Saturday, 19 April 2014

On a list

Recent statistics from Steam say that approximately a third of owned games remain unplayed. I'm as bad as anyone with this - between sales, Humble Bundles and people sending me keys from THEIR bundles I've got a long list of the things I'm sure I'll get around to playing one day. Obviously, when someone says "Hey, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is on sale - why don't we pick it up?" there is only one response: why not?

I've got a splinter

I'm not a long-term fan of the Splinter Cell series. Slightly odd national-paranoia storyline and slow slide into mediocre FPS territory aside, I've never really gotten into the gameplay. This is probably my own fault as typically I've played the games around five years after release and they really haven't stood up to the ravages of time. It's not that I dislike the games - it's more that each time I've sat down to play one I've found better things to do with my time. This time, though, there was something different. Blacklist has co-op.

Just the two of us

Things are better with a friend and gaming is (usually) no exception. Assuming you have a friend to play with, co-op can be seen as a magic bullet that can improve any game. Of course if you have to find someone via a matchmaking system it can be the most irritating thing in the world.

Personally, I like to be able to play whatever the game has as a single player campaign in co-op mode. Blacklist goes down the cheap and annoying route of having a single player campaign with some bonus missions in which you can bring a friend. Normally this leaves co-op as a bolt-on to be enjoyed for half an hour before you move on to the inevitable multiplayer. Blacklist manages to avoid short-changing you by making the bonus missions roughly 75% of the game content and this means many happy hours yelling at your buddy for tripping alarms and forcing a restart of the entire mission. It really is a lot of fun and substantial - which is good, because it was the main reason I bought the game in the first place.

I'm told the side missions are divided into four types which will be recognisable to fans of the older games. I can't comment on how good these missions are at evoking the spirit of the older games, but I can say that they all play differently and are a good way of keeping the game fresh and interesting. There are the "normal" missions, with normal defined as being similar in playstyle to the single player game. Then there are the full-stealth missions where the whole thing is failed if anyone catches sight of you. These are great as the tension ramps up towards the end and you risk losing the last hour of game time to a mistimed run from cover to cover. Next up there are the violent missions in which your job is to murder everyone in an area - ideally without being seen - which are a pleasant change in pace to the uber-stealth missions. Finally there are the survival missions, in which you need to hold an area using guns and gadgets until you've worked through the waves of attackers then either bail or stick around for more mayhem.

I've not seen co-op implemented quite like this before. It's a fantastic idea, giving me the co-op experience I like while leaving the main campaign alone so the writers can tell the story they want to tell without being hamstrung by the constant requirement of a second protagonist.

All by myself

So yes, there's also a solo campaign. It seems to do a good job of continuing the existing story while not alienating newcomers to the series like me. I found it easy enough to get a feel for the established characters - not the most challenging thing, but they are more rounded than most of hardened military or espionage types you typically find in settings like this.

The plot deals with a massive terrorist operation on US soil. It's heavy on the argh-foreigners paranoia, but interestingly you'll spend much of your time crossing swords with other US intelligence agencies and doing some pretty dubious stuff to get around them. It's a little odd to see a turf war breaking out while tens of thousands of civilians are at risk but it's credible and it makes for some interesting caveats on some of the missions. Nothing says "be careful" like the game failing you the moment you cut down an unsuspecting friendly trooper with a hail of silenced machine gun fire because you were too ham-fisted to sneak across a compound without them seeing you.

I also appreciate the game letting me do these things myself. It's depressingly common that a game's story is told through non-interactive cutscenes or via quick time events (note - a non-interactive cutscene does not become gameplay just because I have to lunge for a random button on my keyboard 3 minutes in) but in Blacklist the game does not feel in the way of the film the writers want you to watch. You get short cutscenes before and after missions and everything else is told in-mission. Like the extra work which has gone into making the co-op mission structure, this makes a big difference to the game.


Oh yes, except the end (bit of a spoiler warning for some of the game's ending here).

I assume there must be a QTE guy somewhere involved in this project. Maybe they sent him out for coffee every day so he couldn't interfere. Maybe he was on holiday. Either way, they managed to distract him for most of the game's production. Then at the last minute he was allowed back in and the FINALLY BOSS is defeated by a series of bloody quick time events - and not just ordinary events either. They are obnoxiously difficult and cause you to restart the entire boss fight (the rest of which is oddly mechanical and doesn't really flow properly but at least is gameplay) when you inevitably mess them up because after 20-odd hours of a proper game you really aren't expecting them.


I don't normally have a problem with QTEs (passing them, that is, not appreciating them) but the only way I could get through these was to learn the sequence and anticipate which button to hit. Thanks guys. It certainly doesn't ruin the game, but it does have a good go at ruining the ending.

Always a system

Back to something positive. The upgrade system is extensive but because of the variance in the game types in the extra content most of what is on offer is actually useful. The problem I had with something like Dishonored is that it gave you a big pile of toys with which you could cause mayhem then slapped your hands if you actually used them. In this you get everything from knockout gas to land mines and then the game lets you get on with it. Obviously you can't use hand grenades in the stealth-only missions, but you can go nuts in the survival modes. The guns aren't quite as generous as the gadgets - the silenced weapons are definitely more useful in all modes - but you can still find a use for the assault rifles if you try.

The only exceptions are the breaching charges (I carried these through SO MANY MISSIONS because they sound cool and didn't manage to use one once) and the final goggles (which appear to be the same as the second to last goggle but with a stylish chinstrap). Bonus points are awarded for not ruining the upgrade system with the DLC kit. Although it is very good there are still normal unlocks which are better so there is still something to work towards.

All the people

There's also a competitive multiplayer mode. It's another interesting Ubisoft game, with unbalanced teams fighting very different battles, and works very well. I haven't found it compelling enough to play for hours but what I did play was a lot of fun.

And so

I like Blacklist. I'm genuinely surprised to be writing that. In fact, I like it a lot and I'm sad that I've now played through all the content. I'd like a little more co-op, but frankly I'm always going to say that and despite completing it I can see myself going back to play more of the survival games. I hope the sequel is structured in the same way - if I can get another fix of sneaky co-op fun then you can finally me to the list of people who are excited by this series.

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