Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review

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Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist Review

It’s a cool clear night on the riverfront in Istanbul, Turkey. Sam Fisher hangs from a balcony awaiting an opportunity to administer death from above to an unsuspecting guard. Keeping to the shadows, Fisher slides along the railing to get into position. The guard chooses to pause momentarily to take in his surroundings. It’s the last decision he will ever make. In mere seconds, Fisher descends from his perch, delivering a crushing body blow to his prey and knocking him to the hard concrete. Without hesitating, Fisher’s blade neatly finishes the job, ending the guard’s patrol. To avoid detection, the body is tossed over the nearby guard rail into the water below, hiding all evidence of the encounter. Fisher again becomes one with the darkness and advances toward his mission goals.

Sam Fisher is back in Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. This latest Splinter Cellinstallment takes Fisher to Chicago, Tehran, London and beyond in order to take out a terrorist organization threatening the USA. These terrorists, known as the Blacklist Engineers, are demanding that the United States withdraw all its troops from its many outposts around the world. If the USA doesn’t comply, the Engineers will continue attacking various Blacklist targets, effectively ending the world as the inhabitants of the USA know it. Sure, the plot is passable and permits some kind of continuity in the game that drives Sam and his Fourth Echelon team to get the job done for the sake of their nation, but I’ve seen better stories on Spongebob Squarepants. If you turn on any basic cable channel and catch an action flick, chances are you’ll see terrorists threatening the USA and some elite person/group using the best tech available to hunt them down and save the day. You could argue that Blacklist‘s plot doesn’t really need much more substance since the real meat is present elsewhere in the game, but you’d think someone in the creative think tank would’ve been able to come up with something less forgettable.

Splinter Cell Blacklist gameplay

Bad guys never look up

With that said, the worst is out of the way. The gameplay is the real gold, and the more you play the more you like it. When I first started playing this game, I wasn’t sure whether I liked the game or if it was just another average experience. If you only dedicate an hour to it, you might leave the game feeling that way. But I found that once I started really getting into the different ways you can approach each mission, each section and each take down, things just keep getting better. The building blocks are there for any play style you prefer and it is up to you to take advantage of the resources to mix and match as much as you prefer to tune the game to your liking. Would you rather go in guns blazing or stick to the hidden paths and shadows? Do you want total lethality in your arsenal or would you prefer a no-kill style? How much customization would you like to put into your suit, gear and gadgets, if any? There is ample opportunity to customize your loadout to your heart’s desire or just use basic weapons to jump into the action. To make a long story short, you get a lot of choices.

Blacklist offers incentives to try out all the different ways to play. Whether it’s in the form of an accomplishment or just a big wad of cash, you are encouraged to try all the gear, find clever paths around the levels and get creative with your kills. You could theoretically spend the first third of a level moving totally undetected and knocking enemies out, the next third surprising enemies and killing them and the last third burning through ammo and chucking frag grenades, bringing the entire enemy force down on you at once. Heck, half the time it’s more fun to screw with the enemies than it is to actually accomplish objectives. I still get a big kick out of picking up a body of a downed foe and throwing him over a ledge onto the head of some poor guy below. Popping off a couple unsilenced shots and then shrinking back into a hiding place to watch the chaos ensue is always satisfying as the enemies go nuts searching for you. Depending on the mission, you will sometimes be restricted to a certain level of stealth. For example, your teammate Grim enjoys giving you missions where detection leads to immediate failure. Kobin (that jerk who pretended to kill your daughter in a previous installment) dishes out missions with more freedom. Charlie, this douchey tech guy on your team, gives you horde-esque missions where you sometimes have to go all in to survive the waves of enemies.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist gameplay

Terrorists have no problem shooting their comrades

Stealth games get a lot of flack from gamers who are used to the Call of Duty style of gaming. “It’s so boring,” they say. “Not enough action,” they complain. Stealth gamers knock the fast-paced shooters for being too chaotic or lacking strategy when mindlessly pulling the triggers and running around. Now both camps can coexist and enjoy the game together – literally. The side missions discussed above can be done alone or with a partner online or locally (except locally on the Wii U). The online multiplayer offers a variety of modes, particularly the fan favorite Spies vs. Mercs. Spies vs. Mercs is a two on two mode in which one team, acting as heavily armed mercenaries, defends terminals from stealth hackers, effectively creating a handshake between stealth and high energy shooting games. During coop missions, one player can sneak up on enemies from the shadows while the other distracts the enemies with haphazard tactics.

