Though he doesn't sound like himself or stay in the shadows as much, Sam Fisher is as good as he's ever been in his latest globetrotting expedition. In "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist," the renown spy is up to his old saving-the-world bag of tricks, but that doesn't mean Fisher is confined to his familiar role as silent operative. The developers have opened up the gameplay, giving more opportunities to attack missions with a guns-blazing approach. But the true Fisher experience is still there if the slow-and-steady style is more your speed. Couple that with the addition of co-op missions and the return of Spies vs. Mecs, and "Splinter Cell Blacklist" is easily a worthy entry in this critically acclaimed series.
Fisher's latest adversary is a terrorist cell dubbed The Engineers, who have orchestrated a series of escalating attacks -- known at The Blacklist -- on U.S. interests. With the newly formed 4th Echelon unit aiding his missions, Fisher is tasked with foiling the terrorists' unseemly goals. The 4th Echelon is comprised of Charlie Cole (tech specialist), Issac Briggs (CIA operative) and Anna Grimsdottir (tech operations manager) and is housed in the Paladin, a repurposed stealth airliner decked out with cutting-edge technology and unlimited resources.
Before taking on each mission, you have a number of customization options at your disposal. Fisher can purchase a wide array of weapons and upgrades to his outfit. Pistols, machine guns, grenades and special weapons are at your disposal. You can augment each with silencers, scopes, specific bullets and other attachments. Making improvements to your suit (torso, pants, gloves, boots and even Fisher's signature sonar goggles) will allow you to enhance a number of aspects of Fisher, including his aim, reload times and sound he makes while moving.
This customization gives you the ability to tailor Fisher, who is no longer voiced by series mainstay Michael Ironside, to your play style. Looking for the traditional silent-assassin approach? Outfit Fisher with silencers, smoke grenades and sticky cameras. Want to make some noise? Opt for an unsilenced machine gun, traditional grenades and a proximity mine. It's this level of freedom and customization that give "Blacklist" a lot of replayability.
Some of the gameplay mechanics from "Conviction" -- the last game released in the series -- return in "Blacklist". Last Known Position leaves an outline of Fisher where the AI last saw him, and Mark and Execute is a system that rewards stealth takedowns with the ability to mark up to three targets and kill them all at once with a button push. The latter mechanic really provides the feeling of being a highly trained operative, allowing you to take down a number of enemies in style.
Completing missions in single player, co-op and multiplayer will net you money, which can be spent on the numerous suit and gun upgrades across all three modes. The game also grades you on three different play styles: Ghost, Assault and Panther. Ghost is for the Splinter Cell traditionalists who want to remain undetected. Assault is for players who want to make some noise and aren't concerned with avoiding confrontation. Panther players opt for more lethal means while remaining silent. At the end of each mission, money is doled out for each of these styles.
But all of this customization wouldn't mean much if the gameplay didn't live up to Splinter Cell's previous efforts. "Blacklist" doesn't disappoint. The shooting and close-quarters combat is tight and responsive, though getting into all-out shootouts is not always the wisest choice because Fisher is not the bullet sponge you might find in action games. But Fisher does move with great fluidity throughout the environments. From sliding into cover to performing non-lethal takedowns, he's a joy to control. You really do feel like you're inhabiting the skin of the lethal spy as you move in and out of the shadows.
But Fisher doesn't strictly remain in the shadows in "Blacklist." The developers have added a wide breath of variety into the level design. As Fisher hops from locale to locale, the distinctive feel of each is apparent. No longer are you confined to restrictive paths that might allow for a handful of routes to pull off your objective. "Blacklist" is much more open, providing countless ways to take down foes without detection.
It's in this variety and the AI not following a predetermined path every time that allows for much replayability. The inclusion of co-operative missions also gives this game legs. Tackling separate missions from the main campaign with a friend takes a level of coordination that is not present in the single-player campaign, putting a new spin on the gameplay. Some missions end if you or your cohort gets spotted, which adds increased tension.
If you're into tension, the competitive multiplayer should also give you your fill. Spies vs. Mercs makes its return and really shines. Playing as a spy gives you a third-person view of the action, which allows for easier traversal and greater opportunity to hide in the shadows. The Mercs battle in first-person view and are equipped with heavy weaponry. You can play in one of four modes: 2 vs. 2 gives flashlights to the Mercs and denies lethal firepower to the Spies, who are tasked with hacking computers. Four vs. Four allows for more customizable loadouts, and Mercs are allowed to use temporary boosts during matches. Spies are put on defense while the Mercs try to retrieve intel in extraction mode. Team deathmatch allows you to switch from Spy to Merc and vice versa every time you respawn. There is a tangible difference in play style between playing as a Spy and a Merc that injects a breath of fresh air into a multiplayer landscape that has become more regurgitation than innovation.
"Splinter Cell Blacklist" is something for everyone. For longtime fans of the series, the adaptive AI provides variety and challenge that begs for multiple playthroughs. The co-op and multiplayer modes are tense and strategic while feeling unique. This is Sam Fisher at his best. "Blacklist" will be available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, WiiU and PC on Aug. 20 and is rated "M" for mature.