Sam Fisher's a sneaky guy. You can tell because we haven't seen him around these parts (aside from a brief glimpse in that 3DS remake we don't really want to talk about) for a good seven years. In the time since Double Agent he's started to go grey, changed his voice and face and, like every other Ubisoft hero, taken up freerunning.
Perhaps we're seeing him again after so long because now he's a lot less sneaky. The last major release in the series, Conviction, introduced Xbox and PC owners to the Mark & Execute system, a reward for good play that enabled you to automatically reduce a few in-range goons' heads to disgusting sieves in a slow mo second.
It marked an aggressive new approach to stealth and Blacklist takes the positive critical reaction to that change wholly into account. Every mission grades you on three scales, the combination of which enables players to choose how they want to play. Ghost rewards stealth, Panther prizes a lesser-used interpretation of the phrase "silent but violent" and Assault offers points to those who consider the non-use of BigLoudGuns to be tantamount to terrorism.
This is why Sam has changed. Where his earliest exploits had you performing quivering airborne splits across corridors to avoid janitors, Blacklist gives you every tool you might need to survive in one of three ways. Sam carries three guns, up to six gadgets, his trademark goggles (which now switch between night vision and bat-like sonar pulses) and a sense of righteous purpose big enough to kill bad guys by itself.
Have gun, will travel
It works. The solo campaign (all about catching an anti-US terrorist group called the Engineers) has you jetting around the world almost constantly. You could be in a claustrophobic London warehouse, you could be winding your way around a swiftly abandoned Iraqi village, but you'll never feel out of your depth. Despite Sam's frailty - a few stray bullets will always result in a bloodied loading screen back to a checkpoint - those three approaches are (aside from forced story set pieces) always viable.
Aside from the obvious runnery and gunnery of Assault, you might study guard patterns, blowing out lights to draw them to you for lethal or non-lethal hand-to-hand attacks. Then again, you could also use your sonar to single out a conveniently resonant water pipe, shimmy up it and disappear into an air vent to the next area. While Ghost players are given more points (turned into copious cash for further upgrades), you're not judged on which approach you take and the freedom of each - and the equipment at your disposal - means turning a Ghost run into an Assault shootout (whether by accident or in bloodlust) is always an option, too.
It's a peculiarly open design, particularly for the stealth genre and Ubisoft has pulled it off. It's a veritable web of ideas, encompassing stealth, action, FPS, RPG and even, with Mark & Execute's focus on multiple enemies' movements and your relation to them, mild real-time strategy elements. That web cleverly ensnares non-gameplay aspects, too: most bought equipment can be upgraded many times, cash earned in multiplayer can be spent on equipment (and vice versa), playing a tie-in app earns you new items... even the interactive main menu, set on Sam Fisher's flying HQ, the Paladin can be added to for your benefit. Of course, a web can just as easily be seen as a sticky mess and those huge, inclusive changes to the existing formula can seem that way a little too often.