When looking at the settings, models and textures in the game, it is obvious that attention to detail was a priority. The environments are varied and rich, moving through office floors, river canyons, bombed out buildings and quiet, sleepy towns. Keeping in mind that the story takes Sam all over the world, the level designers had to get a good grasp of what a convincing locale would look like in an Afghanistan village, a Chicago department store or a mansion in Paraguay. The action is fluid is well-rendered. Each explosion, take down and headshot looks great and sometimes you might find yourself just staring at random things in the level, admiring the craftsmanship. Taking into consideration the different versions that are out there, if you’re looking for the best possible graphics, your best bets are PC or Wii U. The PS3 and 360 versions will be impressive themselves, but they simply can’t keep up with a great gaming PC or the more powerful U console. The only tradeoff when playing the U version is that the loading times are atrocious.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist gameplay

Sam Fisher is… Batman

The sound aspect of this game is well done and I have nearly no issues it, but there are some mildly annoying and/or humorous things I’ve encountered. For example, veteran Splinter Cell gamers will notice that Sam Fisher doesn’t sound like he has in the past. A swap of voice actors has changed all that. While the new voice actor is good, he does sound a bit young to be playing a guy who is in his forties with salt and pepper gray hair. Also, the enemies in non-English speaking nations such as Iran or Afghanistan will often switch from chattering away in their native tongue to English at random. I feel that this detracts slightly from the overall experience. Two guards will be chatting in Arabic and all of a sudden they’re alerted to my presence and will shout something like, “I am going over here to check something out!” What? It’s like they only speak English when it involves how they’re coordinating my hunt. It would be better if their comments remained in their normal language so I’m not aware that they’re about to conduct a thorough search, split up or direct their friends to certain areas so I know to avoid them. I’m doubting that every terrorist on Earth knows English well enough to inform their enemy of their exact intentions.

The controls are very fluid and satisfying, especially on the Wii U version I played. The touchscreen allows you to cycle through gadgets and weapons quickly without having to bring up the item wheel. The 360 version allows gamers to use Kinect to say things out loud to attract enemies to their position without using Fisher’s predetermined taunts with the controller, which I think is a clever way to integrate Kinect in a way that isn’t flailing your arms around and pulling muscles. You can, however, get yourself into buggy situations when the environments and controller disagree. For example, I was once trying to climb around the corner of a building to get to a better vantage point, but I got stuck and the controls would no longer respond, causing me to restart the level. Only occurring once, it was still very frustrating since I had to repeat everything I just did.

There is very little to complain about this game. It’s all just… good. So good, in fact, that I would strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys first-person shooters, third-person shooters and stealth games alike. Don’t let its classification deter you. Splinter Cell: Blacklist can be played however you want – alone or with friends. Barring the lame story or the odd bug that every game is bound to have, you’re sure to have a solid, enjoyable experience no matter which platform you buy it for. Now stop wasting time and go climb some pipes and hack some terminals!

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Review

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Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Review

It’s rare for an MMO to get a second chance after a horrific failure of a first release, even rarer for it to be remade so well that fans overload the servers and fill up all the available servers after release. As soon as you enter the realm of Eorzea it is made clear that Square-Enix fully intend to make up for their past mistakes and offer you an excellent MMO experience.

Story

In many MMO’s, such as World of Warcraft, there’s an overarching story in which you are one of the thousands of heroes who are all helping the main NPC’s in the game. Rather than being the hero of the game yourself you are usually part of a team of heroes who vanquished evil. However in FFXIV: A Realm Reborn you are the hero of the game, NPC’s praise your efforts personally and make it clear that only you have the power to stop the unrest in Eorzea.

The storyline is excellent. In true Final Fantasy style it is deep, exciting and gripping, while I don’t want to reveal too much, cut scenes can lead up to epic conflicts and battles, and rather than clicking through quests and rushing to level as I have done with previous MMO’s, I find myself taking time to read quest text, even from quests which are not on the main storyline.

The writing is fantastic, it includes multiple humourous and subtle pop culture reference and throwbacks to the FF Games of the past and many NPC’s are given distinct personalities. Many cut-scenes are even voice acted. However this can make you panic on occasion as scenes will switch fairly suddenly from voice acted to silent, making you think something is wrong with your game – it does take a while to get used to.

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Gameplay

FFXIV has very strong gameplay, I have dabbled a bit in each battle role so far (Healer, Tank and DPS) and found all have their merits. Combat is impressive, in groups, tactics and intelligent play are needed from all involved to beat encounters and it definitely feels more challenging than other MMO dungeons.

Even before level 50 (the level cap) the player will be thrust into dungeons and encounters that will require strong group play and teamwork, after level 30 there are very few dungeons you can breeze through mindlessly. While this can become frustrating for some when your group just can’t get it, it’s refreshing to see challenge being implemented.

Overall, Combat is good but some classes are a little clunky, such as a summoner (as pet control needs some serious work), solo play can also get a bit repetitive as you level, but if you break it up with group play it can keep the game interesting and fun.

