Everything that I know so far about Splinter Cell: Blacklist tells me that I should like it: it’s a beautiful, globe-trotting third-person adventure that gives you a ton of freedom to play the way you want. But, each moment I’ve laid eyes on it, I’ve been bothered by this nagging feeling in the back of my head.
Ubisoft aren’t saying as much but Blacklist essentially amounts to a soft reboot of their stealth franchise. It’s being made by a new studio under a new director and has a new actor in the lead role. And Blacklist has both new mechanical tweaks to shake things up and old favourite features returning to the fold.
When I got to play Blacklist two weeks ago during an Ubisoft event, the changes were apparent. New animations made Sam able to move more nimbly across the bigger environments and a re-instated light meter let me know just how risky my current position was. You’ll be able to customise loadouts at mission start and then swap out specific gadgets or your entire playstyle in the middle of a mission. Developer Scott Lee also told me that this Splinter Cell isn’t quite as narratively driven as other installments and is set up so you can play at a slower, more thoughtful pace if you want. The mix of gadgets, stealth kills and figuring out enemy positions definitely had me wanting more.
On top of all of that, it seems like it’s a game that want to matter. The plot yearns to say something about the sociopolitical climate of international relations and America’s murky, paradoxical role in the current state of affairs. I should be on board with all of that.
But, after mulling it over a lot last week, I puzzled out why I don’t feel ready to strap on those three-eyed goggles yet.
It’s not the reboot so much as the way it’s being presented that bothers me. It’s the way that Blacklist apparently steps right over its predecessor, as if it’s a smelly dirty vagrant sprawled across the sidewalk.
Blacklist acknowledges Conviction in only the slightest of ways. The fact that Sam Fisher’s now the head of Fourth Echeleon nods back to the far-reaching conspiracy in Conviction and his tense relationship with Grimm, the woman who used to whisper marching orders into his ear does, too. But Conviction set up a juicy cliffhanger that Blacklist is apparently giving the stiff-arm to.
Conviction drove a wedge in Splinter Cell’s fanbase, with some decrying the game as too easy. For what it’s worth, I liked it a lot. I appreciated how Conviction stripped away the tech fetish from Sam’s adventures and gave us a version of the series’ leading man that relied more on instinct and skill. Conviction felt tenser and more personal than other Splinter Cell games and teased an intriguing shift for the franchise’s future.
But that tease -- the conspiracy from the game’s plot and the leaner species of sneaking players experienced -- seems like something that’s not going to get followed up on. And what I’m left with is this weird sort of dissonance: a game that I enjoyed when I had my hands on it, built amongst the ashes of a predecessor that felt like it still had plenty of gas in the tank.