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March 7, 2014

RE: Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Well.  Here’s an interesting situation.

Some weeks back my brother picked up an old copy of Splinter Cell: Blacklist, presumably so he and our buddy could stumble through its co-op between beatdowns in PlayStation All-Stars or Smash Bros. Brawl.  It’s hard to say how far they’ve gotten in their little campaign, but what I’ve seen thus far has been something like watching two penguins on banana peels try to save America from terrorists -- hilariously inept to the point of becoming boringly commonplace at times, but a spectacle all the same.  I wouldn’t say I’d try the co-op for myself, but I’m glad those two had their fun with it.

It should go without saying, but my jam would be the single-player aspect.  And indeed, I was simultaneously interested in and worried by the prospect of trying Blacklist solo.  Its E3 showings turned me off for all the obvious reasons, but for the sake of trying to get out of my comfort zone and giving something with the Tom Clancy brand the benefit of the doubt, I decided it would be stupid of me to give it the cold shoulder just because it didn’t have the requisite full use of the color spectrum.  So I gave it a try.

And as I was playing it, a question suddenly popped into my head: who is this game for?

I know that sounds like a silly question for dummy-heads, but hear me out on this.  For me, it feels like there’s a disconnection between what the game should be and what the game is -- a canyon between expectations and reality, created by the sum of its parts for the sake of a product that probably isn’t as airtight as I would have hoped.  Simply put, it’s a game that confuses me.  And for once, I’m having a hard time trying to proceed with it -- or even figure out what to do with it. But I’ll get to that.

Let’s start with a bit of context.  You play as series mainstay (even if he’s got a new voice) Sam Fisher, one of the world’s greatest spies/operatives/stealth whatchamajiggers who just happens to be hanging around with his pal on a base in Guam when, suddenly, terrorists!  Sam makes it out okay, but his pal gets hurt -- and worse yet, the “Engineers” declare that unless every U.S. soldier pulls out of every country, this new terrorist cell is going to launch an attack every seven days.  So now it’s up to Sam and his team -- the newly-formed “Fourth Echelon”, cruising around in their tricked out plane-base -- to sort this mess out however they can.  Because, presumably, this time it’s personal.

It’s probably worth noting that I’m not exactly an expert when it comes to the Splinter Cell canon.  I mean, I’ve got a GameCube installment in Chaos Theory, but I didn’t even touch the single-player; I just played the co-op with my bro, and even then not very far because UbiSoft games used HUGE amounts of much-needed space on the memory cards.  Same deal for Conviction -- I didn’t even touch that, and watched as my bro and buddy stumbled their way through levels.  (Another unfinished endeavor, of course.)  What I know from the overarching story is that Sam is a grizzled stealthy guy, he’s got an aptly-named redheaded lady friend who goes by “Grim” -- and isn’t that just a dark omen for what’s to come -- and he roughs up the bad guys from the shadows.

Blacklist doesn’t seem too interested in inviting new players into the fold.  To be fair, it’s probably because there’s not too much I’m missing, but I still feel like I’m missing a lot here.  I know about the Echelons or whatever, however vaguely, but in the very first mission Sam’s team has to go after a character that was apparently a major enemy in an earlier game -- someone who kidnapped/faked the death of Sam’s daughter -- and it takes almost the entirety of a cutscene for the token young-ish guy Charlie to ask “who is this guy?”  And the others answer almost offhandedly before they go back to their business.  One can’t help but wonder why they even let the kid sit at the adults’ table.

And on that note, I’m not wholly convinced that these are people I’m going to want to follow over the course of however many hours the game lasts.  Apparently the team consists of a core four members -- Sam, Grim, black guy Briggs, and tech guy Charlie (who I’m pretty sure is only there to try and fail to inject some levity and “coolness” into the team using moves straight out of Poochie the Dog’s playbook).  It’s early in the game, I know, but there’s a problem: even if there is some depth to these people, I’m worried by the fact that I have no desire to learn about the depth to these people.

