Call it an asset or call it a vice, but I have always considered myself doggedly loyal to the series I enjoy. Once I hop on a bandwagon, it takes nothing short of a kick to the teeth to knock me off. That may explain why I’ve always been so faithful to Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series, which, although has been a regular fixture of third-person espionage games for nearly two decades now, has always played second-fiddle to the big brother of all espionage games: Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid. Over the years I have blown off several friends’ suggestions to play various titles in the Metal Gear series. I always had an excuse at the ready to blow off Big Boss and defend Sam Fisher’s honor: “Metal Gear’s stories never make sense,” I said (which is largely true). “Big Boss is just a rip-off of Snake Plissken from Escape from New York,” I insisted (and I still believe this). “I don’t need Metal Gear because I already have Splinter Cell,” I told myself, unaware of how wrong I was.
I finally caved and listened to a friend’s insistence that I try The Phantom Pain shortly after buying an Xbox One. I had a shiny new console but no games to play on it, so I decided to give Metal Gear a chance. As I began what would end up becoming my 200+ hour story campaign into Phantom Pain, I started to realize that there were more than simply cosmetic similarities between this installment of Metal Gear and Blacklist, the latest entry into the Splinter Cell series. Here are some of the parallels I noticed in my first few hours of playing:
· Both games found the iconic voice actor of their protagonist replaced by a Canadian with no previous gaming experience (Eric Johnson replaced Michael Ironside’s gravelly Sam Fisher with a much fresher take, while Kiefer Sutherland was hired to give a “heavier” tone to Big Boss than David Hayter had established.)
· Both stories begin in the fallout of a large explosion that hurts people close to the hero.
· Big Boss and Sam Fisher both vow to take more charge and operate with less government oversight, which means the player is given more independence in what route the game will take.
· Both stories attempt to put their heroes under moral scrutiny (although neither particularly succeed).
· Both games attempt to divert from linear storytelling and offer players a more loosely-structured experience (but only one manages to do this— and stunningly well).
With so many similarities, my first two hours with Phantom Pain felt familiar and comfortable. I was more or less still playing as Sam Fisher, except now his name was Big Boss and he had an eyepatch. I was still collecting intel, I still had to use little spy toys to sneak past guards undetected, and I was still pretty much doing all the things I had already done in Blacklist.
And then the prologue ended, and all my hours spent with Splinter Cell went out the window.
Big Boss and I found ourselves standing on a helicopter pad on secret army base built in the middle of the ocean. We had a gun in our one good hand (the other hand was replaced by a robotic prosthetic that would itself become a powerful weapon later in the game). Some guy with sunglasses named Kazuhira Miller shouted some things about “honor” and “the cost of war” at us. And then...the camera pulled back and I was left all on my own. Here I was, plunged head-first into the fifth installment of a series I knew nothing about, and the game had given me complete control over what would come next. And unlike most games (see: Blacklist), which give you the illusion of freewill while offering little to do besides finish the story, Phantom Pain was chock full of potential. Without even attempting to complete the game’s story, I spent my first week of gameplay roaming freely across a massive Afghanistan map, rescuing prisoners, recruiting Soviet soldiers to join my private army, hunting huge bears with nothing more than a tranquilizer gun and my robot hand, and taming a wolf cub to become my loyal sidekick. I was so overwhelmed by side-ops that I actually forgot to play the game’s story until one of my recruited soldiers reminded me while I was hanging out at my ocean base. I had wandered so far from what Splinter Cell taught me a stealth game should be like that I forgot that most games have a plot.
Meanwhile, Blacklist delivered more or less exactly what it had promised: Sam Fisher, along with Anna Grimsdottir and other series regulars, works in a highly-secretive fringe-government unit to find and hunt down terrorists. As Fisher, I got to customize my secret base and decide when and where my team would strike next, but in most cases the game showed me exactly where it wanted me to “decide” I should go. I was pressing the buttons, so I guess I was making the decisions, but in the end the game led me wherever it wanted to go. The gameplay was still linear, except the game had me connecting the dots for it.
Don’t get me wrong— Blacklist is a perfectly fine Splinter Cell game. In fact, with its well-produced graphics, slick style, engaging cutscenes and responsive controls, Blacklist is actually a very good Splinter Cell game. Had I never played Phantom Pain, I would have given Blacklist a glowing recommendation, and that would be the end of this review. But Phantom Pain fundamentally changed what I expect from a third-person stealth game. In any action game, a major goal of the developer is to make the player feel like a badass. In Blacklist I felt like a badass when I was finally able to finish a particularly tough level on hard mode. In Phantom Pain, I felt like a badass when I decided to infiltrate a high-security base in order to steal a cassette of Hall and Oates’ ‘Maneater’ from an unsuspecting soldier. Yes, that’s right: I risked being spotted and killed by the Soviet army so that I could add ‘Maneater’ to Big Boss’s walkman. (Spoiler alert: it was totally worth it.)
To be fair, Phantom Pain isn’t a perfect game itself. When I eventually worked my way through the story, I found that despite great voice acting and nearly-photorealistic graphics, the plot of Phantom Pain is almost complete nonsense. On several occasions I found myself laughing out loud at cutscenes that were supposed to be played straight. Splinter Cell may have its flaws, but its stories have always been airtight. As a gamer who values story over gameplay, I never thought the day would come when I would say this, but I enjoyed free-roaming in Phantom Pain more than I enjoyed Blacklist's streamlined story.
After two months of playing Phantom Pain almost daily, I have just barely reached the end of the game’s story campaign. I made the same progress in Blacklist in just under two weeks. Both games are worth a try, but I know which one I’ll still be playing long after I finish this review. And I’m sure the games’ rivalry will continue past this entry in their chapters as well, with 2017 seeing the arrival of both Metal Gear: Survive and a Splinter Cell movie with Tom Hardy at top billing. But as we head into the future of gaming, just remember one thing: even the most loyal of fans can fall off the bandwagon when she least expects it.