I like ya, Tomorrow.
Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow was one of the most important
titles ever released for the
Xbox. It managed to capture the stealthy essence of the original while adorning
itself in some gorgeous visuals,
topping it off with its own unique brand of addictive online play.
And while that same excellent multi-player found its way onto the PS2 port of Pandora
Tomorrow, the graphical ambience and sleekness of the single-player campaign did not. Although it cannot be denied that Pandora‘s greatest asset is its phenomenal online play, the PS2’s online capabilities aren’t as easily accessed as the Xbox’s, making it a bummer that the single-player game has lost much of the green machine’s polish.
The single-player campaign begins with the violent assault of a U.S. Embassy
in East Timor, a small nation in the Indonesian island chain, and takes you
all over the world searching for the meaning behind the words “Pandora Tomorrow,’ as well as their author, Sadono. In a storyline that is eerily applicable to current events, one wonders if between the lines in the news can be discerned the secret wars of real Sam Fischers. Regardless of its ties to reality, Pandora
Tomorrow is plenty believable.
Tomorrow is unchanged from the Xbox version. Sam can creep, walk, run,
roll, jump, climb, hang, SWAT turn (a fancy move that takes him stealthily past
doorways), creep along walls, shoot his gun standing, crouching, hanging, around
corners, upside down and over enemy shoulders, as well as carry bodies, snipe,
whistle(!), elbow slam, pick-locks, disarm bombs and, I think, bake a cake.
He’s also got all the nifty gadgets from before. Using his optic cable or sticky cam (which can enter both heat and night vision modes), he can case an area for passive defenses such as motion detectors and cameras as well as check out the lighting/guard situation. The only new gadget in the single-player campaign is the camera jammer, and it’s sadly the most useless gadget in Sam’s arsenal. When pointed at a camera, the jammer has the ability to suck the battery power out of it. But I always just shoot the damn things.
When combined with his physical capabilities, Sam’s options represent a practically inexhaustible source of new methods and strategies. Sam is constantly in puzzling situations, but is never distracted by the banality of hunting for keys or solving ridiculous mini-games. It’s just the best stealth gameplay on the planet.
The rules of engagement change scene by scene and level by level. While Sam is
occasionally allowed to act with extreme prejudice, his missions are frequently
defined by restrictions such as “No Mortalities’ and “No Sightings.’ Such restrictions change the methods available, and as a result create a dynamic play experience. For example, if fatalities are out of the question, Sam can still knock people out as well as shoot them with non-lethal ammo. The non-lethal stuff is usually in pretty short supply, meaning most personnel will have to be dispatched manually.
That’s easier said than done thanks to Pandora Tomorrow‘s overall difficulty. Hiding bodies this time around is actually more unforgiving than it was last time. On a ‘No Sightings’ mission, if you don’t hide a body in room A and move to room B, you’re dead, period. With such unforgiving objectives, Pandora requires its fair share of trial-and-error play. As a result, you’ll be spending a fair amount of time staring at a loading screen, especially since the PS2 loading times are considerably longer than the Xbox’s.
Generally speaking, the AI has improved since the original Splinter
Cell. Enemies occasionally work together as squads and sweep rooms. If you fire from a shadow and an enemy sees the muzzle blast, he’ll get you, and enemies call for help if they see fallen comrades. This leads to usually one or two enemies rallying to help, and they’re enemies that are actually in the level; they don’t magically spawn in. However, the AI in the PS2 version is a bit more forgiving than the AI in the Xbox version. Guards are easier to lure and mislead and simply don’t seem as nervous as they were on the Xbox.
But thanks to AI teamwork, sneaking up on a bad guy and snapping his neck is
not as easy as it sounds. Shooting enemies is often a better option; most enemies
can take a lot of rounds to the extremities, a few to the torso, or one to
the dome. It’s usually easier to just go for the kill, but using the ring foils and sticky darts, you can take guys down without lethal force nicely, too. Sam is a very clever killer.
The single-player aspect of this game is very similar to the original Splinter
Cell, which is mostly a very good thing. Still, that means the game is quite
linear and you can still only save during checkpoints. Some will find this
frustrating, though I think the game would be too easy with a ‘save anywhere’
function. New to the PS2 version is a screen that tracks Sam’s stats at the end of each mission. The lists are robust and give hardcore Fischer addicts an official benchmark to compete against: themselves.
