Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist Review
Reviewed by: Guest_Jim_*
Reviewed on: September 3, 2013
What should you do when a terrorist group successfully attacks a foreign military base and threatens attacks every seven days if you do not recall all military personnel operating overseas? Apparently you call in Sam Fisher and build the best team around him. Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist is the newest game in the action franchise and quickly deploys you around the world to stop the impending attacks.
To help you on your missions, you have access to the best technology available, though it may take a while to earn the money to purchase it all. This technology includes new weapons and upgrades, as well as devices such as a micro-trirotor drone. Naturally you are also armed with the trifocal goggles to see in the dark, and with upgrades, see through walls and even latent footprints.
The game does have a mature rating from the ESRB for intense violence, blood, gore, and strong language.
Should you don the goggles yourself to stop the terrorists, or let what waits in the shadows stay there? Time to find out.
The day after Blacklist released, NVIDIA and Ubisoft announced a partnership they formed during its development to incorporate some of the newest graphics technology the green team has developed for PC gamers. This means NVIDIA's technology team and Ubisoft developers worked closely together during development to provide us with the best looking PC game they could by adding TXAA and tessellation, as well as debuting HBAO+.
Temporal Anti-Aliasing, or TXAA, is an advanced anti-aliasing technology that combines MSAA with a temporal filter to achieve superior quality, especially for motion in the game. This could be the camera motion you control or the motion of environmental objects. To use it requires a GTX 600-series graphics card, or better, and as I only have a GTX 570, the option is not available to me. Instead the anti-aliasing method I used is FXAA, which was my default setting.
Tessellation is one of the features Microsoft added to DirectX 11 to increase graphics quality without hitting performance too hard. It operates by adding vertices to a mesh, thereby smoothing out curves. As the GPU adds these new vertices each frame, instead of them being part of the original mesh, the mesh does not fill up the frame buffer or take up extra room on a computer's hard drive(s).
Horizon Based Ambient Occlusion (HBAO+) is a special Screen Space AO (SSAO) algorithm that is able to produce more realistic shadows, but for performance purposes is often limited to half-resolution. With HBAO+ though, NVIDIA worked to make it faster, so suitably powerful GPUs can apply it at full resolution. The company also strived to improve its efficiency on DX11 GPUs by using an interleaved rendering approach, instead of a full screen pass with per-pixel jittering. This setting is not dependent on the Kepler architecture like TXAA, so my older card is able to run it.
Of course the partnership enabled other technologies to be implemented in the PC version of the game, but these three are probably the most interesting. You can visit NVIDIA's website for more information on the technologies.
Without a doubt, Blacklist is a good looking game on the PC. Character models take very good advantage of tessellation, with nary a stray vertex in sight. The environment is also highly detailed thanks to tessellation and parallax mapping, which simulates more detailed geometry without actually adding it. Shadows and lighting also look spectacular and realistic, compared to many other modern games.
Those positives being said though, there are some negatives. Sometimes when light reflects off of your face, it has a hard quality to it, as though your face were made of plastic instead of skin. In fact, it reflects similarly to the material your suit is made out of, which most certainly is not skin. Also water does not really interact with you as you walk through it. Your steps do throw splashes into the air, but no ripples are created. Those splashes also look like a collection of 2D sprites thrown together at different angles to look three dimensional. Finally, there are some places lacking the high resolution textures found throughout the game. This includes an area in the Paladin, your flying base of operations.
While these negatives do exist, they are not particularly distracting as you are not always exposed to them. You do not walk through water very often and the only spot I have really noticed the odd reflections is in the close up when you decide to start a mission.
One other thing that is neither a negative nor a positive, but I feel like mentioning anyway. Even though you are playing in a third-person perspective, at times light will reveal spots on the virtual camera lens. Considering the lens does not actually exist, this seems like an odd attempt to add some realism. (Now that I have pointed it out, you are forever doomed to noticing it! Mwhahahaha!)
