Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist ReviewGuest_Jim_* - September 3, 2013
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I have little experience with stealth-based games and this is my first Splinter Cell game, so when I was playing the first mission, making mistakes and restarting at checkpoints, I expected that I was going to be taking much longer than the par time. When that scoring information came up though, I had actually finished the level with a spare 13 minutes for the time bonus to award me for! This makes me wonder about the nature of that time bonus and if it compares you to a par time, or if it is just another thing to give you points for.
Regardless of the time bonus, this experience does help describe the design of Blacklist's missions. Even someone inexperienced at this specific kind of gameplay is able to jump in and play well. Perhaps I am not playing as well as a franchise veteran, but well enough to get the missions done with good scores, and those scores are valuable.
Scoring is based on criteria under three different categories; Ghost, Panther, and Assault. Ghost criteria includes how many enemies you evaded without disturbing them, while Assault, the opposite of Ghost, counts up your combat kills. Panther is in between as it considers how many enemies you take out silently. Just running through a level normally, you will likely score points in each category, but if you are patient and pay attention, you should be able to achieve a perfect score in one category. I in fact did achieve this with a side mission by achieving the maximum Ghost score for it.
As you would hope for many stealth games, you are able to customize your loadout to best fit your gameplay style, as well as the mission requirements. You always have a pistol at your side, but you also have an alternate weapon, such as an assault rifle, shotgun, or sniper rifle at your disposal. Completing missions awards you money based on your score, which you can invest into new, more powerful weapons, upgrades for your current weapons, and/or upgrades for the Paladin aircraft. At first it seemed like getting hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single mission was excessive, but the cost of these purchases, and the number of them make those six-digit numbers seem quite small.
Personally I enjoy having a sniper rifle equipped, so I can scope out the environment and track hostiles, and take them down from a safe distance. Helping achieve that is the valuable armor-piercing ammo upgrade, as some enemies wear helmets that defect normal gunshots. Actually the helmets can deflect armor-piercing rounds as well, but I am not certain as to why. It could be the game forgetting what kind of ammo I am using, or that you have to hit the helmet in the correct spot to score a kill, and anywhere else will just knock the helmet off. Honestly, I would believe the latter is the case and this is by design, just as it would add to the importance of careful aim.
Of course shooting an enemy is not always necessary, as getting close enough to them allows you to put Sam's hand-to-hand skills to use. These takedown are very useful, as it makes it much easier to dispose of a body, which could alert enemies to your presence, and fills up your 'Execution' meter. When filled, you are able to quickly execute marked enemies with the press of a button. This is very useful when enemies are close enough together that just shooting one of them will alert the other to your presence.
If your presence is discovered, but you are able to escape your pursuers, a ghost of yourself marks your last known location. This information is handy if you want to turn from prey to predator. Also helping you in that regard are the upgrades for your trifocal goggles, including sonar. Without upgrades, the goggles just give you night vision, but once you purchase sonar, you are able to see through walls, and better plan how to attack your enemies without exposing yourself. Moving will disrupt this though, as can some enemies, so do not expect to be running around with them on all the time.
One aspect to the gameplay that has its good and bad points is the contextual nature of some actions, such as climbing, dropping onto ledges, interacting with doors, and entering or exiting cover. It is definitely useful to have prompts appear, letting you know what you can do, but it also lets you know that you cannot always do something. Jumping to or over an obstacle uses the same button as a trigger, so when both kinds of obstacles are next to each other, you have to shift around to find the right spot to do one or the other. Doors can also be annoying to work with, as trying to close half a double door can lead you to opening the other half. Also closing a door can sometimes put you on the wrong side of the door. Why not just leave the doors open? Because enemies notice when a previously closed door is open, and will investigate.
The cover system can also be a little glitchy. To enter cover you have to press a button, which is fine, but getting out of cover or changing location can be more tricky. Sometimes the objects you can take cover behind have an 'L' shape, but to go from one side of the inside corner to another can require exiting and re-entering cover. This is something you should be able to do just by moving. Also there was one time that I was in cover along the side of a building, crawling towards the corner, to takedown an enemy. There was also a piece of wood at the corner, lying against the side of the building, and even though you can be in cover against that piece of wood, I was pushed out of cover by its edge. This caused the enemy to spot me, complicating what I had to do.
In situations like that, if you cannot recover by either escaping or killing everyone, you can restart the mission or retry from a checkpoint; not reload, which I will explain in a moment. Thankfully the game does not take long to set you back at a checkpoint, so it is not a punishment, but sometimes enemy behavior will be a little different. I have seen enemies in different locations after restarting or retrying, which means you cannot just repeat what worked before to get back to where you were.
What is the difference between a reload and a retry? A reload would suggest that the entire status of the level has been reset to what it was at the checkpoint. That is actually not the case in the useful way that collectibles do not need to be recollected. You just have to retry sneaking by or killing the enemies.
One other thing to mention about the save system is that it is purely a checkpoint system with no ability to even have separate playthroughs. You can replay old missions though, so other playthroughs are not exactly needed, unless there are multiple people who want to play on the same computer.
As annoying as some of these issues are, the gameplay is actually very fun and very well designed; just could use some more polish than it already has.
The game also features co-operative and competitive multiplayer. The co-operative multiplayer is only for side missions and not the main campaign, which is understandable as the character the second player plays as may have something scripted in the campaign missions. This is actually a nice touch though, as the second player is more than just a copy of the main character for someone else to play as. It has a canonical place in the game. Also in at least one mission you switch to playing this other character, who uses a first person camera instead of third, which requires some changes to your strategies.
The competitive multiplayer, though, is titled 'Spies vs. Mercs' as the two sides face off in an asymmetrical challenge. As the Mercs try to defend their stronghold, the Spies attempt to infiltrate and steal files. The two sides also have different weapons to use.
Unfortunately I have not been able to complete the campaign as the crashes I mentioned in the Graphics section are preventing me from advancing. Although this time the crashes are not happening sporadically, but at specific points during quicktime events. I still believe it is likely the result of some driver instabilities, but removing and reinstalling the drivers did not help.
Despite this setback, I was still able to put in over 11 hours of gameplay, just in solo missions. The bulk of that time has been in eight campaign missions, though I have also played five of the side missions given to you by members of your team. There appear to be sixteen side missions in total, counting the four co-op only missions, and thirteen campaign missions. Given my experience and the missions left to play, I would estimate that a complete, solo playthrough would take between fifteen and twenty hours, and adding in the co-op side missions would definitely push it closer to the twenty-hour mark. Naturally the competitive multiplayer and replays for better scores will add more time.