But if you’d rather compete against others, nothing beats Pandora‘s multiplayer mode, in which you assume the role of a stealthy Shadownet spy or a heavily armed Argus Corp. mercenary. There are three different mission types: Neutralization, Extraction, and Sabotage and each is a slightly different variation on a theme. The mercenaries are protecting viral weaponry, and the spies are either attempting to neutralize (basically touch), sabotage (set a modem that destroys agents in a certain amount of time), or steal the viral agents. The mercs have only one job – protect the viruses and kill the spies.
Up to four players are allowed in any one game. With a four player max, most games run smoothly and the maps are typically small, so you won’t have to worry about getting lost in a deserted area. Plus, everyone on each side can enjoy HUD indicators that will guide them to the objectives if they want to.
The spies and mercs have drastically different play styles and abilities. The spies look like Sam, but rely exclusively on gadgets and hand-to-hand combat to get things done. Each spy is equipped with a rechargeable rifle that shoots sticky-shocker rounds, heat and night vision modes, and may choose four of six gadgets to bring into combat.
Any grenade-like gadgets can be used in a hurry by simply pressing the L1 or R1 buttons. This is huge, because the gas grenades rock. Not only do they cover your escape, but they asphyxiate the Mercs, who watch in horror as their screen elongates and contorts, their point of view gets tossed about, and their movement speed dives. Spies can also jump on mercs to neutralize them; in an awesome touch, right before you break a merc’s neck, you can talk smack via your headset. “In dreams I walk with you.” Snap.
Mercs can talk plenty of smack in their own way with their hellish array of weaponry. Mercs play from a first-person perspective and have a powerful machine gun with an impressively agile targeting reticule. Mercs also get mines (laser and proximity), flares, grenades, a tazer (great last resort), a torch-light that provides a brightly lit window into all the dark places in Pandora’s multi-player world and sweet, sweet view modes.
Magnetic field vision is essential – when spies are scoping down an area they
frequently use night vision, and if you use your scope or binoculars in conjunction
with this view mode, you can see the electricity in their night vision goggles
and snipe “em. Motion vision is also handy. In this view mode, all stationary things are rendered in slightly different shades of red. Anything moving quickly is captured in a box of full color, regardless of the lighting, which looks really cool. It’s also highly effective against spies who try to run to get where they’re going.
The multiplayer experience as a whole is just a total blast, a smart, exciting game of hunt or be hunted. It takes an already excellent game and makes it simply unrivaled. Unfortunately, there is one serious design flaw in the multi-player controls for both sides. During intense action or combat you can accidentally press L3, which takes you right to the gadget select screen. This is usually fatal, especially if you’re a Merc, because instead of aiming, you highlight gadgets. With practice and presence of mind this tendency can be overcome, but it’s still a potential buzz killer. It also doesn’t look like there will be downloadable content support for the PS2 version, unlike the Xbox version.
Speaking of buzz-kills, Pandora Tomorrow only looks so-so on the PS2. The layering of lighting effects found in the Xbox version is gone, as are most of the brilliant shadow effects. Instead of enjoying a full spectrum of illumination, Pandora for the PS2 seems to rely very heavily on black. The lack of a twilight effect makes it really tough to tell when Sam is visible and when he isn’t. Since you can’t actually see the light shining down, you’ll have to watch your shadow-meter very carefully. Also, the number of shootable lights has diminished. Whereas these things were everywhere in the Xbox version, they now appear only when they’ll make a room entirely dark, so expect to use a lot of night-vision.
Sam Fischer himself still looks good, and while people who have only owned a PS2 will probably still be impressed by the water effects and remaining ambience, anyone who has played the Xbox version will be disappointed by the blocky enemies, reduced anti-aliasing, and the overall lower graphical standard.
Pandora‘s music and voice-work are still marvelous, though the sound effects seem a bit tinnier in the PS2 version. Michael Ironside is again great as Sam Fischer, and pretty much everyone involved delivers their lines well. Given the fact that the plot unfolds almost entirely through these dialogues, less than spot-on voice acting would have ruined the drama and weakened the game. Lucky for us, it’s great.
Although Pandora Tomorrow‘s single-player game is hurt by the
PS2’s hardware limitations, it still represents an excellent stealth experience
coupled with one of the best multiplayer modes around. If you don’t mind copious
amounts of night-vision and your PS2 is already online, then Splinter
Cell: Pandora Tomorrow might be the sneakiest thing you’ll do all year.