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Secondly the class and job system is excellent and something that is very refreshing to see in an MMO. Got bored with tanking as a Gladiator at level 25? No problem, go to a different class guild and choose their class via a quest. Meaning you can, at will, switch your class by merely swapping your weapon. Of course you do have to level your new class from level one, but if you already have one class higher you get an experience boost to make the levels go faster, meaning it’s easier for you to catch up and play something else.

Not only can your player pick up any combat class you want, you can pick up all fieldcraft (gathering) or tradecraft (crafting) professions you want too. Disciple of the Land (Fieldcraft) and Disciple of the Hand (Tradecraft) classes work like any combat class would, you start at level one and then gather, craft or pick up quests to raise your level. Higher levels grant you access to better abilities, recipes and materials. Crafting and Gathering are a whole game in itself.

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Also, for those of you who enjoy playing with the economy, FFXIV have a Marketboard where players list their items for sale making it possible for you to line your pockets with the in-game currency, Gil. However, players at level cap have serious concerns about the economy as there are many Gil sinks, but not enough ways to earn it. Effectively meaning the economy will shrink due to Gil only being made off of other players.

In addition, it is worth noting that for the first week of release, as with many other MMO’s, logging in was a nightmare and it could take hours to get in a world if you could get in at all. The servers were heavily loaded to the point Square Enix had to stop digital sales and character creation. They attempted a fix on Wednesday the 4th September, which from what I can see has resolved most if not all the issues, at least for me. Some people are still reporting occasional errors and digital sales and character creation for many worlds is still disabled. These problems angered many, many fans and should not be looked upon lightly. That being said, Square Enix’s transparency throughout the issues was reassuring, they apologised profusely and let fans know what the plan was, which is always appreciated.

Graphics

Eorzea is a beautiful world. There is no doubting that FFXIV is one of the most aesthetically impressive MMO’s out there if not the most. While the world is smaller in comparison to many other MMO’s, this means the attention to detail in all the areas is excellent, from rolling grasslands to exotic jungles and beaches to arid deserts, FFXIV’s graphics really blew me away.

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In addition, character customization is impressive too, the amount of options you have to make a character look how you want and look good is great. NPC’s and Player characters are well detailed and movement animations are excellent too. Emotes that your character and NPC’s can perform look and feel lifelike, and though I have played for quite a while now, I am yet to see any noteworthy graphical glitch or bug.

Overall, FFXIV blew me away with its graphics, the Luminous game engine seems to be working excellently and FFXIV: ARR will blow players away with its beautiful world.

Sound

Final Fantasy games are often accompanied by a great musical score, and FFXIV:ARR is no exception, with new atmospheric music and throwbacks to older FF games, the music is well worth keeping the background music enabled for. Granted, the Chocobo theme for when you mount up can get tedious, but this is not really an issue as there is an option to disable it in the character options menu.

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Sound effects and atmospheric sounds are good too, you really get a feel for the place you’re exploring, for example a dungeon Haukke Manor where a possessed woman lives, the sinister music and creepy atmosphere really compliments the dungeon well.

Voice acting is a bit hit and miss in my opinion. Some characters are great, and their voices give them personality however others can seem a bit wooden and definitely feels as if it is just someone reading a script, which is a bit disappointing as one of the characters who you interact with a lot is one of the voices I’m talking about (I’ll let you readers guess who).

Controls

The controls of FFXIV:ARR are fairly standard for most mouse and keyboard MMO players, abilities on hotbars and keybinds for abilities. However, there is the option to play with controller, and it’s a simple click of a button in the system menu to swap between the two.

While the controls are simple enough, customizing for optimal play is not obvious, other than the in-game tutorials, there is a fair amount the player will have to learn for themselves, such as customizing your HUD, resizing bars and other control options are not mentioned outright and it will take a while for players to grasp, but with any MMO, you learn new things every time you play.

In summary, the controls seem fairly standard and simple as you would see in the majority of MMOs, while they are easy to use, the system could do with some quality of life changes, such as pet control improvements and customisation options, which would make optimal play a lot easier.

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Overall

While the game did have severe launch issues, it really is hard to be or stay angry at a game this good. Square Enix’s apology for their failed first release of FFXIV is an excellent one. I really am struggling to stay neutral with this game and stop singing it’s praises but it really is tricky not to. Granted login was a mess for a week, but once you got in, you were greeted by a gripping, enchanting and beautiful game world with very addictive gameplay. It is definitely worth checking out if you can as you get 30 free days game-time with a purchase and I highly recommend giving it a try – although perhaps waiting a few more days until server congestion dies down and character creation is back up would be prudent. I am thoroughly impressed with FFXIV:ARR and I am glad that I decided to give it a go, lets just hope I don’t get too addicted!

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