Grizzled operative Sam Fisher returns for more covert activity on behalf of the National Security Agency in this follow-up to Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell. Stealth is once again essential as players use a variety of new gadgets and acrobatic moves to infiltrate buildings and strongholds without alerting guards. Players will be able to climb curtains, perform new melee attacks, and make use of the latest in vision-enhancing equipment. Also new to this installment are more outdoor locales such as jungles and operations taking place in broad daylight, complete with civilians going about their daily routines. Fisher must now avoid detection from pedestrians as well as enemies.
Yet the game's biggest addition in an online component where members of shadowy Black Ops squads are sent to tackle team-oriented missions. While players cannot select Sam Fisher for online action, they will be able to select from an assortment of male and female operatives all skilled in the art of stealth. Enemies may abduct players and use them as hostages, requiring fellow operatives to quickly de-escalate the situation or risk losing a member of the team. Unlike the original Splinter Cell, which began as an Xbox title and was later ported to PlayStation 2, GameCube, and PC, Pandora Tomorrow is designed as a multi-platform game from the start.
The original Splinter Cell got just about everything right. It starred a badass hero who could silently eliminate a room full of enemies before any of them suspected something was wrong. It boasted eye-popping graphics, intriguing levels, cool gadgets, and an innovative implementation of stealth gameplay. It also had that elusive "wow factor" that separates the great from the merely good. With Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, covert agent Sam Fisher is back for another globe-spanning adventure.
Pandora Tomorrow's relatively brief single-player campaign mostly lacks that elusive "wow factor" this time around. It often feels more like a solid, by-the-numbers expansion pack than a sequel. Other than some minor changes, the gameplay of Pandora Tomorrow is essentially identical to the original Splinter Cell. Still, it's a reasonably fun campaign and features flashes of that old Splinter Cell magic. There's also an intriguing new multiplayer mode this time around, though it, like the rest of the game, is marred by serious bugs and glitches. When it's working, though, it can be a lot of fun.
Pandora Tomorrow bears the "Tom Clancy" moniker, so of course there's a far-flung techno-thriller plot with exotic locales, treacherous secrets, and a high-tech threat to peace. Set in 2006, the intricate story takes you to East Timor and then to France, Israel, Indonesia, and finally to the USA. Along the way, you'll meet familiar characters like Fisher's boss, Lambert, and new characters, like the merciless Indonesian guerilla leader Suhadi Sadono, who is part of a deadly plot against the United States.
The story is actually pretty bland, so don't expect to get wrapped up in it emotionally. There is one neat moment when Lambert orders you to do something really surprising -- no questions asked. "Shut up," Lambert tells you. "Leave the ethics to us." That and the tense conclusion are the only real narrative highlights.
Flaws aside, the plot serves as a great excuse for you to sneak into installations around the world while outwitting enemies. Your main goal is to move like a ghost as you grab vital data from enemy computers, snatch and interrogate bad guys, or come to the rescue of the good guys. The game hammers home the idea of extreme stealth from the first mission, where you have to remain undetected and refrain from killing anyone.
You'll have to adhere to those tough conditions later, too, though many missions are built around a more forgiving set of three alarm stages. Make too much noise or leave a corpse in the light, and the alarm stage goes up a notch. Stage 3 means mission over. Thankfully, if you lay low a while, the alarm stages revert. This whole idea feels a bit hokey and "gamey," since you conveniently hear enemies telling each other, "Stage 1, flak jackets on," and so forth. Realism aside, it still works effectively as a gameplay device.
To avoid raising suspicion, you'll resort to classic Splinter Cell tactics: stick to the shadows; move slowly to reduce noise; take out guards by knocking them unconscious or killing them with single headshots; lure them with diversion cameras that emit debilitating gas; and more. The heart of the game is in figuring out how to best use fun tactics.
Like in the original Splinter Cell, the enemy A.I. can be pretty wonky. Sometimes the bad guys seem to have ESP, while other times they're as dense as stones. Once again, you'll also find yourself quick-saving and -loading constantly to work your way around some of the unforgiving, puzzle-like tactical situations you'll face.
