Splinter Cell: Blacklist | The Adventure Zone: Balance, "Here There Be Gerblins"
Subtitles beginning with 'B' are the only things in common with these two
GAME REVIEW // Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Game summary: Sam Fisher and his Fourth Echelon must stop a dangerous terrorist group known as the Engineers who threaten several terrorist attacks on American soil to force the US Military to pull out of its overseas bases. (IMDb)
Fair warning: I didn't finish Splinter Cell: Blacklist, so if you're looking for a review of the game as a whole, then this isn't it. Then again, the game wasn't good enough for me to want to spend my time on it, which is why I never completed it and will probably never go back to it. And a second warning: part of the reason will be going off on a tangent about game lengths.
I'll start off with the positives though, the most immediately noticeable being that the game still looks pretty good for a title that's eight years old now. Yes, most of it does take place in dark and/or shadow-filled environments, but that doesn't change the fact that the lighting is still pretty impressive and that the standard of animation in-game still stands up to modern games.
The other - major - reason why Splinter Cell: Blacklist isn't rated lower is because that it is actually enjoyable to play, with Sam Fisher (Eric Johnson) controlling really well, with responsive controls and context-relevant actions that are easy enough to both understand and take advantage of, which means I don't really have any issues with how the game handles.
On the other hand, the biggest problem is that there's no real creativity or great variance in how you deploy Fisher's abilities from mission to mission. It's very much a game where you learn the controls early on and... well, that's it - the next level will be using the same set of skills, as will the level after and the one after that. Is it a positive that you could have months, if not years, long gaps between play sessions and step right back in because there's nothing more complicated to learn after the first couple of levels?
It's not helped that the level and mission are pretty poor, often feeling like objects have been moved around and re-skinned to be something appropriate to the location. Yes, that could apply to a lot of games, but it feels especially egregious here and it really makes things seem repetitive. Considering the globe-hopping nature of the story, it's quite the feat to make such different locations feel so similar.
Then there's the story, which starts off Splinter Cell: Blacklist with a bang, then moves forward at a crawl, with weakly-defined and under-written characters that don't help either. I checked a guide when I eventually gave up and found out that I was around the halfway point, but I just didn't care because it felt like I was giving up a lot of time in return for very little.
The game grades you at the end of each mission on three different styles of play: full stealth and avoiding killing enemies, full-on action hero gunning everyone down, and a halfway-house where you sneakily murder everyone's faces off. It's a shame that the levels are longer and more tedious than needed, because why the hell would you go back and play through them again?
Each level could've done with being half as long to make replaying them feel like a viable choice, plus it'd help the story keep moving. It's weird how little happens too, as Sam is in radio contact with his team and there's ample opportunity for there to be dialogue giving some depth to the characters or advancing the plot in-mission instead of waiting for Sam to complete the objective and taking a tiny step forwards.
If you're not going to advance the story in-mission, then the cutscenes really do need to drive things forward, because I never felt anything close to the level of urgency the supporting cast were insisting upon in these moments. And if you don't have enough story to fill out the length, then why is it that length? Just make it shorter and sharper - 'less is more' is a saying for a reason, and it feels like it could've easily applied to Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
This isn't just a problem in this game either, but in a lot of single-player games with a linear narrative - feeling like butter scraped over too much bread (to quote Bilbo Baggins). If you have a set story that you want to tell, then make sure it only lasts as long as is needed and not padded out just to make the game last longer - I'd prefer a five hour game with a gripping story that leaves me eager for more anytime over one that lasts two to three times longer but feels like large chunks of it doesn't matter.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist has a really weird disconnect of a character you can control flawlessly from the start, feeling powerful even when in hiding from superior numbers, and a story that doesn't do that character justice. I would be perfectly happy if any sequel left the controls for Fisher alone and simply improved the story and level design, because the enjoyment of playing quickly grows tedious when it's just the same thing over and over and over again.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist plays pretty well, if not doing anything particularly remarkable, but is ultimately let down by an uninteresting story that moves at a glacial pace, paper-thin characters that aren't very memorable, and some poor mission and level design. There's some obvious room for improvement that could make for an excellent sequel, although that looks unlikely to arrive any time soon.
PODCAST REVIEW // The Adventure Zone: Balance, "Here There Be Gerblins"
Story summary: The humble beginnings of the Tres Horny Boys, off on their first quest! (The Adventure Zone Wiki)
Finally, I found the time to write this review, which is fucking ridiculous as I finished listening to the "Here There Be Gerblins" section of the Balance arc for what must be at least the fourth time back in March! I've been wanting to move on and listen to the next part for ages, but had to keep reminding myself that I needed to write about this mini-arc first and am happy I now get to move on.
A quick explainer to start: brothers Justin (playing Taako the elf wizard) and Travis (Magnus, a human warrior) and their dad, Clint (the dwarven cleric, Merle) are playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons, with the story and world being created by the third brother, Griffin. With it being a family affair, there's laughs from the start as they all take the piss out of each other constantly, with there being plenty of humour about non-D&D subjects in case you're worried about it being just geeky stuff all the time.
The biggest difficulty in writing this is knowing what's to come and having to ignore what are character choices that don't last or certain bits and pieces that get ignored or retconned later on - obviously, if you're listening to this for the first time, then you're not going to notice any of the stuff that might cause an eyebrow to raise every now and then if you've already experienced the story once.
As a result, I think it's best to stick to what should be obvious and that's how unfamiliar all four of the guys are with the rules of D&D from the start. The first couple of episodes are pretty slow-moving as they all have to figure out what the hell they're doing and it's a good thing that there's so much humour, because the working out of dice rolls and how things work could get very boring very quickly otherwise.
The story isn't that great either, with them relying on a pre-made story to get things underway, even if they do skip a big chunk of it by accident and leaving Griffin scrambling to make everything work thanks to the other three mucking things up hilariously. Saying that, it's clear by the end that Griffin's got the story he wants to tell fleshed out in his head and has already begun planting seeds for future events.
Ultimately, "Here There Be Gerblins" is reliant on the interactions between those involved and is fortunate that this does lead to some very, very funny moments to balance out the group slowly learning how to play the game. First-time listeners may enjoy it a little more as they won't be aware of the inconsistencies, but they're so small that you might not notice them on a repeat listen anyway.
"Here There Be Gerblins" is an enjoyable start to the Balance arc story, even if it is pretty slow to get started thanks to the guys having to figure out how to do actually do anything. The three brothers and their dad still have a great rapport and there's some very, very funny moments already, but the characters aren't quite there yet either, although the groundwork has very much been laid for what's to come.