The latest installment in the long-running franchise reminds Steve Dinneen of his lost youth
Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, PC
WHEN I was a student I didn’t just play Splinter Cell; I made an art form of it. My flatmate and I completed the entire game in co-op mode without being spotted once, by anyone. Ever. It was like the game had never taken place at all. We owned the shadows. It took us weeks; months maybe. It would be beautiful if it wasn’t such a massive waste of time and youth.
We played it for so long that when I ventured outside, which wasn’t all that often, I’d feel anxious walking under street lights (and bear in mind I lived in Glasgow, which is in a state of perpetual darkness only broken by the dull orange glow of street lights), mentally shooting them out so I could remain under cover of night.
It seeped into my consciousness to such an extent that as a reporter years later, when giving a fake name as part of an investigation, I immediately said “Douglas Shetland”, one of the game’s recurring characters.
I played every title in the franchise until 2010’s much-maligned Conviction, which seemed to sacrifice all the best bits, like the need to skulk around shadows, in order to appease a generation raised on Call of Duty and Crysis.
The latest installment, Blacklist, promised to merge the Splinter Cell of old with the newer, more gung-ho style. And for the first hour, I hated it. The controls weren’t exactly clunky, but neither were they making Sam (Fisher, the game’s protagonist) do what I wanted him to. I got shot. A lot. And when you get shot, you tend to die very quickly. So I died a lot.
This may be partly due to the controls on the Wii U – and there aren’t many proper games to put the GamePad through its paces, so I’m not exactly used to it – but it was frustratingly difficult, even on the “normal” setting. It is based on checkpoints, so you can get right to the end of a section only to be mauled by an alsatian and have to do the whole thing over.
I persevered, mostly because I had to write this review and getting shot a lot in the first few minutes of a game wouldn’t stretch to much.
And then, five hours later, I realised I was hooked again. Blacklist isn’t for players who want to just run through levels, occasionally shooting a light bulb or tossing a grenade: you have to think about what you’re doing. The game offers three playing styles: Ghost, in which you avoid all enemy contact, Panther, which is creeping around and bashing people over the head, and Assault, which means making everyone explode in a mist of brains. All are effective in their own way, although parts of the game force you to abandon your preferred style, which seems like a mis-step.
The story is exactly the same as the ones I remember from years ago: terrorist organisation blah blah covert mission blah double cross blah blah your daughter is on the phone blah. It doesn’t really matter: it’s both fleetingly engaging and completely forgettable, which is fine.
The Wii U’s GamePad allows for some nifty little touches that (for once) actually add to the experience. When Sam slides his camera under a door, for example, the grainy image appears on the tablet screen. Similarly, piloting an ariel drone is done using the GamePad (annoyingly, the main screen switches off, instead of showing what is going on in the live environment).
Every now and then it veers wildly off course (for example a top-down ariel sniper sequence that looks like it was made in 1987) but overall it’s a worthy addition to the Splinter Cell canon.