There are times when you'll just want to blast the bad guys, but either you won't be allowed to, or your weapons will be too ineffective when you're finally given the green light. Your pistol is again little better than a BB gun (use it mainly for shooting out lights to stay in the dark), and your assault rifle is relatively inaccurate and underpowered even at close range (your best bet is to use it for sniping with the zoom activated). You can't pick up weapons from dead enemies, either. That all keeps the focus on stealth, but it also feels totally unrealistic.
Still, keeping the emphasis on stealth creates lots of nail-biting moments as you brazenly sneak your way right under guards' noses (or over their heads, thanks to Fisher's ability to shimmy along poles and slide down zip lines). It's a kick to make fools of the bad guys and a fun challenge to use your head quickly instead of simply pulling the trigger quickly. Then again, the gameplay feels little different than the original Splinter Cell. It's true you get a few new gadgets and acrobatic moves, but these are minor additions of little interest, and they don't really set Pandora Tomorrow apart from its predecessor.
Interestingly, the production values have simultaneously improved and worsened this time around. Some graphical glitches, oddly blocky shadows, and audio bugs (lip-synching that doesn't always sync and sound drop-outs) mar the game, but for the most part, you'll be impressed by dramatic lighting and colorful animations, particularly for Sam. Little details like swaying lamps casting roving shadows, plants bending as you creep through the underbrush, and characters reflecting in glass all draw you into the game world.
Drawing you right back out is the way the enemies all conveniently speak in perfect English, regardless of nationality. Appropriate foreign languages and subtitles would have been more engaging. Still, detailed sound effects, subtle music, and some great voiceover work, including actor Michael Ironside in a reprise of his Sam Fisher role, really add to the immersion. The cutscenes outshine those of the original game and are a model of their kind, filled with cinematic drama.
Level and mission design take steps backwards in Pandora Tomorrow. The new ones are certainly better than what you find in many shooters -- other than one marred by bugs that caused scripting errors and repeated crashes (a problem that appears to be more prevalent with the PC version than on the consoles) -- but they mostly lack the spark of originality and sheer stylishness of the first game's levels. Here they can even feel bland or predictable. Some levels are set outdoors in the jungle this time, but that only means that you're funneled through narrow corridors of tents, trees, and fences instead of the walls and doorways of an office building.
Even the theoretically cool levels, like one aboard a speeding train, are too obviously linear, restrictive, and scripted; instead of feeling like you're making the decisions, you can easily feel the designers making them for you. The one big exception to all this comes with the final levels set inside a meticulously detailed LAX airport. Not only are these a joy to look at, but they're much more cleverly designed than most of the preceding levels. You'll have to really stay on your toes and come up with quick, clever solutions to the tricky problems facing you. After a bunch of so-so levels, the campaign goes out with a real bang.
Along with the new single-player missions, you get an all-new multiplayer component. Multiplayer pits four players, divided into spies and mercenaries, against each other in three objective-based modes centering on defending or neutralizing/stealing canisters of a biological agent. Spies are controlled from a third-person view and have non-lethal (but very effective) weapons, while the mercenaries are controlled in first-person and tote an assault rifle, among other deadly gear.
Each class gets special abilities, as well as unique vision modes that are a must on the very dark, dense maps. Spies get the night and thermal vision enhancements familiar from the single-player game, as well as similar acrobatic climbing and combat moves (though unfortunately with new controls to learn). They can also fire "spy bullets" that let them overhear voice communications of the mercenaries, assuming they're using them. Mercenaries get electromagnetic field vision for detecting active gadgets, plus motion vision for homing in on moving objects.
Once you get multiplayer running, you'll find that it has a fairly steep learning curve, but it's worth the effort because of the neat things multiplayer offers. Matches boast an unusual intimacy since just a few people are playing cat-and-mouse with each other. You also spend at least as much time trying to outwit your opponents as outgun them. The stealthy spies in particular require a style of play very different from most shooters since they lack conventional firearms. That might not be to everyone's taste, but it's certainly a breath of fresh air.
The new multiplayer, when it works properly, makes a very cool addition to the Splinter Cell franchise. Pandora Tomorrow's single-player campaign plays it too safely, though, mostly offering more of the same. Then again, "more of the same" in this case is better than what most games have to offer, and the closing levels are great fun. Overall, Pandora Tomorrow could have used a lot better quality control, too, but it's still a worthy sequel to a modern classic.
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