If you're like the majority of people that live in this world, you only have one question when it comes to Splinter Cell: Blacklist: what the hell is it? Seemingly confusing people as to whether Sam Fisher has finally left behind the world of stealth to embrace all-out action - and there's been more than a few hints that this is the case - many have decided to launch pure venom towards the series until they know for sure. While that can be answered right now, you may not be totally happy with the answer.
Much as Conviction toyed around with more accessible ideas and strategic approaches, Blacklist wants to follow suit by ensuring all these options are still available. In fact, it's taken the idea so far that it now breaks your playstyle down into three categories: ghost, panther and assault. Essentially seeing if you're actually any good or not at hiding in the shadows - and, arguably more importantly, not punishing you for it if you suck - it's a concept that garners further interest when the economy system is looped into the mix.
Everything you do in Splinter Cell: Blacklist will earn you cash in some manner. How much cash comes down to how you approach the game. Given that Sam Fisher's tales were born out of stealth gameplay and, of all things, thinking, that's where the most amount of money is waiting. 'Ghost' playthroughs always yield the highest rewards, meaning even if you don't realise it, Ubisoft Montreal is actively pushing you to go through a level in that fashion. The real question, then, is how that holds up when trying to cater for those players who would pick all-out warfare over a more Batman-like strategy. It stands to reason that trying to piece together a level so it can be toyed with in different ways would water down the experience somewhat. Afterall, a specific focus usually allows more time and preparation to be put into a single element.
Thankfully, if anything, those who decide to run around pretending Blacklist is Call of Duty will, potentially, have a worse time. It's certainly viable to play Splinter Cell this way - and all the luck in the world to you if this is your plan - but, ultimately, this is just better when played as a stealth simulator, a fact creative director Maxime Béland is more than happy to agree with.
This hasn't been done just for the sake of telling you how or why you should play in a certain way either. With its persistent world (which we'll get into later), customisation is both available and apparent throughout whatever mode you decide to hurl yourself into. The money you earn and the equipment you unlock carries across the Blacklist universe; if you really want to see/do/hear/lick everything that's humanly possible, actively trying to sneak your way through is your best bet.
That in itself should be enough to throw some confidence your way, and the returning aspects that have slowly affiliated themselves with Splinter Cell over the years are present too. Mission objectives appear magically and 'dynamically' as you creep around a level, and the 'mark and execute' mechanic is still something to warm to as if it was your own child. Be as cynical - or terrified - about that statement as you need to, but lining a few enemies' heads up before running, Jack Bauer-style, into what otherwise would be certain death just feels horrifically satisfying. Yes, it's highly unlikely Chaos Theory's Sam Fisher would've ever have even dreamed of acting so recklessly but if it ain't broke, add in a run and gun option.
The real changes you'll discover in Blacklist, though, come in how Ubisoft has decided to try and seamlessly join it all together. Unlike previous titles where Sam would be pushed down a linear path, the direction you take is now, somewhat, down to you. Finding himself in charge of the newly formed Fourth Echelon - clever - Fisher dictates what goes on and when. Channeling Mass Effect almost, this sees him in command of his own plane, responsible for pushing all the buttons on the SMI which, somewhat sadly, stands for Strategic Mission Interface. Fancy names aside, this serves as the game's central hub, but also as a pillar to introduce what Ubisoft sees as Blacklist's 'next gen' equivalent.
Rather than having you access multiple menus from a title screen, everything is controlled from within the SMI. Dozens of black dots can be found within it, each relating to a game mode that Blacklist offers, be that single-player, multiplayer or co-op. Acting in real-time, you can see who's playing a match of Spies vs. Mercs, for example, and decide whether you want to join in, even if your initial plan was to continue through the story. It's very well put together, and while it may lack the speed or style that the Xbox One or PS4 will be able to provide come the end of the year, if persistent worlds excite you enough to cause sleepless nights, Splinter Cell is trying to feed your cravings, or at least give you a look into what our gaming future may hold.
To draw a line under it all, Blacklist does come across as a 'best of', merging together the higher points the franchise has been working on from current and past gens. If you want to stare at nothing else but how things operate, it's a natural progression for both the series and its lead character, even if the new voice actor can't hold a candle, whatever that means, to Michael Ironside.
Spies vs. Mercs remains its standout feature (while customisation and loadout possibilities have been expanded the foundations remain the same and are all the better for it), a multiplayer mode that has the cojones to lay down a set of rules, stick to them and execute it near perfectly when people buy into that setup - it's hard to beat.
Spoilt by what we have coming in a few months means the next Splinter Cell has started to show its age, but it does enough with what's at its disposal to be more than passable and send the series fittingly off into the sunset before a new era rises. Where it counts, Blacklist should please a contingent of franchise fans and win a few more before we all say goodbye to this generation.