From the moment the disc was sucked into our PS3 console, Splinter Cell: Blacklist did its damnedest to keep us enshrouded in the on-screen action. But far from the promise of a stealth title, Blacklist intros with the rip-roar of guns blazing in a US Army base shakedown at the hands of a terrorist group known as The Engineers. But this is the US of A - land of the free - and it doesn't negotiate with terrorists. Instead it sets Fourth Echelon, a top-secret special ops team, into motion to keep the threat at bay.
Guns! Explosions! Terrorism! America! It's like a cutaway from the middle-series of US hit TV show 24 - ie, at the point when it's not on top form and, perhaps more to the point, just downright predictable - in that moment where everything goes wrong but it's sorta-kinda okaybecause Jack Bauer's there to save the day.
Blacklist has enlisted Eric Johnston to play on-screen hero Sam Fisher - like Bauer in a tight bodysuit, really - ditching Michael Ironside from the premier role. Long-time fans may weep (although they shouldn't, as Johnston delivers with ample success), and yet newcomers won't know any different - for Blacklist is Splinter Cell in its new form; a stealth-meets-action mishmash for a new generation of players.
The scene is set and Blacklist is going for broke - this is gaming action attempting blockbuster movie merit, but with that comes a rote storyline and all the quips and quibbles that such big-budget flicks also tend to carry. Does Splinter Cell: Blacklist sneak the series back to top form, or is it the end of the line?
Stealth games have been around for many years. Some players love the patience and planning, while others have proclaimed the genre stale and finished. In its last format, for example, Splinter Cell: Conviction seemed to aligned itself with the latter school of thought - to the dismay of many fans.
Blacklist, on the other hand, feels like it's rebuilt the series. In many ways it has: this is Ubisoft Toronto's first title, built from the ground up. There are certainly many Conviction-like elements, but these are fused together with some of the game's earlier elements of glory - or, frustrations, depending on how you play - such as true ghost-like stealth, the ability to shuffle dead bodies around, and those sniff-you-out (all too often) guard dogs.
But it's easy to spin that on its head too: grab a loud automatic weapon, leg it around shooting the faces off various militants and it's about as stealthy as Gears of War played out in Benghazi (the setting for one of the game's earlier levels).
There are three play types - dubbed Ghost, Panther and Assault - which you don't need to choose, as such, but that each reward you for your method of play through each level. It's your choice to be stealthy or not. Or it sort of is. Mess up - which is easily done with the rigid controls; you're either in cover or you're not - and if the alarm is raised then there tends to be no other way out than in a hail of bullets.
When you don't go in guns blazing the sneak-around tactics also feel somewhat simple. Stop, hide, use automated run-to-cover controls and watch the repeat patrol patterns of enemies to work out how to take each one down. Repeat process. Pat self on back. It can sometimes feel rewarding, but often is a little repetitive.
But repetition isn't the main issue for us, it's the fluidity of movement that can be jarring from time to time. We never found a moment where bounding through a section of a level felt like a masterful mix of button-presses. The game's trailer makes it look as though that should be the case, particularly with the new mechanics - such as "killing in motion" where enemies can be pre-targeted and taken down in a slow-mo dispatch - are available. In the same way some of the cutscenes are sloppily directed - you can count the seconds from an explosion to the chopper pilot's profane reaction - there's not the exacting immediacy that we'd like here, the way Fisher lumbers about during climbing sections making that all too clear.
Between levels you'll end up back at Fourth Echelon HQ, the hub of level access and gear upgrades. Whether it's to progress through the solo story mode, dip into side-missions, play co-op via split-screen or online, or online multiplayer, it's all accessed via a console which brings up a swanky-looking map to navigate between the options.
Multi-player is catered for in a number of guises, including Spies vs Mercenaries - the glorified return of the known format from previous games, Conviction aside - where one team of two have the goal to hack-to-win, while the two-man Merc team has to stop that happening by any means.
Gear, too, is of key importance. The better you perform in play - and dependent on your Ghost/Panther/Assault play style - the more money you'll be rewarded to spend on upgrading your kit. Whether gadgets, tougher or more stealth-adept wear, improved weapons or just flashier goggles, there's plenty of upgrade detail. It's an essential to progress in the game too, as the learning curve and difficulty level continues to rise. Plus you'll to tinker with gear to best fit your play style - the quieter it is the more likely you are to perform "sneaky sneaky" attacks with the deftness of Emilio from Mr Deeds.
In the side-missions, for example, you'll need to obey the rules. If it's a swoop in, swoop out mission where stealth is key then it's game over when the alarm is raised - and you'll be whipped right back to the very beginning to do it all over again. No save points as per the story mode. That's tough stuff and can be really frustrating - herein lies the part where the "play as you like" style is stripped away and force-fed too - so you'll need to remain unseen, hence gear upgrades being so helpful.
Gear includes gadgets, where things get more than a little bit James Bond. Whether nightvision goggles get popped on as you flip the light-switch before dispatching a room of militants using a silenced pistol, or you deploy a remote camera chopper to spy on what's going on around the corner, these are fun additions and they don't feel over-used in gameplay either.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist feels like it's trying hard. It's trying to appease the long-standing fans while generating an entirely new gaming experience that, ultimately, doesn't add much new to tried-and-tested formulas. Wrap that around a predictable storyline and Blacklist is walking a fine line.
But as with that aforementioned cheese-tastic TV show 24 there's something lovable about that: you know what you're getting; you know there's repetition abound and twists will inevitably always be around around the corner - "you can't stop the Blacklist" - yet you can't keep your eyes averted from the screen anyway. Don't raise expectations too high and there are rewards to be had.
But we would like Blacklist to play a little more fluidly. Despite its new play mechanics, the controls can feel somewhat rigid and we didn't feel like masters even after beating the solo game. It's like Conviction all over again in that department, and while we suspect that digging in deeper and mastering the true "Ghost" stealth element will be where the game brings its biggest rewards, we doubt that there's as huge an audience for that as there once was. Besides, we found Hitman: Absolution more entertaining as a gaming prospect - less of the military "yee-haw" storyline and just more fun to be had.
We, like Blacklist's balance between stealth and action, are a little on the fence about this title. For some it will be an eject-after-an-hour frustrater, for others it'll niggle away enough to keep you playing until you're the stealth master; the ultimate ghost.
All in all Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a game that you have to take for what it is. It's got highs, it's got some lows, and while it's certainly not going to redefine the genre, it's an approachable stealth shooter that seems to assert there's more life in this series yet.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is available for PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U and PC
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