Splinter Cell: a lone government operative (or terrorist) who stops at nothing to carry out orders from a distant yet powerful parent organization. Pandora Tomorrow: a code phrase that, when spoken by certain individuals, can either instigate or avoid a catastrophe that we’re not at liberty to reveal in this review.
What we are at liberty to tell you is that Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow easily fills the shoes of its predecessor, which is quite an accomplishment for a game whose progenitor is one of the most revered games on Xbox. Pick your adjective: Outstanding. Riveting. Engaging. Exciting. Pandora Tomorrow is all these things, and that’s just the single-player game. Add in the multiplayer options, a first for the stealth-action genre, and you’ve got a videogame classic in the making. Every game has a fault or two, and Pandora Tomorrow is no exception. But the faults are so minor, and the rest of the game so stellar, that no Xbox owner should miss out on this game.
Pandora Tomorrow features the return of super-spy Sam Fisher, an elite government operative sent on a mission to discover the true source of terrorist activity in Southeast Asia and its potential impact on the United States. From an embassy in East Timor to the streets of Jerusalem, from the jungles of Indonesia to an airport in the United States, the story of Pandora Tomorrow will engross players as only a Tom Clancy tale can do. What the story lacks in length it makes up for in intrigue, given its timely but superficial discussion of why certain groups dislike U.S. foreign policy. In fact, although the game provides “only” 15 hours of play from start to finish, those 15 hours have a solid chance of engrossing you like no Xbox game since Halo. Or the original Splinter Cell, of course.
As you make your way through the story, hoping desperately to figure out what will happen next, you’ll feel immediately at home with the gameplay. Ubisoft apparently believes in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule of programming, because the sneak-shoot-sneak components have undergone absolutely no refinement. Sam still has his stealth meter, almost every light in the game can be shot out, and the bodies of your dead or unconscious foes must still be hidden to avoid alerting the guards. Zip lines are still a sneaky way to transport from one side of a street to the other, downspouts and elevator pulleys are keen to be climbed when you need roof access, and laundry lines and I-beams make great hand-over-hand highways when you need to travel out of someone’s line of sight. About the only thing you’ll notice has changed, in fact, is Sam’s ready supply of ammunition. And to be perfectly honest, this is one of those instances where Pandora Tomorrow makes a slight misstep.
In the original Splinter Cell, Sam would essentially start a level with one gun and a few gadgets, leaving players to conserve ammunition and find more creative ways to achieve their objectives. In Pandora Tomorrow, Sam begins most levels with a pistol, machine gun, spy cams, sticky shockers, smoke grenades, frag grenades and his trusty grab-them-from-behind move. The developers probably gave Sam this arsenal so gamers could choose for themselves how they’d reach the end. What they ended up creating, though, is a sequel that is considerably easier than the original and, in many respects, much more of a shooting game than its predecessor. Why conserve ammo when there’s bound to be more in about two checkpoints? Really, unless your objective calls for no use of lethal force, there is no reason, thus rendering the game much easier than the original.
The reduced difficulty is further augmented by the new alarm system. Most levels now let Sam alert guards to his presence three times, be it via running under a light and being spotted or failing to hide a body that a guard eventually discovers. The first time an alarm sounds, every enemy in the level will don a flak jacket, making it harder to take them down with weapons. The second alarm sees them go for their Kevlar helmets, making headshots near-impossible to pull off. The third alarm means the mission’s over. In theory this would make the entire game more complicated, but after a while the guards’ paranoia subsides, meaning the helmets and jackets go back into the locker. And oddly enough, this always seems to coincide with a checkpoint. Funny thing how a guard forgets he just saw a friend die once Sam reaches a certain tunnel.
To Ubisoft’s credit, the game does have a “hard” difficulty setting, and it certainly adds some challenge to the game. What’s nice about the inclusion is that novice players can enjoy the game on its default setting, while Splinter Cell veterans can increase the difficulty to resume their adventures essentially where they left off two years ago. Of course, the nice thing about Splinter Cell in general is that you never have to kill anyone to begin with; you can go around knocking people out and hiding the bodies, a sans-gun tactic that also has a way of increasing the challenge.
Pandora Tomorrow also differs from its predecessor by including only eight levels and about 15 hours of gameplay. When you look at those figures, it’s obvious that some of the levels take a while to defeat, especially if you’re one of those gamers who like to stick to the shadows and take their time watching guards to plan out their next move. Yes, you read that correctly: you can watch the guards and plan out your next move.
