The challenge levels perfectly map across Blacklist's new gameplay divisions, and the game even further reinforces these by rating you on your successful application of the styles after each mission. As a Ghost, your goal is to slip through the level unseen and without even needing to disturb the guards. On the opposite end, Assault packs all the explosives and firepower necessary to brute force their way through the opposition. Finally, Panther (Was there really not any better suggestion?) is the merging of the two, and is all about the stealthy elimination of threats in your way. Levels are laid out with enough ducts, piping and cover to make any method viable, though not all equally difficult. There are some pretty glaring balance gaps in some of the approaches, a Panther can knife and snipe their way through most missions with ease whereas none of the unsuppressed weapons looked enticing enough to warrant alerting everyone to your Assault-prone presence. It works well enough if your goal is to try and 100% each mission as the various types, but if your only concern is getting through it can feel disjointed.
For missions where a more restrained hand is required, your biggest foe will not be the sniper with a search light but the controller. Standing in a hallway might give you a myriad of context sensitive controls for opening and closing doors, peaking under doors, flipping on and off light switches and jumping up to grab hold of a pipe, all of which are determined by a tiny amount of facing. Let alone if you simply happen to hit the wrong button on the crowded controller layout, which is littered enough to require R3 to reload and the back button to attract guards. You'll eventually get the hang of it, but it won't stop the cursing the first few times you fail a stealth challenge mission because you accidentally tossed a grenade into the room. There were a few times when the detection mechanics became really questionable, like hanging in front of someone's vision in broad daylight. The AI is both really smart and kind of dumb, if discovered they will take alternate paths in order to flank you, but they are also willing to walk right up to a body that just got sniped.
Luckily for Blacklist the multiplayer offering is really strong with some fascinating asynchronous team based modes and co-op that builds on the single-player gameplay. While it can be frustrating when your co-op partner keeps revealing your position to the guards, when you're flawlessly in sync taking out guards in tandem stealth takedown or distracting a guard while your partner completes the objective the game feels at its best.
Spies vs Mercs, Blacklist's competitive mutliplayer, makes its return to the franchise after being absent in Splinter Cell: Conviction, and the game is so much better with it back. The major selling point is the asynchronous nature of the two teams. The Spies play Splinter Cell much like you do during the rest of the game, sneaky acrobats. You'll have access to many of the same tricks and gadgets you've grown accustomed to from single-player, though the spy is suited more towards the stealth aspects of Sam. The big change is that the mercs actually play the game in first-person, and they can't go climbing around like spider monkeys. The trade off is that they can take a lot more damage and dish out more with their heavier assault weapons. Both sides will have to use their gadgets and equipment in order to try and counter the others, while the spies try to be wily and get the drop on the mercs and the mercs depend on solid awareness and trying to cover lines of sight. The whole mode feels so much more unique and fully realized than a simple deathmatch style combat as you nimbly try to avoid the mercs hunting you down while your hacking their objectives.
Trying to make multiple paths and gameplay types is never a bad thing, and in some ways Splinter Cell: Blacklist succeeds in this regard. It's challenging and rewarding to sneak your way through a whole level, but you're also free to explore other methods if that's not your style and invest your money in creating a character that suits it. The problem becomes when you're stretching yourself thin trying to appease the different styles, and when combined with a story that fails to resonate it holds the experience back as a whole. Spies vs Mercs and the co-operative missions do go a long way to shore up the whole game though.
Bottomline: It's great to see the return of Spies vs Mercs and the more stealth aspects to the Splinter Cell series, but some unfocused single-player gameplay and a weak story drag the game down.
Recommendation: If you know you're going to be buying it for the multiplayer and co-op it's worth it.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version.