Performance time, so here are my specs:
- Processor: AMD A10-5800K @ 4.40 GHz (44.0x100)
- Cooling: Corsair H110
- Motherboard: ASUS F2A85-M PRO
- GPU: EVGA GTX 570 1280 MB
- PhysX: MSI GTS 250 1 GB
- G.Skill Ripjaws 4x8 GB (32 GB total) at 1866 MHz 10-10-10-27
- PSU: OCZ Fata1ty 750 W
- OS: Windows 7- Professional 64-bit
- Drivers: GeForce 326.80 Driver – Beta
I mention the drivers here because I had to update to them to fix some… interesting graphical glitches. (I will include some screenshots in the Additional Gameplay Images section, just so you can see what it looks like.) Other than that, I have noticed that the game will spontaneously crash, lose window focus, and throw me to the desktop. When this happens I have to use Task Manager to manually end the game. Fortunately the game remembers the last checkpoint you were at, and allows you to start from there. I am not sure exactly what was causing those crashes, but I believe the cause is related to my GPU's overclock and the beta drivers. Given the timing of the crashes, and my removing the overclock at one point, I believe it is most likely the beta drivers misbehaving, so hopefully the eventual release drivers will be more stable.
Despite having a relatively older GPU, my system is able to run the game with a framerate between 40 and the mid-50s, even under the Ultra settings. This setting includes tessellation and HBAO+, which while effective at improving image quality, indeed appear to have not drastically hurt performance. The anti-aliasing was initially FXAA, and I left it there instead of playing with the setting.
The audio effects are definitely satisfying as light bulbs do not break, but pop when you shoot them. Be careful where you walk too, as glass on the ground will break and boards will creek under your weight. One thing odd is the subtitles, which are accurate to the what is being said, but at times are delayed. In some spots the verbal conversation has ended before the final sentence has even been placed on the screen. Not a big issue, but something that could be annoying if you try to read along to what you are hearing.
Splinter Cell Blacklist begins with a prologue mission filled with action as a military base is attacked, just as you are leaving it in a helicopter. The exploding munitions force your helicopter to crash land, but you and your friend Vic survive. Armed with just a knife at first, you stalk around, taking out the terrorists as you can, and trying to figure out who they are. At the end of the mission, Vic is seriously injured by a grenade and you, Sam Fisher, are pulled into action by the President herself. You are now the leader of Fourth Echelon, a group with full autonomy that answers directly to the President with the singular goal of stopping the terrorists.
The terrorists call themselves the Engineers and are without mercy. The attack on the base was the first step of their plan called the Blacklist, with a new attack coming every seven days, until the United States pulls all military personnel from foreign lands. Your first step to uncovering the Engineers is to find an old acquaintance who is hoping for protection from the Engineers. Naturally you give it, but now he wants protection from you for events that happened in previous games.
Though more or less the kind of story you would expect from an action game, with many twists to intrigue you, it does a good job of keeping you interested in events. Missions to stop or expose the Engineers take you to many points on the globe, including United States cities as you and your team are the best defense against the terrorists. In some cases, you are also the only defense.
Other members of your team include Charlie Cole, the tech guy and hack; Anna "Grim" Grimsdottir, who manages the operation; Isaac Briggs, who lends support on the ground and is the co-op player; as well as your old 'friend,' Andriy Kobin, who gives you access to the black market. Exactly how Kobin accesses the black market from your flying base-of-operations though, I am not sure. Each of these characters give you access to different things, such as plane upgrades, weapon upgrades, and information on your progress. They also have side missions for you to complete, with special requirements. Kobin's missions involve killing every enemy you find while Grim's can require more stealth, as detection means defeat.
Though these side missions obviously would take time to complete in the game world, they do not appear to count against the counter until the next attack. Neither does replaying previous missions to find collectibles or just getting a more-perfect run.
Though the story may be what you would expect from an action game, it is still done very well. Everything has some purpose and little is as simple as it appears to be at first, making the game an intriguing experience, both inside and outside of missions. If I must give it a fault, it is the linearity of the game, as the countdown clock only appears to advance when it is convenient for you. No need to balance playing side missions with completing the campaign; even the campaign missions are supposedly tied to the life and death of thousands if not millions of people. Of course, that may only dawn on you if you think about it too much.
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.
Additional Gameplay Images:
These two images demonstrate some of the graphical issues that occurred when not using the latest beta drivers. Naturally they should not be considered representative of the game's graphics.
Ignoring the stability issues I have been having, this game is definitely fun and intense, if you have the temperament for it. The game is built around stealth, not combat, so you should not be surprised when only a few bullets take you down after making a mistake. If you have the patience though, I can recommend this game to you. It is well designed and implemented, though there are still some points that could use some extra polish. Also the graphics are almost uniformly impressive. I cannot recall the last game I played that launched on PC and console and looked so good on the PC. Often you can spot some poorer graphics as a result of designing for the less-graphically-capable consoles.
Remembering the stability issues just makes me hope some better drivers will be released before long, so I can jump back in and finish saving the world. Whether you want to wait that long or try your luck now is up to you.