Much ado was made before Pandora Tomorrow shipped about its random AI routes, which was supposed to make the game more difficult. In some circumstances the random pathing is in full force, and guards won’t always react in the same way to a stimulus (a shot-out light, Sam’s distraction-causing whistle or a tossed soda can). Yet for the most part, the random AI isn’t random. Guards most definitely follow set routes, but they’re “set” only insofar as normal patrol routes would be. Each guard follows a certain path, and he’s bound to repeat that path/route and therefore enable you to plan your move. Once the outside stimulus occurs, things get a bit more random, but even then, they still follow a path that can be both predictable and repetitious.
Of course, much ado was also made about the game’s graphics, and that’s certainly one area where Ubisoft delivered. Pandora Tomorrow is by far the best-looking game on Xbox. It’s the best-looking console game I’ve ever seen, in fact. Simply phenomenal. The character models, even when viewed up close via the in-game binoculars, are impeccably detailed. We’re not talking simple textures and eye holes here; we’re talking full-on “oh my God, these look like real people” character models.
The characters also move like real people, especially Sam. In proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks, the gruff main character has a few new moves, including the publicized “climb into the ceiling hatch” move, the “hang from the legs while shooting” maneuver and, my personal favorite, the “climb out of the window and onto the ledge” exercise. I imagine these moves all resemble what I’d look like if I did them. You know, if I was buff, 38, an elite special operative and adored by millions.
Yet it’s the weather and lighting effects that truly give the game its realistic veneer. As much as Sam traverses the globe, he also encounters distinct weather patterns. Sunny mornings. Rainy sunsets. Cloudy evenings. Thunder storms complete with nightvision-killing lightning. Watching Sam slog through the rain-soaked streets of Jakarta is amazing, but it pales in comparison to seeing that same heavy rain bouncing off his back and head. The lighting, too, is a sight to behold, from the real-time shadows to the glow of red neon. But even those seem dull once you’ve watched Sam pass in front of a stained-glass window that sprays its multicolored light accurately over his black outfit.
Sound-wise, Pandora Tomorrow gets nothing but high marks as well. Approach a room and wait for the footsteps to fade away before opening the door. Saunter down a hallway and listen closely for the mechanical sound of a pesky security camera. Heck, set up camp near a mosque in Jerusalem and just enjoy the soundtrack and environmental sounds. Not a single audio element was left unmastered, and gamers with Dolby Digital systems are in for a particular treat.
You know where all the audio, graphics and gameplay praise is leading, right? The game’s multiplayer options. In a first for the stealth genre, Pandora Tomorrow has found a way to mix shadowy gameplay with the action-oriented shooter-style gameplay favored by most online multiplayer gamers. Think of it as a four-player version of “hide-and-seek with guns,” and you get an idea of how it all comes together. Spies versus Mercenaries (Mercs). Thieves versus protectors. It’s an ingenious concept, but one that’s so basic that I’m surprised nobody came up with it before now. Maybe that’s what makes it so ingenious.
The multiplayer mode on the whole isn’t as approachable as most gamers would probably hope, because they require near-photographic familiarity with each level. The multiplayer modes all involve neutralizing or stealing certain canisters positioned throughout a level, and actually reaching those canisters as a spy, or protecting them as a merc, requires that players know every possible way to get to them. Natural gaming prowess will only get you so far; it’s imperative that you learn the ins and outs of each level.
The learning curve for these multiplayer modes is among the steepest of any Xbox Live game, and for some people, it may be a bit too frustrating. But the learning curve makes sense; it should be hard to protect or infiltrate a level if you don’t know its layout. Fortunately, if you set up a non-ranking multiplayer game, you can play through it at your own pace, with no fear of competition, giving you time to explore all the nooks, crannies and otherwise-hidden routes. What the single-player mode of Pandora Tomorrow is missing in difficulty, the multiplayer modes make up for in spades, but while it may be overwhelming at first, once you learn a level the multiplayer aspects are incredibly strategic and fun. The appreciation just requires some time to mature.
And “mature” is exactly what Pandora Tomorrow did in Ubisoft’s development cellar. Like a fine red wine, Pandora Tomorrow is immediately recognizable as good, yet it’s destined to be treasured because of its outstanding subtleties. Unfortunately, like a fine red wine, Pandora Tomorrow is also consumed far too soon (with one of the most disappointing endings ever), leaving you craving the next bottle that vintner Ubisoft will release. Being a sequel to a smash-hit is never easy, but this is one instance where the game, in spite of its flaws, comes together as a complete package to more than fill its predecessor’s shoes. Pandora Tomorrow is one game no Xbox owner should miss. Now if only we knew the next game was just around the corner….
- Gameplay: 9
- Graphics: 9.5
- Sound: 9.5
- Replay: 9.2
- Overall: 9.4
- Buy first, interrogate later.
— Jonas Allen