Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist... Spy HARDER
Plus – more spooks in XCOM Declassified
Game Theory With the excitement of Gamescom still ongoing, it’s easy to forget that the weekly release of videogames continues unabated. Thankfully the idle hours of the impending Bank Holiday offer a firm reminder - especially given the extended weekend marks the release of one of the year’s best action games:
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Multi-platform Blacklist’s story of terrorist factions intent on attacking mainland USA is pulled straight from 24. Returning hero Sam Fisher even comes supported by a ragtag bunch of Special Forces soldiers and computer geeks: Tony Almeida and Chloe O’Brian clones all.
Most reminiscent of 24 is the gameplay itself. Gone is the Metal Gear-style constant sneaking. Ditto the perpetual motion of Splinter Cell: Conviction. Instead we’re presented with a good mix of the two.
Fisher is able to tiptoe through a stage if stealth is your thing: fading into the shadows, hanging monkey-like from ledges and then deftly outwitting security sensors. But he’s equally adept at brutally taking out multiple foes with maximum force. His close-quarters combat skills and gunplay are honed to the point where it’s almost unfair on the bad guys.
Ubisoft has realised that most players’ approaches will inevitably involve a mixture of stealth and action, and has coded the game accordingly. To that end, your passage through any given stage is judged against three criteria: Ghost (stealth), Panther (stealth with non-lethal engagement) and Assault (the blood everywhere approach).
The varied missions – which take you from the Middle East to a US precinct in the blink of an eye – are perfectly built to accommodate a diverse range of approaches too. Expect to find plenty of nooks and crannies to hide in and conveniently placed pipes to climb in order to silently reach higher ground.
Indeed, Fisher soon begins to feel like the offspring of Hitman’s Agent 47 and Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed as he scales walls and free-runs across disintegrating causeways before silently disposing of his hapless target.
A minor irritation sees guards in different areas conveniently failing to radio each other your current position. You might be being hunted like John Rambo in First Blood in one location, for instance, but cross into the next area and suddenly you’re back to being incognito. In fairness it’s a criticism attributable to just about every game of this type, but it still jars.
Nonetheless, Blacklist represents the pinnacle of the spy action genre as it exists today. It delivers action set pieces, a ridiculously, though appropriately grandiose plot and enough variation – through personal approach, clever level design and a constantly upgradable range of equipment – to keep you playing for weeks.
The Wonderful 101
I’m a huge fan of Platinum Games – well-documented quirkiness and all. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Bayonetta, Vanquish, Viewtiful Joe – in the team’s pre-Platinum days - I’ve loved the lot of them.
The Wonderful 101 joins its illustrious cousins on reasonably even footing, even if it just falls short of standing quite as high. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Japanese developer will have already guessed that W101, released on the Wii U, is an action-adventure with a heavy emphasis placed on the unleashing of strikingly over-the-top special moves and combos.
This time, however, such pyrotechnics aren’t down to just one all-powerful protagonist, but a hundred of them, with the +1 of the titular 101 being your good self. The premise is that these 100 heroes can come together or “Unite Morph” to conjure giant fists, barbed whips and oversized swords with which to punish their enemies.
And what enemies these alien invaders are. Collectively known as GEATHJERK, they count among their number some of the more imaginative - not to mention enormous - gaming bad guys seen for many a year. Most even come equipped with comedy banter with which to humiliate our heroes.
More and morph
Games of this ilk live and die by how engaging and deep their combat mechanics are, and though W101 never quite hits the same sweet notes as Bayonetta there’s certainly enough potential here. Weapon upgrades soon unlock the chance to chain attacks and juggle opponents, and only through the mastery of both techniques will you start to topple foes with finesse and gain those illusive platinum medals.
Combat is further complicated (in a good way) by W101’s central hook: that you’re controlling 100 heroes, rather than one. It means that, assuming you have the requisite battery charge, you can scrawl the appropriate squiggles onto the GamePad’s screen – think along the lines of Okami – to unleash up to five Unite Morphs simultaneously.
Keeping track of your main (and only vulnerable) character can be challenging amid such a maelstrom of activity, however. And I found that the "run and fight, run and fight" nature of the gameplay started to wear a little thin with time.
Platinum has inserted various other types of gameplay into the mix in an attempt to remedy this: shoot-’em-up and puzzle sections to name but two. But these are almost exclusively missteps and actively detract from the spectacle rather than bolstering it.
It’s no Bayonetta then, and at times feels a little one-dimensional. It’s certainly too cluttered. That said, successfully pulling off a multi-faceted Unite Morph that sees a damage-dealing foe blasted into the air before being sliced to ribbons, still manages to recall that quintessential Platinum magic.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
Development hell seems to be a specialty of 2K Games. The studio responsible for the eventual (though unwarranted) release of the appropriately named Duke Nukem Forever now unleashes The Bureau, a game originally conceived in 2006.
Nevertheless, a cover-based third-person shooter with a dash of XCOM’s iconic strategic leanings is certainly enough to pique the interest. So too does the setting, not the usual near future, but rather a take on the United States in the 1960s, albeit one heavy with sci-fi cliché.
Players fill the boots of hard-drinking G-Man Agent Carter, who soon finds himself on the front line of a war between humanity and aggressors of extraterrestrial origins – Sectoids to you and me.
A few close encounters later and you can already sense that not all is well with the The Bureau. Animations are cumbersome, firefights are bereft of any real peril... and then there are your fellow agents.
For Carter soon acquires colleagues in his fight against his alien aggressors, a motley crew of crack troops all too willing to die for the cause. They’ll run in front of bullets, step on mines and generally do their best to become so much cannon fodder.
You can at least direct their movements, but rather than elevating the game to some kind of action take on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, this just drags the the game down. You play entirely too much of it at the whims of the friendly forces’ command dial.
If both allied and enemy AI were of a higher quality, then ordering your team to lay down suppressing fire, or install turrets – depending on said allies’ expertise – might have meant something. Instead you’re better off hiding behind cover and chipping away at hostiles while your allies soak up their fire.
XCOM diehards might want to play through The Bureau simply to take in the story. The rest of us will instead be reminded of exactly what it is: a game that’s had far too many changes of direction and been delayed long past its sell-by date.
The result is a title that’s only loosely stitched together, as the bland textures, lacklustre animation and intermittent frame rate will attest. This is a pity as there’s the kernel of a fine squad-based action RPG in there.
As Agent Carter himself is rather too fond of saying: “Poor bastard, he never stood a chance.”