Published Sep 20, 2013When Ubisoft opened up its Toronto office a couple years back, the new studio had much to prove, especially since the first game it was assigned was the sixth entry in the company's signature stealth series, Splinter Cell. The green-goggled Sam Fisher is as much a gaming icon as Microsoft's Master Chief or Nintendo's Italian plumber. Yet the franchise, which began as a Tom Clancy black-ops adventure back in 2002, had been on something of a downward slide since 2006's classic Chaos Theory.
The next two sequels — 2005's Double Agent and 2010's Conviction — struggled to find the series' place in the now-gen era. This was especially true of the latter game, which used the five-year hiatus as an opportunity to reinvent the franchise primarily as a shooting action game, rather than a sneaking stealth one, turning off many hardcore fans as it aimed its night vision sights at a more mainstream audience.
Enter Blacklist, which attempts to satisfy both warring fan camps by allowing you to play either in the shadows or amongst the muzzle flashes, or a combination thereof. Unlike most games that try to be all things to all people, this one manages to balance these styles with aplomb by breaking its gameplay down into three categories: stealthy Ghost, shoot-y Assault and the mixed approach of Panther. (Though expect those hardcore fans to still complain about the loss of Fisher's long-time voice actor, V veteran Michael Ironside, who was replaced by Edmonton's younger Eric Johnson.)
The series' signature covert organization was a NSA subgroup called Third Echelon (with each lone wolf operative known as a Splinter Cell), tasked with "spearheading the American information warfare initiative." However, last game out, the head of the top-secret org went rogue and tried to assassinate the president, leading to its disbanding and eventual revival as, yep, Fourth Echelon. But this time it's headed up by Fisher as he (read: you) attempts to stop a terrorist group called the Engineers, promising an escalating series of attacks (aka "the Blacklist") until the U.S. military meets its not totally untoward demand to bring all its troops back home.
The developers ramped up topicality with current-day flashpoints and hot topics, so you traipse about Benghazi, Iraq and Gitmo, try to prevent war with Iran, stop chemical weapons and engage in torture and indefinite detention. The Syrian situation that began simmering around its release made it feel even more of the moment.
However, that aspect backfires because of the simple fact that Splinter Cell is an NSA spy game released during a moment in history when NSA spying has never been less cool. Not to mention, a time when most people have become opposed to American military adventurism. Maybe it was too late in the development cycle to incorporate some of the real-world issues that Edward Snowden, PRISM, Egypt and Syria have unleashed — though certainly North America's anti-war sentiment has been rising since Iraq and the controversies over privacy violations and drone strikes are not new.
Therefore, it can't help but feel like Blacklist missed an opportunity by wilfully sneaking around the morality of the above-the-law surveillance state Sam Fisher personifies. (Ubisoft)