I love yah, Tomorrow.
As the elevator slowly descends, the wanly smiling double-agent stares you down
with liquid green eyes. For a moment, yours meet hers. Suddenly, her lips pull
back into an odd sneer, the spell is broken and a voice shouts ‘Kill her! Kill
her now!’ As your gun appears in your hand, her eyes lock on to you and with
an angry flash convey her grasp of the situation. Too late – lights out.
No matter how you look at it, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow for
the Xbox is a lady and a tiger of a game. Strikingly beautiful technologically
as well as aesthetically, the follow-up to 2002’s
stealth monster picks up right where its predecessor left off. Unfortunately
for agent Sam Fisher, though, his days as Splinter Cell‘s
only boy-toy are over. No longer satisfied with just a single-player campaign, Pandora Tomorrow is
all about the multi-play, and by god, so am I. This is more than simply one of
the best games for the Xbox – it’s one of the best games out there, period.
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 Fishers. Regardless of its ties to reality, Pandora
Tomorrow is plenty believable.
Sam’s abilities haven’t changed much since his last adventure. He 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, 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 situations. 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.
Generally speaking, the AI has improved since the last game. 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.
to AI teamwork and increased sensitivity, 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 very linear and you can still only save during checkpoints. In turn,
it follows a certain trial-and-error formula. Some will find this frustrating,
though I think the game would be too easy with a ‘save anywhere’ function.
The original GR review of Splinter Cell mentioned two specific
flaws – limited replay value and no extra reward for skillful playing. Pandora
Tomorrow‘s innovative multiplayer mode resolves both these issues with
Here you can 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.
When you log into Xbox Live! you can enter a Quickgame, an Optimatch (matches
you with people close to your experience level), create a game, or view the
rankings. There are also decent tutorials for each side offline, as well as
empty versions of each map (with only passive defenses such as cameras and
lasers) for you to explore.
Up to four players are allowed in any one game. This made me a little nervous,
but it’s now pretty clear that this move is the key to the game’s multiplayer success. With a four player max, most games run extremely 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.
Amazingly, just about every possible combination of people can be entertaining
within this limit. One on one makes for an awesome game of cat and mouse, 2
on 1 can work depending on the skill level of the single, and 3 on 1 can be
extremely challenging if the single is a spy who knows his stuff.
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 has a rechargeable rifle that shoots only sticky-shocker rounds, heat and night vision modes, and may choose four of six gadgets to bring into combat. During the fight, you can press L3 to bring up a menu that shows each gadget with a face button next to it. Pressing X will equip gadget X, and so on.
Also, any grenade-like gadgets equipped in the X and Y slots can be used in a
hurry by simply pressing the L or R buttons. This is huge, because the gas
grenades rock. Not only do they cover your escape, but they asphyxiate the
Mercs. And from the mercenary end, the effects are truly debilitating. The
screen elongates and contorts, your point of view gets tossed about, and your
movement speed dives. Spies can also jump on mercs to neutralize them; in an
awesome touch, right before you break his neck, you can talk smack into his
ear via the Xbox Live! headset. “In dreams I walk with you.” Snap.
Mercs can talk plenty of smack in their own way, as their weaponry is…verbose, to say the least. 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.
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,
still a potential buzz killer.
Speaking of killer, Pandora Tomorrow looks amazing. The layering of lighting effects is simply beautiful, taken to gorgeous levels by way of the brilliant use of shadowing. Sam Fisher himself looks terrific and photo-realistic, though there’s this little light on his back that causes some distortion when he’s in the shadows. Regardless, the environments, animations and overall look are top notch, actually a step up from the exquisite original.
Equal amounts of care and love went into Pandora‘s music, effects
and voice-work. The sound effects are crisp, spot-on, and diverse. The voice
acting is also done well, especially the bits that take place between Sam and
his superior, Colonel Lambert. 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.
From its fantastic delivery to its tense gameplay to its innovative multiplayer, Splinter
Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is an absolute femme-fatale of a game. Stunning,
smart, and deadly, Pandora Tomorrow one-ups its forbear while
granting one of the most provocative multiplayer experiences ever to hit the
console scene. Don’t
wait until tomorrow to pick it up.