The Splinter Cell series has been around for a while now, starting all the way back in 2002 under the tag-line "stealth action redefined". More recent offerings shifted the focus to be more action oriented from its sneaky split jumping roots, but Blacklist brings all the franchise's gameplay styles, from sneaky bastard to guns blazing, under a single roof. The result is a game that offers a wide variety of approaches to tackle your missions, but the depth of options isn't as tightly focused as it ought to be, and it's further saddled with a story that fails to stick. The strength of the multiplayer and co-op does help to balance out these issues.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist picks up at an Air Force base in Guam, which is the first target in a series of coordinated terrorist strikes. The titular Blacklist is a countdown to a weekly attack designed to hit a specific aspect of American culture - American Consumption, for example, with the end goal of forcing the withdrawal of all foreign deployed troops back to the United States. Where the story works best is by relating on some meta-level to security leaks and government agencies with far reaching power that are in our news today. Sam Fisher is all but given a blank check and a blind-eye to right the wrongs, and a few times you're given the option to execute, quite literally, how these ideals might play out. Do you kill the informant who just fed you info?
The problem becomes that it fails to connect on either a personal level or as a thrill ride. The characters are all one note, with the likes of quirky tech guy and by-the-books soldier lining up for supporting roles, and the more subdued nature of the gameplay keeps it from maintaining just a simple spectacle. Splinter Cell is a game that works better on a more subtle level, sneaking around and uncovering threads of double crosses and espionage. Even injuring Sam's friend in the opening level still doesn't given it the forward momentum to sustain the 'countdown to the next attack' pace, and missions will vary widely trying to be full of action set pieces, while still supporting the return to stealthily crawling about.
It's also not possible to talk about the characters without bringing up the loss of Michael Ironside as the voice of Sam Fisher. Newcomer Eric Johnson doesn't even do a particularly bad job, but he just doesn't impart the same amount of gravitas that a voice like Ironside's does. One has a voice and one just is a voice. The other troubling aspect to this is the soft rebooting that occurs with a fresh younger voice behind the character, with Sam suddenly shedding about 20 years from his character design. Sam Fisher is supposed to be pushing 60 years old by now, and the 'I'm getting too old for this' undertone was always one of the interesting aspects to the character. This could have been the extra level the story needed.
One of the major selling points this time around is how the entire experience of playing Blacklist in any of its modes is all integrated into a single point of access. In-game the Strategic Mission Interface, or SMI for short, is a big fancy war room table, but it allows for the various multiplayer, co-op, challenge missions and single player campaign to all be placed together on the same map. It's a nice nod to keeping everything in setting, though it does sometimes strain at the edges when say Sam is suddenly receiving $10,000 for having gunned down his 50th terrorist with a sniper rifle. For the most part, it means that the money you earn across any of the game types can be applied throughout the whole game: upgrading Sam's weapons and gadgets or your load outs in multiplayer. Want that new fancy set of night-vision goggles before the next story mission? Well, fire up one of the challenge maps and earn yourself a little side money.