The world of espionage is a trifle mistress; on a beach somewhere lies a man happily sipping a martini after casually hooking up with a female field operative. That man is a world away from the harsh realities and blurred lines that Sam Fisher must walk in Splinter Cell Blacklist.

The story of Blacklist sees a series of escalating terror attacks that began when a group calling themselves “The Engineers” decimate Anderson Air Force Base in Guam. Fisher was onsite with old buddy Victor Cole and the pair narrowly escape, though the latter is injured protecting Sam from a grenade. To counter the threat posed by these attacks, Patricia Caldwell, the president of the United States forms Fourth Echelon, a special ops and counter terrorism unit based aboard the military aircraft Paladin, that acts a hub for everything the game has to offer, including a lengthy single player campaign, an array of side missions and heralding the return of the iconic Spies Vs Mercs multiplayer.

Despite dealing with some jarringly relevant issues, Splinter Cell Blacklist’s narrative never really hooks you in, serving only as a bridge to explain the jump from one location to another. In essence it creates a stark juxtaposition between the impending countdown and wealth of content on offer. Though what really matters is the journey and long-term fans of the Splinter Cell series will be glad to know that despite Conviction’s misgivings, stealth is back – if you want it to be. Splinter Cell Blacklist is all about choice, not in the branching story altering decisions of an RPG, but rather in how you want to go from A to B.

During play your actions are awarded with points that fit into one of three categories; Ghost, Panther and Assault. Those taking the traditional Splinter Cell playstyle of working through levels unnoticed, knocking out foes and using gadgetry to your advantage will earn themselves “Ghost” points. Those embracing the moniker “silent but deadly” are known as embracing the style of the “Panther,” awarded points for killing targets silently and introducing any of those stupid enough to get close to the edge of your blade. The last style of play, “Assault”, is for those who like to shoot first and then shoot the people asking questions later, a pretty good choice for those who want to watch the world burn.

As what could be seen as an incentive to play the game how the developers envision it being played, Ghost points are the most valuable in Splinter Cell Blacklist and can be traded for hefty financial rewards. If the financial incentive wasn’t enough to get you to play ball, stealth is prioritised through optional objectives including not killing anyone or clearing levels without being detected, though both are easier said than done. You can spend your money altering your load out, adjusting your weapons, suit and gadgetry to reflect your preferred play style or perhaps just a few cosmetic changes, spying with style.

Optimising for stealth reduces the noise of your movements and makes it easier to blend into the darkness, but don’t expect your ops suit to stop many bullets if spotted. Players focused on stealth upgrades don’t excel in drawn out firefights, but will get to experience these intense moments where pulling off the perfect shot will be the difference between blowing your cover or remaining undetected. Stealth fans will also find themselves carrying more gadgets than James Bond and Michael Westen put together, allowing you to short circuit security systems, distract enemies and silently knock them out.

Completing missions awards you with hefty sums of cash and those looking to procrastinate for just a little longer can give Paladin some tender loving care, upgrading the facilities to provide additional features on-board or out in the field. Certain upgrades will provide more customisation options for your kit, others will increase the pace of health regeneration or allow you to switch load-outs in the field. It’s nice that these are actual visual changes, but for the $100,000 I spent upgrading the holding cell, I could have done a lot more with the place.

Whilst gameplay emphasises choice, every so often you’ll be shoehorned into obligatory stealth/shooting sections. It varies up the gameplay but I personally found that it only served as a source of frustration, detracting from my preferred play style. Splinter Cell Blacklist also features a lot of dramatic, “overcoming the odds” clichés, where our hero miraculously manages to escape danger by running really fast away from it. I wish it were the only cliché that Blacklist commits, but they’ve also turned Sam into this almost mindless “hoorah” soldier, at times so obsessed with completing the mission that he disregards his own life. It’s a heroic staple but worlds away from the Fisher who called his daughter after every mission.

For me, the biggest issue with Splinter Cell Blacklist is that whilst the story is told on a timescale, creating the illusion of urgency, interactions on Paladin are an obstacle to this. It’s hard to maintain belief that the next attack is happening right that very moment when you’ve just held off 15 waves of enemies at the embassy in Yemen, collected valuable data for Grim and swore profusely because you can’t find a friend to tackle the pressing nuke issues that Briggs won’t stop talking about. Speaking of finding a friend, all of the side missions can be played in co-op meaning, either through split-screen or online. It’s a good laugh, especially since playing with a friend opens up avenues of engagement that remained previously unavailable to you. Though on Grim’s very stealth heavy missions, an additional player can feel like a little bit of a burden.

When I checked out the Spies vs Mercenaries hands on preview event in London, I noted that “If Splinter Cell: Blacklist has as comprehensive and engaging campaign to match, I’m dubbing it one of this year’s must-have titles” and despite some pacing flaws, it exceeded my expectations. With three different playstyles to choose from, co-operative features, a multiplayer mode and much, much more, Splinter Cell Blacklist has enough content to keep any gamer happy for quite some time.

Score: 4/5

Splinter Cell Blacklist is out now for PC, PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U.

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