Surprisingly, once you complete the prologue mission the game takes you to the gang’s plane-base (stealing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.s’ thunder by a full month) where you’re free to roam around, talk to your crew, and make upgrades to your super-spy and your ship.  It’s a layout that feels very familiar for some reason -- though I can’t imagine why -- but I appreciate its presence.  It means that there’s more than just wall-to-wall action…except even if you have the option to talk to your team, I have my doubts anything will come from it.  Maybe I just need to play more levels before things open up, but right now these people don’t seem like much more than quest vendors, or voices that’ll chatter in your ear when you’re on a mission.  Save for obnoxious tech guy, the adults seem to have the same basic personality with slight variations -- grave, determined, and experienced soldier who’ll engage in a little quipping every now and then.  I could be wrong (and I hope I am), but it’s not looking great.  Not when they’re going up against some tough competition.

So.  How about that gameplay?

You would think that after my “fun” with The Last of Us and my distaste for what I call “predator games”, Blacklist would be an immediate turn-off for me…and you’d be right.  Blacklist has to work much harder than it should to impress me, because its gameplay and my sensibilities might as well have the Gulf of Mexico between them.  Is it an automatic deal-breaker?  Well, no.  Neither was The Last of Us.  But stealth games aren’t created equal, and while I have issues with The Misdventures of Joel Grumpybuns, right now I’m (slightly) willing to retroactively give that game more respect, even if it crapped itself by adding in a fully-functional flamethrower.

 On its standard difficulty -- the truest measure of a game’s difficulty, without having to add in apologist “hard modes” -- Blacklist doesn’t feel like the rigorous, tension-filled mission it should be.  I’m not going to play the “ludonarrative dissonance” card, but I think there’s something wrong with a game when its dominant strategy is to lure enemies to a doorway, mash Square to knock them out, and then toss their unconscious bodies down a flight of stairs.  It’s too easy, and there’s an unintentional level of silliness when you’re more concerned with seeing if you can throw their bodies out closed windows than you are with extracting a hostage.  (For the record, you can throw people out windows, but it might take you a few tries to do so.)

Since I’m still at the game’s outset, it’s hard to say for sure how desperately a player will need more tools and equipment -- but as it stands, I get the feeling that it’s more than possible to complete the game without them.  I actually like that Sam can only take a few gunshots before dying, but that’s negated by the fact that he’s got regenerating health, you can escape from bad situations fairly easily, and you shouldn’t even have to worry about getting spotted if you’re playing the game right (which even a stealth-lummox like me can do with some consistency in Blacklist). 

Shadows and cover are more important tools than anything else, but you can shift the odds in your favor just by using gas grenades, night vision, and noisemaker gadgets that can lure enemies closer for a quick death-snuggle.  I’m not exactly feeling the need to evolve -- i.e. I’ve never said to myself “Man, I sure wish I had a bigger and better bomb on-hand!”  It’s possible that there could be more shooting bits in the game later demanding a more offensive build, but wouldn’t that be breaking the game’s concept wide open?  Beyond that, why would I need to make a loadout with a heavier gun when I can just grab a rifle from an enemy I’ve downed the proper way?

I suspect that the upgrade system in this game is there for the player’s pleasure rather than necessity.  It’s not about gathering up and equipping the tools you need to survive, or even to create your own agent; it’s about strapping on as many toys and costume bits you can so you can rock each level and troll enemies to death.  I’m confident in my tool set in stage one of the game, and even if I end up almost getting detected by the baddies it’s never reached a point where I’ve blamed my loadout; I’ve blamed myself for being a clumsy putz.  The answer to the problems in Blacklist shouldn’t be “buy better gear”; it should be “hone your skills”.  Shouldn’t it? 

And that just opens up a whole new set of questions.  Example: why does it feel like it’s better to have an enemy detect you than it does to completely evade them?  There have been times when a baddie caught sight of me just as I ducked into cover, so he came to investigate and I made him eat my fist for trying to be a good soldier; if I hadn’t gotten spotted, however briefly, I would have had to put myself at even greater risk to dodge him or take him out, so basically he did the work for me. 

Beyond that, what is the patrol route of some of these enemies, if not random?  There’s a moment in the first level where you have to ride a zipline from one rooftop to the next, and there’s a guard standing around.  The first time I zipped, I tackled the guy and knocked him out.  When I died and had to zip again, the guy just bumbled around in a nonsensical pattern, and every other time I tried to tackle him he just spotted me and demanded a quick punch-up to resolve the situation. 

