What does America need to fight terrorists? Pervasive surveillance, missile-firing drones, even torture -- everything's open to debate.
"Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist" (Ubisoft, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, PC, $59.99), like most contemporary war games, has all of the above. But its most effective weapon is one guy: Sam Fisher, the grizzled black-ops agent who's been saving civilization since the series began in 2002.
This time, Sam is recruited into Fourth Echelon, an elite team headquartered in an elaborate flying fortress called the Paladin. The enemy is a terrorist group called the Engineers, who have promised to unleash a series of attacks unless the U.S. withdraws all its troops from foreign soil.
Sam's missions generally involve either infiltrating an Engineer stronghold abroad or preventing a disaster in the U.S. The developers at Ubisoft Toronto aren't shy about poking at political sore spots: The second mission is set in Benghazi, Libya, and Sam later sneaks into, and then escapes from, the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Sam's forte is his ability to stay in the shadows, sneak up behind the bad guys and take them out silently, one at a time. The environments in "Blacklist" are cleverly designed to reward the stealthy approach, and it's unusually satisfying to make your way through a terrorist camp without firing a single bullet. If you'd prefer to attack the Engineers with guns blazing -- well, that approach can work too, although Sam is more vulnerable to enemy fire than most video-game warriors.
The solo missions in "Blacklist" are beautifully paced, building tension so smoothly that I often found myself holding my breath. There are also a dozen or so cooperative missions, some stealthy, others more trigger-happy. And "Blacklist" marks the return of "Spies vs. Mercs," a multiplayer competition in which one team tries to prevent the other from stealing secrets.
Fans of stealth games will find "Blacklist" a welcome return to form after 2010's more action-heavy "Splinter Cell: Conviction." It's one of those rare games that made me want to replay missions just to see if I could kill fewer terrorists. Three stars out of four.
"The Bureau: XCOM Declassified" (2K Games, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; for PC, $49.99) also boils down to one guy stopping the apocalypse. He's William Carter, a government special agent with a sketchy past and an alcohol problem, but once aliens invade Earth he's chosen to lead the defense.
"The Bureau" takes place in 1962, so Carter doesn't have Sam Fisher's state-of-the-art weaponry. He does have some paranormal gifts, though, like the ability to levitate enemies, and he can grab the aliens' nifty new laser weapons.
He can also control two other soldiers by calling up a menu, clicking on their skills and pointing them in the right direction. As your squadmates gain experience they can deploy new devices like turrets and shields, while Carter can hang back and play sniper or go in the opposite direction to flank the enemy. Despite the intriguing tactical angle, however, the missions still become predictable, settling into an obvious attack-reload-attack rhythm.
Last year's "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" revived a beloved strategy classic and found an enthusiastic audience. "The Bureau" tries to graft some of that game's elements onto the overpopulated third-person shooter genre. That's not a bad idea -- but XCOM fans expecting a more cerebral campaign will be disappointed. Two stars.
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