Imagine, if you will, that Paramount and Fox teamed up to make a $200 million theatrical movie based on the TV show 24, which Michael Bay would direct and Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman would write. This movie would pick up the story of Jack Bauer where the show left off, and lead actor Keifer Sutherland would be replaced with Ryan Gosling.
The resulting film would likely bear a number of similarities to Splinter Cell Blacklist.
That doesn't mean Blacklist is a bad game. Orci/Kurtzman have written some movies I enjoy, and I like a number of Michael Bay things. That said, "intelligent" is not a word used much in association with their work, and they almost always gear their products to contain the theoretical maximum level of mass appeal. You won't find Orci/Kurtzman-written characters going bowling, for example, because they are aware that movies that contain bowling scenes make less money.
With Blacklist, Ubisoft took that same calculated approach to building a game, applying both a gameplay model intended to be accessible to any player as well as cribbing a storytelling method from the generic summer blockbuster template.
Again, that does not mean Blacklist is a bad game. It does, however, mean Blacklist doesn't have much of an identity. But it is nonetheless entertaining, just not in a way that will make it stand out come the end of AAA season.
Blacklist finds Sam Fisher the newly christened head of Fourth Echelon, which now operates out of an airplane called the Paladin. Basically, Sam is a Spectre and the Paladin is his Normandy. New to the crew are a soldier named Briggs and, in true summer fluff fashion, a goofy comic relief tech guy.
The Fourth Echelon gang is facing off here against a group of terrorists who are taking aim at the US homeland every week until all American troops are withdrawn from foreign soil. It's very much a 24-esque plot, and amusingly the head terrorist is played by former 24 regular Carlo Rota.
The story twists and turns due to both the bad guys being entirely too clever as well as the heroes managing to foil some of their plans by the seat of their pants. It's calculated to jerk you around, but only to thrill you and push the least sensitive of your buttons. So while at one point Sam will visit a particular politically topical locale, for example, you can rest assured that it goes there only to shore up the pretense that this is a story “ripped from tomorrow's headlines” and not to make real waves. It ends up being dumb spectacle, but it's never so dumb I got annoyed with it.
Blacklist's next step in its quest for accessibility, quite amusingly, sees it take a cue from Alpha Protocol. As with that reviled game, Blacklist provides you with gear options that are, ahem, geared toward your preferred style of play. What that means in this context is that you must choose between pants that allow you to take an extra bullet or two and pants that make you quieter. If you lean to much on armored padding, your foes are going to hear you as you try to sneak up behind them; you can't really have your cake and eat it here. That said, I do prefer this to the Dishonored or Deus Ex approach, which allowed you to flip from stealth to action on the fly; although your Blacklist gear will be crappy enough at first that you aren't locked in, you will eventually have to make a choice. Thankfully, the world is designed with enough care to actually ensure your choice is accommodated.
Providing the player with this dichotomy does make Blacklist's hero into Generic Video Game Protagonist more than Sam Freakin' Fisher, but that's what happens when you go after mass appeal. Thinking of it on those specific terms, it's a bit odd that Blacklist isn't a reboot of the franchise, and there are a number of other elements that further add to my confusion on that point.
One such element is the recasting of Sam himself. Michael Ironside, 63 years old, has been replaced with Eric Johnson, 34, but Sam is still old. He has grey hair, and he still has an adult daughter that he calls between missions. But now he has a young tough guy face (hooray, performance capture!), and it's all so very strange. Johnson is quite good in the role, but it was just a bad idea to cast him without rebooting the continuity.
Outside the plot but inside the story – Blacklist does not have a main menu – there are other things to do beyond saving the world. You've got a number of side missions, many of which are playable alone or in co-op, and from a strictly mechanical standpoint a few of these are far superior to the story missions as they tend to be more limiting in how they allow you to approach the scenarios. You won't find a story mission that requires stealth for more than a few minutes, but there are side missions that do, for example.
And, in news that might excite long-time Splinter Cell fans who are wary of this mass appeal Splinter Cell, Spies vs. Mercs is back, in classic 2v2 matches on shadowy maps and also larger matches on less shadowy maps. Yes, there is even a mass appeal iteration of the hardest of the hardcore multiplayer modes. But, as is the recurring theme here, you don't have to go there if you don't want to.
Gameplay in Splinter Cell Blacklist is what you want it to be, and it will never judge you for your preference. Everything else is entertaining, and it doesn't hold back with the ridiculousness.
I guess I'm saying it's pretty good. Blacklist is calculated to please you, yes, and it seems they got most of the math right on this one.