Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Revisiting Splinter Cell: Blacklist

  Well, my options for returning Splinter Cell: Blacklist have complicated as of today, and I still have it.  What are my thoughts a week later? 


  If there is one thing about SC:B that I hate, it is the tone.  Everything is urgent, urgent, urgent.  I liked the original, which came with a certain bit of levity in the face of imminent danger.  Command must be wearing on Sam Fisher, as he is turned hard and spends a lot of time looking serious and pouty for the camera.  I hate that!

  Another thing that I strongly dislike is completing missions for Charlie.  Charlie missions are tests of endurance, challenging Sam (and the player) to survive in a complex arena against waves of the “Engineers,” aka the generic bad guys.  I like the idea in principle, but five waves is too long by half, especially as the waves are loaded with up to 17 bad guys hunting you.  I also got caught mistaking the extraction signal flare for the “let it ride” signal flare, a high risks gamble that brings still more minions, including High Value Targets to battlefield.  This broke it for me; I could simply “let it ride” by not moving to the extraction signal and timing out the window of opportunity, so why would I ever want a signal flare, looking just like the extraction flare, to hurry the advent up?!  I rage quit right there!  That was so poorly designed, I swear the rules of the game were broken and simple commands confused, and this after an hour and a half endurance fest in fierce combat.  I was not impressed, and more or less swore off Charlie missions for life.

  I should probably convey my thoughts on combat next.  Sam Fisher has a good variety of new moves, and new problems to complicate those moves.  Sam can now hide in any open doorway and wait for targets to stroll past for a stealth knockout; trouble is, it doesn’t work on heavily armored enemies.  Sam always needs to have a place to run to, and he needs to watch his back, keeping the game in a constant state of tension.  Players can invest in armor to cut the risks a little, but tools seem to be a better investment, as no armor helps for long when battles get really loud.

  Tools include the returning Sticky Cams, which can be thrown at a wall, click to attract enemies, and spew knockout gas.  They are also superior tools for finding and marking enemies.  Knockout and Tear gas grenades also supplement the arsenal, and I’ve found good things by investing in shock and proximity mines (shock are non-lethal, but weaker against armored foes, while proximity mines are only funny for me).  Investing in guns yields different options, but I’ve gotten mixed into the menus that I thought promised me silencers but didn’t – woops!

  Mark and Execute is revealed, not just to be as game-breakingly automated as advertised, but instantly and desperately needed.  Execute can only be used after marking three targets and taking out another, either by lethal or non-lethal means, while it is critically useless against helmeted enemies, who show up early and often, but are helpfully marked out compared to the normal enemies.

  Even with all this arsenal, battles become desperate fast.  Enemy AI swarm and look for alternate exits or railings from which they can rain death onto you, and are generally immune to darkness.  There is a form of nightvision enemy, wearing googles like Sam’s, but I don’t know why these enemies should be there as enemies are generally incapable of being fooled by shooting out lights anyway.  That doesn’t mean that stealth is right out, though, as they just as often run right past Sam in full light too.  I should point out that this is the WiiU version with a weak internet connection; if there was a patch, I’m unlikely to have it!

  So as I said, winning fights means planning ahead, having places to go that are out of sight (line of sight, typically), or moving in unconventional directions; I am wonderfully pleased to report that falling on enemies from above makes a triumphant come back.  Sam may be getting too old for the split-kick, though L.  They do a good job of keeping up the pressure on the player, and I’ve been able to completely baffle them at times, opening the way for more stealth takedowns.  Levels are built with an eye to providing several ways to cross, and “fighting” means bypassing enemies several times to wear down their numbers.

  Of other modes of play, there are the Grim missions.  Grímsdóttir challenges Sam to plant intel bugs in out-of-the-way places, noting that if ever Sam is found, they would pull up stakes and cut the data.  These stages tend to be much better, allowing Sam to bypass enemies (if he can), while usually hiding laptops and other file systems to interact with.  Also contributing missions is arms dealer Andriy Kobin, who apparently has a history with Fisher that I haven’t had the pleasure.  Kobin’s missions challenge Sam to eliminate a whole source of resistance from an arena, and if Sam can’t do it quietly, he could find his troubles triple in a heartbeat. Both are reasonable challenges, making use of lethal force to advance while pushing the player to do the best possible haunting.

  Main scenario missions run a strange gamut of content.  The second stage, the Insurgent Stronghold in Mirawa, Iraq, seems altogether too much of a Call of Duty clone, as I was definitely not impressed by the Arial Drone camera sniping, as that not only made questionable use of the motion controls (full disclosure, NintendoLand’s controls work fine, I am disputing implementation) in a high stakes difficult scene.  A well planned stealth op gives way to cut scenes and torture in the scene with former MI6 agent Jadid, and just when you think we’ve left that behind for more well implemented stealth scenes, more cut scenes appear with yet more critical plot information, striping control away and leaving Sam (now back under player control) with seconds to run to safety. 

  Stage three, American Consumption, was much better, and carried loud echoes of the franchise which has its name on the box.  Sam navigates twisting corridors of a shopping mall and sewer, leading to a water plant, where the Engineers are busy spreading weaponized viruses (smallpox? I don’t remember!) into the water supply.  If this were the focus, I would be very happy indeed, but there seems to be more and more posturing, more camera work focusing on the face, and more tense scenes of Sam standing around looking pouty before giving the mission the go ahead, with our without player input.

  Now, hold on.  Yes, I knew about this going in, as Ubisoft Toronto’s pride and joy is its motion capture department.  Still, I am not impressed.  The long plot dumps, the angry back and forth pacing during cut scenes, the inclusion of so many cut scenes, the focus on acting and not playing.  I wanted to drop into the triple A game productions and see what I was missing, and well …

  …I just want Splinter Cell 1 back!

  So, yeah, I said it.  Blacklist isn’t bad by any stretch, and its additions in gameplay are for the most part welcome.  But this is a big product, with major motion picture appeal-factors crowding the star of the show, me!  As SC:Blacklist continues to gorge in the ideas of its own story, it fails to address the main actors hesitations about all of this … it assumes that I will go along with it and make a success of its convoluted plot hops.  Which I do, because there isn’t much else to do here, except get rid of it.

  Perhaps this too needs review.  When I saw Splinter Cell: Stealth Action Redefined on the Old Xbox, I was quite impressed.  Here was a franchise that focused on an elaborate, and high stakes, obstacle course.  Darkness mattered.  Skill mattered.  Every stage was greatly replayable.  But the story also mattered, perhaps because of the recent events.  2001 saw hostiles, still presumed Islamists from Afghanistan and the end of the world, take America by surprise and kill thousands of people without a care.  November 19, 2002 saw Splinter Cell released, but the Operation Desert Storm came about just afterwards (March 19, 2003).  While we were getting our heads around fighting a war against non-state actors, Splinter Cell resonated perfectly.

  Today, Splinter Cell’s, and I supposed Tom Clancy’s vision of America against the world conflict feels forced.  “Freedom for whom” is a theme used to cover over the conflicts of rich and poor nations; America is always depicted as indolent and vulnerable, in need of protection, while the wider world is depicted as eager to break America, to shake off her shackles and prevent her interference, her preventing something terrible happening absent her protection.  Nasty business happens in the shadows, and Sam Fisher has to perpetrate the nastiest to save the world.  It isn’t wrong, but it feels … foreign.  Is this my viewpoint changing with the passing of time?

  Am I keeping Blacklist?  Yeah, yeah, the game isn't bad by any stretch, it just feels a little off, but I figure it will be okay.  Once I get used to it.

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