Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review (PC) – A Return to Stealthy Form

Hunting down a terrorist group bent on murdering countless innocents all in the name of some nebulous fanatical cause is serious stuff. Very serious indeed. Throats are cut. Civilians are mowed down. Necks are snapped. It’s messy business. But for all of the grim subject matter and gruff delivery, it’s the unintentionally goofy moments that occasionally pop-up in Splinter Cell: Blacklist that stick with me.

Between thwarting plots to poison America’s water supply and infiltrating top-secret bunkers, I found plenty of wiggle room for hijinks — both intentional and accidental. Hurling a sticky noise-maker device at an enemy soldier’s crotch and watching him try to figure out what’s going on while I dash by. Sneaking stealthily through a pitch black bungalow only to have a poorly-timed button press smash a defenseless lamp and get me killed. Diving over a railing the wrong way and frantically shimmying to safety while my backside hangs out in plain view of a sniper’s laser scope. These are just a few of the comedic moments I encountered in my often ill-fated attempts at super spydom.

Wiggle room is a big part of what makes Blacklist shine. After the uncharacteristically action-heavy “let’s kick dudes in the teeth” approach of Splinter Cell: Conviction, this return to the stealthier, more open-ended gameplay of the series’ past hits the tactical sweet spot.

Long-time protagonist Sam Fisher’s return to spy duty kicks off with one hell of a boom, when a terrorist group known as The Engineers infiltrates an Air Force base he’s stationed at and lights the whole thing up in one massive fiery middle-finger to the American government. That’s only the beginning, of course. The group has a string of attacks queued up and threatens to hit a different target every week until the US pulls all of its troops off of foreign soil. Rather than acquiesce, the president secretly taps Sam to head up a covert group called Fourth Echelon to stick it to the terrorists before they can exact their plans. The story itself isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but it sets up an exciting romp through a great range of cool locations and scenarios that push you to adapt your tactics on-the-fly.

A huge aircraft dubbed The Paladin serves as your team’s mobile base of operations as you globetrot around the world taking on missions. Flush with high-tech displays, gear upgrade menus, and opportunities to interact with your comrades, this well-designed hub system adds a lot of flexibility to how you spend your time between missions. The Paladin can even be upgraded to boost your advantage in the field and let you add new unlockable goodies to your loadouts. Free roaming within the flying beast’s metal belly to chat up teammates also makes for interesting transitions between jaunts on the ground. I appreciate the way the craft’s clever interface seamlessly lets you jump between the main campaign, co-op missions, side excursions, and multiplayer modes on a whim, too.

When you’re on the ground and in the thick of the conflict, Blacklist’s wide breadth of options make tackling each mission a pleasantly dynamic experience. The tactics you use and the gear you take with you make a big difference to how each scenario can play out. Blacklist’s scoring system falls in line with three core strategic approaches, and you earn points in each category depending on your actions within a given stage.

For old-school Splinter Cell purists, the option to play through a huge chunk of the game using stealth, evasion, and non-lethal takedowns is a welcome challenge. You earn the most points for this “Ghost” style of play, and the reward of having more cash to unlock extra kits balances the difficulty of pulling missions off without making a peep. I found playing “Panther” was a bit more in my wheelhouse, since mixing stealth and sneaky kills makes room for a little gun fighting and gadget play.

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