Beyond that, why do I get the feeling that you can only be detected if enemies are placed exactly where they need to be by the devs to spot your movements?  Far be it from me to wax nostalgic about The Last of Us, but if enemies are going to have the clairvoyance needed to be exactly where I want to go and be dumb enough to randomly stumble upon me, then I need some kind of sonar-beard to prevent things from going bad.  Or if not bad, then at least slightly awry.  Or completely bad, in the case of my bro’s co-op misadventures (where he’d occasionally make the same complaints).

Beyond that, why do I have an instant-kill ability?

I’ve heard that the “Execution” mechanic was in Conviction as well -- or one of those Splinter Cell games -- but I can’t even come close to approving of it.  The way it works is that you can hit R2 to mark a target; if you’ve got the energy stocked in your meter, you can hit Triangle to instantly kill them -- i.e. multiple targets, if you’ve got the meter -- if you’re in a certain field of range.  My question here is, why?  Okay, sure, you can’t miss with an Execution, and I guess it’s got its uses if you want to clear out an area’s last two or three guys, but why would the game take the guesswork -- or the work, period -- out of the gameplay? 

Pardon my naiveté, but isn’t the entire point of a stealth game to try and solve the puzzle of how to get past guys much tougher and deadlier than you?  Setting aside the fact that you’re given an I-Win Button (one that you’re supposed to use sparingly vis a vis the meter and strategic purposes, but you’re not going to use it UNLESS you’re ready to shout I WIN), why do I need that when I have a gun and the capacity to do headshots on my own?  Why do I need to bother when even a non-lethal, close-range takedown leaves enemies removed from the fight, and unlike, say, Metal Gear Solid, can’t wake up unless another enemy revives them?  What is the point, if not to make the player feel like Coolly McCoolperson when the game kills enemies for them?

Right now, the gameplay is on some very shaky ground.  But even then, there could be a saving grace.  Maybe not with the characters (or maybe with them somewhere down the line), but with all the other unique parts.  Maybe some aspect of the story.  Maybe the worlds themselves.  Maybe the enemies, and their plight -- their understandable reason for lashing out against America and the world at large.

Maybe that’s all in there.  Maybe what I want is nestled away.  But right now, Blacklist is making me think of Call of Duty for all the wrong reasons.  Assuming that there’s a good reason to think of Call of Duty, but if we get bogged down by semantics, we’re going to be here for a month.

I’m no expert on the works on the late Tom Clancy -- I’ve read a couple of his shorter, if co-written books, and I think I might have one of his titles somewhere -- but I would have guessed that seeing his name attached to a product would suggest at least a bit higher quality.  Even if he wasn’t attached to Blacklist in any way besides names and basic concepts, I went in expecting a more nuanced approach to terrorism, politics, global relations, and more -- not just the guns-blazing, “shoot the brown people” bonanzas of the common modern military shooter.  This was a chance to provide concepts, and insights, and layers of complexity, even if they had to be lessened a bit for the gaming audience at large.

So of course, the first level in the game is all about shooting brown people.

As part of the extraction mission, Sam heads to India to find some bad guy I guess the player is supposed to know by now.  In the midst, we get glimpses of the “Indian militia” as mentioned by Grim over comms; since you’re disguised as a mere tourist at the time, you walk right past as there’s some commotion between them and some civilians.  And about fifteen minutes later, you’re strangling, punching, and shooting more brown people, a few of which get killed in your Execution tutorial. 

So wait, is the militia supposed to be the bad guys?  What were they doing there in the first place besides livening up their “introductory scene”?  What’s their stake in the matter?  Were those guys I killed members of the militia?  What about the guys I killed on the way to the captive?  Why is it okay to kill these guys?  Come to think of it, what am I even doing here in India?  I know that the three members of the team talked about it before the mission started, but the way they talked it felt more like I was eavesdropping than getting the context I needed.  So am I creating a potential international incident?  Am I off the grid?  Are The Engineers off the grid?  Who am I?

Now, let’s be real here.  Is it fair to judge a story based on its opening hour or so?  No, of course not.  I imagine that before all’s said and done, I’ll get a good picture of what’s going on, and have all my questions and doubts taken care of.  That said, what’s been presented to me so far feels cold and alien to me -- a hyper-condensed, hyper-simplified version of real-world events, organizations, issues, and controversies.  I’d like to assume that it’s because I have the political sense of the average woodchuck, but my instincts are telling me that what I’m lacking won’t appear anytime soon.  If at all.

