Sam Fisher is different nowadays. His gruff voice has smoothed, and he's not always keen to stick to the shadows. Sam isn't worse for the wear, but he isn't always the man you remember. Nor, for that matter, is Splinter Cell.
Just as Splinter Cell: Conviction represented a metamorphosis for the stealth series, so too does Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Blacklist nudges Sam further into action-hero territory; where Conviction's story was personal, Blacklist's narrative is about what Sam does, not who he is. As in its predecessor, your mission goals appear as text projected into the environment, but that text no longer reflects Sam's state of mind. Blacklist is all business, and the Tom Clancy-inspired, jargon-heavy dialogue of its early hours reflects as much.
Pulling off a succession of kills in this manner is a blast, but it isn't required, and the nature of Blacklist's ever-varying level design and mission requirements makes it an infrequent pleasure. Blacklist's best levels are highly structured, intricate melanges of ventilation shafts, rooftops, cover-adorned streets, and interior cubicles that allow you to shimmy and slink around, paying careful attention to each guard's behavior and putting your array of devices to the test.
One such device is a drone that you remotely pilot, marking terrorists and taking them down with a dart. Other gadgets are familiar ones: sticky cameras, remote noisemakers, and so forth. The most interesting situations encourage experimentation, giving you a reason to try out your gadgets and guns, testing the limits of the AI, which often (but not always) displays real smarts. A patrolling guard might remark on how a previously closed door is now open and come to investigate, or quickly pirouette as he passes a darkened cubbyhole that could serve as a predator's prime hiding spot. Keeping a vulnerable Sam out of harm's way in these scenarios is enjoyably tense, though some missions are easy to accomplish on medium difficulty. On harder difficulty levels, most missions are arduous and gripping, and two episodes--one in which you must work under a time limit, and one in which you tail an unlikely ally--crank up the drama even further.
That moola is also spent on enhancements and weapons for Splinter Cell: Blacklist's excellent competitive modes. Pandora Tomorrow introduced the beloved Spies vs. Mercs mode, which pitted a team of two slinking spies against a team of two gunners that play in a first-person perspective. As Pandora Tomorrow/Chaos Theory fans might tell you, there's nothing quite like this asymmetric competition, and Blacklist gives you a classic version of the mode in which persistent upgrades are ignored and you rely only on your wits--and your knowledge of the map.
Blacklist offers more than classic Spies vs. Mercs, however, and several other modes allow you to equip your hard-earned upgrades and exercise your cunning with more than three other players. Two of them even let you mix spies and mercs into the same team: four-versus-four Team Deathmatch and a conquest-type three-versus-three variant called Uplink Control. Mixed teams can give rise to thrilling moments, with a merc chasing an enemy spy into an ambush, or a mine turning a careful plan into a messy explosion. Spies vs. Mercs still stands above the rest, however; watching the countdown as the hack progresses is a stressful endeavor, whether you're seeking the pesky hacker causing the trouble, or trying to get the drop on a merc packing an AK-47.