Little did I know when I wrote last week about my disdain for unfocused open-world games (and my fear for what that would do to Metal Gear Solid) that a game already existed that satisfied basically all of my desires. Splinter Cell: Blacklist has it all–you can play in full-on stealth mode (Ghost), attempting to avoid combat entirely; as a gung-ho killing machine (Assault); or as a mix between the two (Panther), silently killing enemies from cover. Optional side-missions help you to refine these skills, focusing on specific objectives, such as Assault’s wave-survival mode, Ghost’s infiltration missions (which end the second you’re detected), and Panther’s assassination mode, which require you to take out all of the targets in a series of zones–penalizing you with difficult reinforcements if you’re spotted, and the cash earned from these is used to further hone your attributes, depending on the approach you’re most comfortable with. The result, then, is a highly-focused series of encounters, the majority of which can be completed in three different ways–you can crawl through vents, climb over rooftops, and use the slick cover mechanics to elude snipers, or you can just crush the resistance as you encounter it; there are only a few main missions that require you to use a given play style, all of which make sense given the various objectives of Sam Fischer and his off-the-books Fourth Echelon.
From the flying aircraft carrier you use as a main base/hub, Paladin, you can select the missions that most interest you, or simply talk with your crew (similar to Mass Effect‘s use of the Normandy)–while it’s not open world, it’s loose enough to make you feel as if you’ve got control, especially since there’s a robust list of money-earning objectives that reward the use of gadgets you might otherwise never mess around with. Speaking of which, because the closed environments cannot be “broken” in the same way as in a chaotic open-world game, Sam’s spy tools feel fleshed out, from his goggles (which can be upgraded from basic night vision all the way to a full-spectrum, sonic-pulsing, see-through-walls set of eyes) to his Trirotor drone, which can be manually piloted around to distract and disable enemies. EMP pulses, tear gas, smoke grenades, and incendiary devices further complement your selected play style; generous checkpointing ensures that experimenting with these mechanically-assisted takedowns is never punished.
Moreover, because you can select the exact experience you want, you don’t have to run around wide stretches of empty space (or do any backtracking) as you look for new objectives. You simply select your mission, jump into it, and have a blast; even better, each level has a distinct twist, whether it’s giving you a ten minute window in which to disable a series of pumps in a water treatment facility, requiring you to shadow an Iranian general, escaping a targeted drone strike (or operating one to turn the tables), or running down a fleeing target . . . there’s even a first-person-shooter section (though this last one is poorly designed). The globetrotting ensures that the locales stay fresh, even within the side-missions, so while you might be outside an Iraqi embassy one moment, you’ll soon be breaking into an off-shore Internet routing station, or outrageously infiltrating Guantanamo Prison. If none of that interests you, there’s even a daily Carmen Sandiego-like meta-game played on the mission select screen, in which you must use context clues like landmark names or GPS coordinates to find hidden nodes on the world map. Again, none of this requires aimless wandering, looking for “random” events–it just requires intelligence and patience, and other series should consider the excellent way in which Blacklist separates and combines its various content. (Tomb Raider 2, I’m looking at you.)
This apart-but-together content is best exemplified by the co-op design; the side-missions can be completed either alone or with a partner, while the actual co-op mode is a tight set of four unique missions. In other words, the main story is given the room to deliver a pure single-player experience, but not at the expense of other features that players might desire. Bonus daily and weekly challenges (including custom-built ones that pit you against the people on your friends list) allows Ubisoft to gently encourage players to extend their time with the game, especially within the Spy vs. Mercenary multiplayer mode, but never really forces them to wade through uninteresting content. (It helps, I guess, if you find, as I did, the main campaign to be one of the more compelling stories to spill out of the Tom Clancy universe.) Here’s hoping that missing sales expectations doesn’t ruin all the positive progress made within this long-running franchise.