I sure hope I’m wrong on that one.  Because when I look at Blacklist, I can’t help but think of “missed opportunities.”

Once you set down in India, you get to walk around for a bit as Sam in civilian clothes, and try your hardest not to look suspicious.  No guns, no triclops-goggles, nothing -- just you and a backpack trotting through the streets.  It’s a way to set up the setting, however incompletely; there are some intricate buildings, aesthetics, and overall visuals (setting aside the usual Unreal Engine palette), but you’re not really being given the freedom to explore or interact with the world.  It’s just a guided tour in the worst possible way.  It’s a shame, because I wouldn’t mind a bit of freedom to see the sights -- to see the world I’m trying to save from the bad guys.  But I can’t do that, because that wasn’t the devs’ intention.

I was under the impression that games were supposed to be about an interaction between the player and the mechanics therein -- the myriad systems coming together to make a statement, with particulars like setting, characters, and more supporting the vision.  The proof of a concept.  But time and time again I’ve been shown that too many companies these days aren’t willing to create that interaction.  Blacklist is just one more addition to that list; it feels like they wanted to make a world worth exploring, but as it stands it’s just a fairly pretty set of puzzle rooms -- and the only puzzle is “Find a way to kill these guys.”  You don’t know how many times I looked through the level and wished for something more than just cheap self-satisfaction as I fling a downed enemy off a roof.

So I have to go back to the question I asked at the start.  It’s obvious that this isn’t a game made for me; it never was, and it never will be.  But if it’s not for me, then who is it for?

It can’t be for fans of Tom Clancy or political intrigue, because right now it looks like this conflict has been pared down to a game of Cops and Robbers.  So is it for fans of stealth games?  And if so, then is there enough here in Blacklist to justify buying and playing a game where you’ve always got assassination insurance? 

Is it for fans of action games -- and if that’s the case, then is there enough spectacle and bombast to keep their attention?  (I’ve heard that this game has more of that somewhere, but right now I’m dreading that rather than looking forward to seeing more.)  Is it for fans of the franchise, because they enjoy seeing Sam go at it across the globe and taking down enemies who aren’t even close to posing a challenge for him?  Is it for people who just want to play hero in an age that defined and redefined terrorism?

Actually, you could ask the same about modern military shooters -- a lot of shooters, really -- in general.  The player-game interaction from one title to the next is depressingly similar, but I’m having a hard time seeing the appeal.  It’s true that MovieBob once argued that the charm of Call of Duty and its compatriots was paring down modern conflicts to simple revenge fantasies (and worse yet, turning conflicts into World War II with more technology and rock concerts), but is that enough of a reason to do it with everything? 

Are devs making these games because they know (or think) they’ll sell, or because they know that it’s what the people want?  Why DO the people want this?  Is it just because they get to go bang-bang online?  Or have political conflicts informed them so much that they want to engage in an oversimplified version of it all, and resolve situations from the safety of chairs and couches?  If that’s the case -- if Blacklist really does have an audience like that -- then doesn’t that paint a pretty bleak picture of our society?

This rabbit hole’s getting deep.  Time to bury it with some internet memes.

Despite all of my talk, I have a confession to make: I’m not quite ready to give up Blacklist just yet.  Granted I haven’t played it in the time between my first session with it and this post -- and keep in mind that this post comes from a file roughly a month old -- but I think I’ve cooled off enough to go back and give it another go…even though I quit somewhere in the later third of the first mission, but whatever.  Forgive and forget.

I want to believe that there’s some real juice to this game.  Some insight to be had.  Something to help me realize that I can overcome my biases and accept things that might seem alien to me.  I want to try and find the good in this game, so I can hold up examples from it.  I’m not ready to “turn my brain off” to enjoy it, but if I have to engage with it on its terms, then so be it.  Let the records show that I’m the Eternal Optimist.

The question here is how far I should go.  Should I do it like The Last of Us, and try to force my way through?  Or should I cut it off whenever I feel like I’ve gotten as much as I can out of it?  Basically, it’s going to be the difference between a Let’s Discuss post and a Let’s “Discuss” post.  Both of them have the potential to go awry, but one of them can go a lot lower than the other.  As you know.

