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Splinter Cell Blacklist Review

Cart: Splinter Cell Blacklist
Cab: PS3 / Xbox 360 / Wii U / PC
Coin: Ubisoft Toronto

Never have I been so frustrated by a game – one so close to, and yet so painfully far from true greatness.

Blacklist has a serious amount of strengths, both as a package and as an experience, and yet it is ultimately hampered by a number of frustrating idealogical and technological drawbacks that, try as they may, still can’t quite keep the core of Splinter Cell down.

The most obvious disappointment is the loss of Michael Ironside as Sam Fisher. Ironside – being one of those rare breeds of actors whose voice is a character all of its own – brought the menace and ferocity of Sam off the screen and into your face from the very first Splinter Cell onwards. Whilst I can appreciate the designers’ desire to want to evolve things a little after a decade, it’s clear that someone, somewhere, made the idealogical decision to replace Ironside ” to take advantage of new performance capture technology to create a richer experience” – and that every other consideration simply went out of the window.

In removing him, the designers completely lost sight of what Ironside brought to the table and instead replaced him with an actor whose voice is so utterly bland and characterless that, right off the bat, Fisher looses one his strongest, most fundamental foundations. Indeed, it took me a while to figure out which character Fisher even was in the rather run-of-the-mill opening sequence. The fact that the “new” performance capture and animation technology at work in the game is of dubious quality at best, only makes the whole affair seem even more farcical. The final insult is hearing the talented Elias Toufexis (the brooding Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution), voice Fisher’s old nemesis instead of voicing Fisher himself.

Hell, I’d have even been happier to see Nolan North voice Fisher – and that’s saying something.

And all of this on top of visuals that are quite simply shocking. No, really – shocking. Yet another of the Splinter Cell foundations – a series famed for its visuals – completely undermined. So poor are the visuals (on the PS3 version at least) that I spent much of my first hours fiddling with TV settings in an effort to counteract the sub-HD resolution, messy textures, low-contrast palette, muddy shadows and screen-tear – with only limited success, I might add. Once again, my old nemesis, the Unreal Engine, is used to attempt to create a believable stealth-world. When will these people learn that it’s basically incapable of shadows, employing instead just darker, vaselined textures?

Word on the street is that the Xbox 360 version suffers a number of its own visual hiccups, as does the Wii U version. If you can, PC would seem to be the way to go. Given the sumptuous visuals to be enjoyed on PS3 with Metro: Last Light and The Last Of Us, this simply isn’t good enough.

This isn't a poor screenshot; the graphics a actually that mushy.

This isn’t a poor screenshot; the graphics are actually that grim. #unreal

Splinter Cell has never been famed for its narrative but Conviction at least kept me gripped, as did it’s faster pace of play. Whilst the latter has made the transition to Blacklist – with neat enhancements such as ‘Killing in Motion’ – the former has taken a huge leap backwards. And sideways. And in every other direction it can think of.

Rejecting a linear-progression, Blacklist offers you a Mass Effect styled hub-interface, where you can choose from core single-player levels, ancillary single/multi-player levels and the multi-player experience proper. Another design-decision that screams of a handful of bigwigs back-slapping each other as they formulated it behind closed-doors; the reality is a directionless, incoherent mess that barely holds itself together. The world, we are told, is on the brink of global terrorism once again – and yet Sam is happy to spend his time calling his daughter, chatting to his comrades, upgrading his digs and jollying off on ho-hum side-missions of no particular worth simply to murder a nameless bunch of archetypal bad-dudes in a pseudo-A-Team style of guts and glory.

High-fives all around for the top pay-grade at Toronto, eh?

The thing is, you just know that with such a huge, hierarchical, manufactured design team such as Ubisoft Toronto, that the people at the top believe their hyperbole so strongly and fervently that even the people at the bottom within their own team wouldn’t be able to convince them otherwise. It’s a design philosophy that has grown within Ubisoft ever since the first Assassins Creed – one that has blossomed under the aegis of Jade Raymond who, somewhat unsurprisingly, is Managing Director at Ubisoft Toronto.

This sense of top-down, ideologically-lead design development pervades the entirety of Blacklist, with a dollop of corporate nonsense thrown in for good measure. I’m talking about the requirement for registering with Ubisoft’s dreary U-Play network, in case you hadn’t noticed. Despite paying for the digital version of the game via PSN, I was forced to create an account with U-Play via the in-game menu just so that I could access the full range of options in the multi-player component of Blacklist: Spies vs Mercs. Seriously?

Dev: "I know what would make a cool idea!" Gamer: "zzzzz..."

Designer: “I know what would make a cool idea!” Gamer: “zzzzz…”

Here, at least, is an element of the game that has remained largely true to its roots. Making a solid return to form after the (admittedly enjoyable) co-op-only element of Conviction, the experience has been ramped-up from 2v2 to include 4v4 game variants with the experience retaining the unique flavour that it became so famous for in Pandora Tomorrow. The thing is, once again, that it is held-back by frankly awful visuals in the new Blacklist game-modes and a complete lack of convincing shadows. I have extremely fond memories of creeping around pitch black environments in earlier titles, punctuated by the glare of flashlights and monitors. Here, it’s a wash of muddy textures and faux-shadows, care of the Unreal Engine. The Classic playlists do thankfully feature flashlights for Mercs and much darker lighting, making for a more hardcore – and enjoyable – experience. The ‘muddy’ Blacklist variants are clearly included to appeal to the casual gamer. Another high-five to the bigwigs. There’s still a thoroughly enjoyable experience to be had here, make no mistake – but one that’s not without a number of unwelcome distractions.

Which sums up Blacklist, to be honest: the gaming equivalent of going to your favourite restaurant, only to find out it’s being managed by a new chef whose creative ambitions are as scatter-gun and incoherent as they are poorly-matched with their regular customers’ desires. It’s a crying shame, as Blacklist features some of the most ingenious and rewarding level design ever seen in a stealth game – and the best in Splinter Cell bar none.

There’s plenty of juicy meat to be found on these bones, then – however raw it may be.

Splinter Cell Blacklist Central

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  1. The Unreal Engine. When you can tell when it is created using this engine from one screenshot, you are in trouble. It is the quickest way to be reminded that you are playing a game, just look what it did to poor old Remember Me :

  2. #gutted

  3. After much (read: two hours) faffing around this afternoon, I have at least managed to make a significant improvement to the contrast of the game by switching the PS3’s HDMI dynamic range from limited to full. Doing so has meant bumping up my TV’s brightness to near insane levels, but the end result is a marked improvement. Textures are still pretty awful, as is the screen tear and what I strongly suspect is sub-HD resolution bumped up to 720p. Still not a pretty game by any stretch, but considerably better with greater levels of contrast.

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