Sam Fisher’s adventures in Splinter Cell: Conviction left fans of the franchise divided. Some welcomed the more action orientated approach whilst others cursed the heavens above. Now Sam Fisher is back to save the world and win the hearts of gamers once more.
The story is one that has been told many times before. A small group of operatives are given carte blanche by the U.S. president to stop the bad guys and save the day. The writers have tried to work in some humour and plot twists which we will not discuss here to avoid spoilers, and overall the story serves its purpose of giving the player enough areas to sneak through.
The game features a central hub, the Paladin plane, where you can select missions, talk to other members of the team for upgrades and side missions and collect artwork of the missions and maps you play through. Whilst exploring the Paladin I could not help but think of Mass Effect. From the way
Shepard Fisher moves aboard the plane, to the look and feel of the interior, I continuously expected a Reaper attack. Luckily, this feeling quickly went away as I went through the missions.
While playing through the missions the level design makes it clear that Ubisoft has tried to cater to fans of more explosive action and those who wish to remain hidden. The maps provide enough cover and vertical possibilities to quickly switch between a frontal assault and stealthy take-downs. The only downside to some of the maps is that they can feel somewhat restricted with invisible walls, turning some missions into very linear adventures.
The linearity of some missions is balanced through the variety of environments and it does seem the developers have put in enough effort to prevent recyling environments. The best example of this are the Middle Eastern missions where the environments share plenty of similarities but still feel fresh. The option to pick the order in which you complete missions definitely helps in this regard as, for example, it is possible to handle a mission in Iraq and immediately follow that up with a mission in rainy London.
Another aspect the developers have clearly devoted time and effort to are the controls. Fans of the PC version will not be left frustrated with a console optimized lay-out. Most actions are performed using the Q, E, ALT, CTRL and spacebar keys and aiming with the mouse does not feel like trying to steer the International Space Station through a needle.
The actual gameplay itself revolves around three styles: Ghost, Panther and Assault. The Ghost style is for those players who want to sneak around without disturbing any enemies, Panther mixes action with stealth and Assault negates all stealth aspects of the game in favor of all-out warfare.
After each mission your monetary reward is based on the style you used during the mission with Ghost offering the highest rewards and the highest difficulty level. Sadly, the money you receive holds little value. Within the first 2 hours I had already unlocked most upgrades to the plane and completely customized Fisher. A slightly disappointing result of this is the fact that completely upgrading your goggles makes the game significantly easier with the addition of sonar and footstep tracing.
Although the majority of missions accommodate each style, there are missions that force players to not disturb any enemies or to eliminate all enemies and even some missions that require you to fight off waves of enemies. Although there are only few of these missions, they did feel rather unnecessary. Especially fighting off waves of enemies, which felt tiresome after the third wave.
The missions involving the main storyline are entertaining, but ultimately I found the side missions to be much more enjoyable. All missions can be completed with a co-op partner, though the side missions felt much more dynamic and really showed the game’s strengths with new paths and tactics every time you replay the mission. With games these days tacking on multiplayer and co-op options as an afterthought it was refreshing to see the developers have taken their time to implement it in a way that expands the game.
Graphically the game gets the job done. Running on a heavily modified version of the Unreal Engine, dubbed Lead Engine by Ubisoft, the lighting effects and shadows are great. On the other hand, explosions, reflections and other effects are not exactly on par with current industry standards. The same goes for physics, courtesy of the Havok Engine, leading to some erratic enemy behaviour such as bodies bouncing and enemies getting stuck on objects. Although not game breaking, these moments did break immersion for me.
At the end of the day, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is fantastic. Fisher has returned to his roots but also remains accessible to players who prefer more fast-paced action. Any odd A.I. behaviour and glitches are more than made up for by the excellent implementation of co-op and the level design is top notch overall. The only real issue we have with the game is the relative insignificance of money earned, which severely lowers the difficulty level at an early stage.
We ran into some issues with the Splinter Cell: Blacklist servers so sadly we were unable to fully experience Spies vs Mercs. Given the excellent co-op mode we do intend to follow up on this once the servers allow us to play it smoothly.