklist altogether.

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