Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow Review

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Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal

Platforms: PC, Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube, GBA, Mobile
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 1 GHz, 256 MB RAM, 64 MB video card, DirectX 8.1, 3 GB HD space, Windows 98 or more recent operating system

The Third Echelon, a top-secret division of the National Security Agency, has returned to cope with the threat posed by a militia from East Timor. Sam Fisher is a Splinter Cell – a single field operative supported by a remote team. He is elite, experienced and his existence is completely deniable by the government. Recently, Fisher averted an information war emerging from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Now he is being deployed to stop Suhadi Sadono and his guerrillas from releasing biological weapons against US targets to protest the US military presence in East Timor. Sam Fisher is authorized for the "Fifth Freedom" – the power to use any means necessary to protect the populace and the other four freedoms (of speech and worship, and from want and fear). Together with an array of high-tech gear, Sam Fisher is poised to single-handedly stop Sadono and his minions.

Kyle Ackerman

It's conceivable that Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow could be improved – but any criticisms against this incredible game would be decidedly minor. Pandora Tomorrow offers two spectacular games, with its single-player story and tight, multiplayer mode, all in a single, retail package. The possibility for improvement only means that there's room for an even more impressive sequel.

The single-player game in Pandora Tomorrow is an extension of and improvement on the original Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell. Sam Fisher is what makes the Splinter Cell games – he's the personification of barely restrained power, but he's not a big-haired teenager with superhuman psychic abilities. He's a grizzled veteran, whose skills were honed through decades of conflicts and special operations. He fights, not out of blind patriotism, but because a job needs doing, and he's the one who can do it. That raw physical strength, the super-spy gear, constant action and cinematic environments all combine to give the player control of the action, inside what would otherwise be a spectacular action movie. Every time you disappear into the shadows, rappel down the side of a building or shock a terrorist into unconsciousness, there's an incredible sense of accomplishment. And it just looks cool.

Pandora Tomorrow takes everything that was done well in Splinter Cell, and extends it. The lighting effects, acrobatic animations and fabric effects from the original all return, with even bigger and more spectacular environments, ranging from Jerusalem to Los Angeles International Airport. Pandora Tomorrow adds more moves and more dynamic environments. The new moves may not sound like much, but Sam's new SWAT turn transforms how he lithely deals with brightly lit areas, as he spins from shadow to shadow. His refined Half-Split Jump lets Sam chimney to a height, and leap to grab even higher ledges.

New Moves, New Levels And... Smallpox!

The levels, too, add new dynamics. The regions feel larger, with settings that add a sense of scale to Sam's more intimate stealth as well as his selective and very personal use of force. The train level is surely the most impressive – Sam is dropped onto a moving train, and infiltrates by crawling atop the cars, hanging off the side or shimmying along its underbelly. While hanging off the car and sidling along, he has to be wary of crossing windows, lest he be silhouetted against lights the train passes, and he's nearly blown off by a train passing in the opposite direction. The game also expands from industrial settings such as a cryogenics lab into a more open, jungle setting filled with lush vegetation. In many ways, the levels are still the linear challenges of the original game. You can patiently slide from shadow to shadow, or stalk guards one at a time, until no one remains conscious to notice your passing. Pandora Tomorrow does add more alternatives than the original game, with occasional pipes, lines or ducts offering ways around difficult and well-guarded passages.

The biggest improvement to the single player game is actually the story. The original Splinter Cell had a compelling story – but a complex and abstract one. Pandora Tomorrow's plot deals with similar themes of terror and rogue, charismatic leaders. But Pandora Tomorrow eschews the high-concept information war and library of multi-syllabic names, instead offering a guerilla leader and vivid display of Smallpox infection to viscerally impact players. The name of the game itself is a code word used each day to delay the biological attack. There are plenty of tweaks that also improve play. For example, a tiered alarm system means that while detection doesn't always end a mission, guards will don more protective gear while in a state of heightened alert. There are also several clever applications of Sam's thermal vision. The biggest disappointment in Pandora Tomorrow is that the plot sometimes requires lethal force. One joy of Splinter Cell is the choice to avoid lethal force – Sam has the skills and tools to incapacitate rather than kill his foes. Unfortunately, some missions, particularly the final one, require Sam to kill when a massive shock or pistol whipping should do.

Argus or Shadownet?

The single-player story is already a step above the original game, but Pandora Tomorrow adds an incredibly deep and entertaining multiplayer mode. The multiplayer game is tied into the storyline – rather than playing as Splinter Cells, stealthy players take on the role of Shadownet spies, elite infiltrators with training akin to Sam's, working in small groups. On the other side are the Argus Mercenaries, heavily armed, with technology and firepower on their side. The Shadownet spies are performing objectives that support Sam's mission, while the Argus Mercenaries are contracted to defend packages – the contents are irrelevant.

The two sides have entirely different play styles. Mercenaries play like most first person shooters, but with cool vision modes, such as motion tracking that highlights rapid movement. The spies play in a third-person mode, similar to the single-player mode in Pandora Tomorrow. In all of the three game modes (Neutralization, Extraction and Sabotage) the spies are trying to reach containers that the mercenaries defend. By limiting the game to four players at most, the developers have done a remarkable thing – they achieved exactly what they set out to do. The multiplayer mode is a delicate game of cat and mouse in which spies use their gadgets, stealth and physical prowess to sneak up to objectives and mercenaries shoot everything that moves (except, hopefully, each other).

The single player levels are large, and the approaches are many, but the clever devices available to both sides (such as thermal or electromagnetic field vision modes) can quickly make those enormous spaces seem tiny. Be warned – multiplayer Pandora Tomorrow is hard. A lot of practice and a thorough knowledge of the maps is required to give you a fighting chance on either side. To that end, Ubisoft has thoughtfully provided a brief tutorial for both factions, and the ability to explore the multiplayer maps offline at your leisure. Take the developers up on this chance to practice – knowledge is power. The four-player limit, thrilling action and different styles of play make this a truly ideal game for personal LAN play. If you can get four players (and four computers) together, this game will tax your reserves of chips and soda.

Damn The Keyboard, But Play The Game Anyway

The PC version of Pandora Tomorrow has the advantages you would expect over its console cousin – higher resolutions and the ability to use the mouse to aim. That said, the game feels designed for a console controller, and the keyboard mapping (particularly for changing weapons and gadgets) is unintuitive. Worse yet, the multiplayer game actually uses a different default keyboard configuration from the single-player game. In both cases, the keyboard controls can be re-defined, but they will never feel quite as natural as a gamepad. Also, verbal communication between teammates is critical to successful online play. You are more likely to find teammates with working microphones on Xbox Live than on the PC. Ultimately, gamers with a choice may prefer the Xbox version of Pandora Tomorrow, but the game is truly impressive on any platform.

Pandora Tomorrow isn't perfect, but it presents a great value – it includes two, top-quality games for the price of one. It's also an improvement on the already brilliant original game. As such, Pandora Tomorrow deserves no less than the highest rating available. In one box, you get to take the helm of a cinematic, espionage/action film and play a deep, challenging multiplayer game.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on May 2, 2004 5:50 PM.

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