So what do you think?  Should I soldier on, or go AWOL?  And what do you think about what I’ve gabbed on about here?  If you’ve got something to say, you know what to do.

Go play The Wonderful 101.  Yes, I quite enjoy it.  And I’d very much like to celebrate its existence for a while longer. 



  1. Heh, your first few sentences pretty much proved my point. XD Half-Blood Prince wasn't the greatest book ever, but it did have as much teen romance bullshit as the movie did. Sure, some really important plot stuff happened, but you have to sit through the hormones and love-decahedron BS to get there. -_-

    (Well, at least Neville kicked ass in the end, even if it took multiple books to make him more than a wimpier

  2. It always amazes me how you and your brother stand each other, given how your approaches on video games and movies can clash so epically. Well, you might not disagree on everything, but its kinda funny he shows you this stuff and goes either "Hey, you'll like it!" or "I know you'll hate it and I want to laugh as you suffer!" Ah... family.


    Though my skills are nothing to be proud of, I always preferred reasonably challenging games over power fantasies. The furthest I take it is playing a god and killing off my Sims in cruel and unusual ways whenever I get bored. Minus that occasional escapade, I expect to get my ass kicked daily. Given what you described here, I'd probably fall asleep. Then I'd dream I'm replaying MGS2.

    Considering how the era of terrorism is a cannibalistic cycle of time-wasting, needless violence, bullying mentalities, and paranoia, I have no idea when our shooter craze will end. Developers aren't even trying to impose challenges; they obsess with the Middle East and other regions where it's "acceptable" for white 'Mericans ("Fuck yeah!") to beat the crap out of any "brown" person that stands in their way. This genre frustrated if not disturbed me from day one, and I'm thankful I have not played these games. (Mass Effect - if you really want to nitpick - is the only exception. And Shadow the Hedgehog. But they had aliens.)

    What you should do? Eh...

    If it's THAT easy and the content is relatively inoffensive in the sense that the plot's not driving you up the wall like The Last of Us did, then finish what you started. If not, drop it. Think about your levels of frustration and (possible) rage. If you sense that your blood pressure will skyrocket, this game is not worth stressing too much on. There are bigger fish in the sea. Pace yourself.

  3. I like Attack On Titan very much. I buy some Attack On Titan toys and Attack On Titan costumes .

  4. "It always amazes me how you and your brother stand each other, given how your approaches on video games and movies can clash so epically."

    We have an unspoken agreement to be diametrically opposed on most subjects. But that's pretty much to be expected; we usually end up playing the rival characters in fighting games. I pick Ryu, he picks Ken; I pick Ky, he picks Sol; I pick Ragna, he picks Jinl I pick Paul, he picks Law. The list goes on. To say nothing of the fact that our play styles are completely different; it's my pragmatic defense against his relentless offense more often than not. Dragon versus tiger.

    Actually, on that note, I've been thinking about power fantasies in video games a lot recently. There's a pretty strong argument to be made that fighting games are ALSO power fantasies (playing as T. Hawk is the closest I'll ever get to having muscles that could stop tank rounds), but I'd like to think that the key difference is that the emphasis is on the FANTASY instead of the POWER. There's no real-world context or drive behind a match in Street Fighter; one look at any given screenshot should tell you that. But with games like Blacklist and the CoDs, they're willingly venturing into some dangerous territory. Paring everything down to the same level as the average paintball game doesn't do anyone any favors.

    I don't know. Maybe it's just a side effect of games getting more "realistic". How do you express the virtual nature of a game when devs have been pining for "photorealism" for years, if only because that's what everyone THINKS is the summit of a game's potential? So on that note, they're limiting themselves -- and those limits are begging for failure from the get-go. To paraphrase Spoony, there are just some intangibles that get in the way -- things that tickle your brain, and signal that something isn't right.

    Or maybe I'm just trying to link all my biases into one super-theory of hatred. Who knows?

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaanyway...yeah, I think I'm going to shelve Blacklist indefinitely. I STILL need to finish Ni no Kuni, and I've only just started getting into it in earnest. I don't want to get into another game until I make some major headway into that.

    That said, there IS one other game that I could talk about. But I'll get to that. Eventually.