As we rolled over into the new year I had a revelation about my recent gaming habits. After flinging a number of games into the proverbial wall to see what would stick, I would typically find myself returning frequently to games with what I’ll call recursive mechanics. These would be titles that rely on that classically incomplete “thirty seconds of fun” quote, or perhaps encapsulate the true point the developer had sought to get across.
I chucked Splinter Cell: Blacklist at the wall, with the full expectation that it would stick. It was, after all, a mechanically driven stealth-game that I had heard plenty of positive things on. As expected, it clung right onto the wall… for a while. Then it slowly slid downwards, the adhesive stretching until gravity took over and Blacklist plummeted right to the ground.
There’s a game within Splinter Cell: Blacklist that I enjoy. I know because I got to play it for a while. Unfortunately Blacklist is also constructed similarly to Far Cry 3 in regards to upgrades. You may recall that I never bothered to finish Far Cry 3.
Done correctly, upgrades are a wonderful way of frequently rewarding the player. They also can help the player learn the mechanics of the game step by step, slowly building upon and potentially mastering all the preceding abilities before unlocking and experimenting with a new one. Nintendo’s Metroid and Zelda franchises rely on this mechanic, as do the games that follow their model. Role-playing games use levels as a measurement for learning new skills and spells, expanding a player’s tactical options in combat.
In other words, upgrades work best when they are expanding upon a solid set of core mechanics.
When your upgrades are based around an economy, however, then the balance becomes a bit more difficult to pull off. Finding the treasure or earning the money becomes the reward, and improved skills and abilities are the product purchased with that reward. There’s a disconnect and a lack of immediacy to the reward. You cannot immediately implement this wonderful new trick. You have to wait until a designated area before being able to suddenly purchase a number of upgrades immediately, all of which may encourage the player to change their play style in a drastic manner without the time to ease into it.
While it’s possible to have a game implement such a system and still remain really good, such as Resident Evil 4, it’s also possible to have such a system completely fail or create an expansive skill gap. This is the Splinter Cell: Blacklist method.
Every mission you play in Splinter Cell: Blacklist contains a handful of side-objectives that grant currency upon completion. There are a variety of achievements and other metric-based goals that will also earn the player currency. The player’s general performance and the difficulty they played on will add a significant chunk of cash to their bank account. Then, before jumping into the next mission, the player can spend it on a wide assortment of gear, much of it locked away until you purchase the preceding upgrade. These tend to make protagonist Sam Fischer more silent whilst creeping around environments, or cause him to take a little bit more damage before dying. Upgrading weapons not only allows them to deal more damage, they also gain better recoil control and other minor changes.
Unless you’re already a master at the game’s mechanics, however, it will feel like Blacklist is always a step or two ahead of your upgrading capabilities or habits. Challenging areas to stealth. Optional missions, ones that are necessary to afford upgrades to stand a chance in the campaign mission, require items or tools that the player may not have ever purchased, and therefore have no clue how to use. Enemies will be numerous and dealing a lot of damage.
Perhaps I am relying too much on playing the optional missions, each of which is quite difficult. However, I found the first and second levels to have enough of a skill gap that it seems like it is expected to play those optional missions. Otherwise, how can you afford all the necessary upgrades to stand a chance at the more difficult tasks?
Yet the upgrade system is a red herring. While it certainly contributes to the game’s difficulty (why would you make stealth less effective at the beginning of a game that relies on being able to stealth through treacherous environments?), it is not the core of it.
I observed quite often that stealth and horror games, when done effectively, only have one primary difference: information granted to the player. Mark of the Ninja was an incredible game because it knew how to balance the player’s fragility with knowledge, the greatest tool within their arsenal. The myriad options of stealth kills were only as useful as the player’s ability to plan out their approach and avoid being seen.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is absolutely terrible about informing the player of anything. That is, unless you upgrade your magic spy plane enough times so that your radar finally reveals some semi-relevant information. Even if you know where on the map foes are standing and looking, however, not all of the hostiles will appear on the map. The player has to try and take their time creeping along cover, peeking out to mark and make note of their foes, hoping all the enemy soldiers were spotted before beginning operation choke-out.
Chances are, you missed a guy or two and suddenly find yourself being shot at as you creep up on your first guard, or perhaps try to drag his unconscious or dead body to the bushes to hide.
It’s not so bad that Blacklist forces the player to work for their knowledge. The crime is that, due to the nature in which the levels are designed, it is quite possible the player will frequently get spotted by foes due to the inability to effectively scout a territory. It is especially egregious after playing Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes over the holidays, a game that is built with the intent of the player scouting and marking out the enemy territory. The player still has to work for their information, but the reward for slow, cautious, intelligent play is knowledge, and plenty of it.
There are plenty of other minor items of note that make Blacklist a little bit frustrating. Foes with helmets or foes with heavy armor are not only occasionally frustrating, but both need to be taken down with a melee attack to be defeated. Two foes with the same requirement in combat, only one must be stunned first, is simply redundant. It is also quite annoying to have so many foes in as many rooms require a specific style of kill, especially in a game that is otherwise full of options in regards to how to play.
So I currently am choosing to play other games instead. At its core, there is a game in Splinter Cell: Blacklist that I know I would love. It just happens to be buried so deep beneath its many number of problems. I’d love to pick it back up, to stick it right back onto the wall and try again, but Xenoblade Chronicles is already there, stuck to the wall on its own. Why would I ignore such an excellent and deserving title in favor of one that is too busy interfering with its own sense of enjoyment?