Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Initial Impressions: Splinter Cell: Blacklist

  There weren’t many games on the Xbox that I enjoyed greatly, but I’ll count Splinter Cell: Stealth Action Redefined and Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow among them.  The series has gone through a lot of troubles in the intervening games, becoming redefined by cutting edge gritty storytelling and a big focus on acting.  I’ve waxed nostalgic about the rubber polygon puppets of yore before, and I’m returning to Splinter Cell today after a long absence.

  I’ve hated the unveil of Splinter Cell: Blacklist, fearing that the Mark and Execute commands would ruin the stealth game that I remember.  I’ve followed the game long through its development and witnessed it launch on the WiiU alongside other consoles last year, before I had any console to play it.  Well, I’ve got one now, and I’ve been racking my brain trying to determine which of 2013’s WiiU titles to snap up.  Blacklist won out over several other high profile releases.

  Splinter Cell: Blacklist is developed by Ubisoft Toronto, a studio that prides itself on the precision of their acting and voice acting skill and technology.  It launched just after Mr. Tom Clancy, the man whose name is one the box in the position of writer’s credit.  The Internet Movie Database credits him as writing it in 2010.  I guess that I go into this game expecting another project that focuses heavily on acting and writing, but I’ve long held the point of view that such things shouldn’t displace gameplay from the center of the experience.  SC:B is notorious for its torture scene, which screams out to me that there are Quick Time Events, which I loathe!  I’m buying this mainly for its name and a little bit for nostalgia, weary that modern games may quickly be morphing into something very alien to me.

  On playing to prologue chapter:

  I can say that I am pleasantly surprised.  The chapter ramps up the difficulty fast, but retains the beating heart of a stealth game where players find their own way forward.  The Mark and Execute commands, long feared, are fully ignorable.  The ability to mark up to four targets for quick take downs adds a lot of raw combat to the game, but marking has another welcome function: the levels are visually busy, going as they are for realism.  Marking provides a spy’s valuable new addition, to see a potential mercenary, and not lose track of him while trying to a) knock him out b) stealth away.

  I was able to experiment with display options: SC:B supports off-TV gameplay, making it easy to play in front of the news, but can also move the display to the TV, freeing up the Gamepad for inventory slots.  It’s pretty clever overall what Ubisoft has worked out for it.

  On Playing Chapter One:

  The stages are very long!  SC:B has several ideas in play.  Stealth take downs not only recharge the Mark and Execute functions, but they also reward Fisher and the Fourth Echelon team with dollars, presumably to be used in upgrades later.  High profile targets also appear mid stage, and challenge Fisher to move him carefully to the extraction point, which is a high risk prospect considering that it compromises Fisher’s ability to stealth and draw his sidearm.

  Most of the areas of this first level are pretty good at presenting one choice repeatedly: to use brute force or to stealth.  This tension underlines everything about SC:B.  Although I appreciate the available choice, I have to recall the origins of this game: in Splinter Cell: Stealth Action Redefined, the first stage was a long favored obstacle course through the streets of Tblisi, and much the same of level one of Pandora Tomorrow, a learn-the-ropes introduction at the US Embassy in East Timor.  If I can offer fair criticism, I catch myself checking the menu for the action-map repeatedly, because I haven’t ducked, dodged, bobbed, weaved and squirmed through all manner of traps yet.

  As I said above, the stage is long, with a final zone introducing the series most dreaded moral choke point, the guard dog.  Nobody wants to hurt the dog if they can help it, but after being stuck for over an hour, I’m pretty sure I can’t here.  Even being willing to kill the dog (it is a valid target for Mark and Execute) only reveals Fisher’s position to the enemies, so there is certainly no escape from moral crunch here. 

  I have yet to pass the last area of this first stage, and I’m pretty sure I closed it without saving.  The stages buck the trend at upwards of an hour each, so playing two stages is beyond the kind of time I can afford to invest in one sitting.  This remains a hard lesson to learn, but I’ll remember it for next time!  While I can still take the game back for an exchange in a week, I figure that this game deserves more time to make itself likable.  I also can’t speak to upgrades, as I haven’t yet had the full tour of the aircraft base.

Stay tuned for more.  

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