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Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow

Review By:  Jared Black

Developer:  Ubisoft Shanghai
Publisher:  Ubisoft
# of Players:  1 (4 online)
Genre:  Stealth Action
ESRB:  Mature
Online:  Yes
Accessories:  Memory Unit, In-game Dolby Digital, System Link, Xbox Live (multiplayer, content DL, scoreboards)
Date Posted: 

5-12-04

How do you follow up on a game as well executed as the original Tom Clancyís Splinter Cell?  For Ubisoft the answer was easy: tweak the single-player game to make the things that worked before even better and add an innovative multiplayer mode to the mix.  The result is another Game of the Year contender, and some serious pressure on the shoulders of Hideo Kojima and the next installment in the Metal Gear Solid franchise.

As I mentioned, if you played the original youíll have no problem jumping into Pandora Tomorrowís single player game.  This time out, everyoneís favorite Splinter Cell Sam Fisher faces off against Indonesian militia leader Suhadi Sadono.  Suhadiís men have taken over the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, and itís up to Fisher to sneak in and destroy top-secret documents before itís too late.  Of course things get progressively worse from there, leading Fisher to travel to a number of different locations performing a variety of objectives.

The changes to the single-player game are few, but enough to freshen up the experience quite a bit.  New to the Xbox is the ability to select context-sensitive items (such as a lock pick while standing in front of a door) directly from the in-game menu without having to go into inventory.  This was first introduced in the GCN/PS2 ports of the original game, and itís good to see that Ubisoft retained it.  I still want to know how Sam knows a door is locked before he tries to open it though.  Sam also has a set of binoculars that are accessible with a click of the right thumbstick.  Flashbang (as seen in Rainbow Six 3) and Chaff Grenades (disable electronic devices ala MGS2) have been added as usable items, and the pistol is now equipped with a laser aiming sight.  Chemical flares have been removed from the game completely (they were useless anyway), while Medical Kits are now limited-use stations instead of items that can be picked up.  Finally, Booby Traps (grenade attached to a string) and Motion Detectors (emit a blinding light) have been added as environmental hazards Sam must avoid.

Several new moves have also been introduced, including the Half Split Jump (for more narrow corridors), Half Split Jump and Jump (jump to a higher ledge from a Half Split Jump), Upside-Down Shooting (shooting while hanging from a pipe by his legs), Back-to-Wall Throwing (throw objects from around a corner), and finally the SWAT Turn (almost invisible movement across an open door).  None of these fundamentally change the way the game is played, but theyíre all useful (and logical) additions that show Sam has improved since his last time out.  Sam can also whistle by pressing the Black button to draw the attention of an enemy, which I put to very good use several times throughout the game.

Despite the changes, this is still the same Splinter Cell you know and love.  Most of the game is spent lurking in the shadows, moving from location to location as covertly as possible.  Permission to use lethal force still depends on the circumstances, as diplomacy is required for more sensitive situations.  Although there are still situations where one alarm will mean mission failure, for the most part theyíre more forgiving now.  When in a multiple alarm situation the first alarm will cause the enemies to put on helmets, while the second alarm will cause the enemy to put on flak jackets as well.  This is reflected in the game, and makes it harder to take out an enemy without causing a ruckus.  Although it does tend to make things easier, alerted enemies are now much more aggressive in seeking Sam out and the added armor often means resorting to non-lethal methods of neutralization instead.

Level design has also been refined.  While the locations are about as interesting as in the first game, the layout of each level has been refined to allow for more use of moves, branching travel routes presenting different challenges, etc.  Everyone knows about the infamous train level by now, and it is indeed awesome.  Personally I think a couple other levels are even better (like Jakarta and the Kundang Camp), even if a really lame ending taints the final level of the game.  After completing the final objective I didnít think there was any way theyíd end the game there and expected more gameplay, but instead I received a final movie that left a lot to be desired.  I wonít give away the ending here, but suffice it to say what happened in the cutscene shouldíve been up to the player himself to accomplish (in a different manner too I might add).

The objectives Sam must carry out have also been beefed up and given added variety.  In addition all of the normal stuff (rescuing hostages, killing enemies, etc.), Samís gadgets are now used in some new and interesting ways.  For example, in one instance Sam must look for someone with a prosthetic leg by using the thermal vision mode to look for a leg that gives off less heat than a normal one.  In another instance when a NPC spots Sam heíll go alert the local authorities, whoíll come running a short time later with flashlights and calling out orders to surrender.  In another instance Sam can either leave a NPC to die or indirectly rescue him, and in either case (I know because I went back and tried it the other way on a hunch) Lambert gives different reactionary dialogue.  These little touches were generally missing from the first game, and show that the team spent a lot more time on really refining the experience this time out.

Online, itís a battle between spies and mercenaries.  SHADOWNET is a new class of operative in Third Echelon, which uses team-based stealth tactics.  On the other side is the ARGUS Corporation, a private military corporation that will guard and secure any location, no questions asked.  The two groups square off in three different modes: Neutralization, Extraction, and Sabotage.  In Neutralization itís the job of SHADOWNET to find viral containers (ND133s) and neutralize them, while ARGUS must protect the containers and eliminate any intruders they spot.  In Extraction SHADOWNET must find and take the tubes of ND133s and bring them to the extraction point, while ARGUS must prevent that from happening.  If a tube is taken, an ARGUS member can retrieve it by eliminating the spy that took it.  Finally, in Sabotage the SHADOWNET team must neutralize the ND133s by placing a modem nearby while the ARGUS Corporation must protect the containers.

I know the last paragraph makes it sound mundane, but itís the presentation of it all that makes the online mode truly shine.  Basically itís Splinter Cell vs. Rainbow Six, with the spies using non-lethal attacks and going about in third-person while the mercs are heavily armed and travel around in first-person.  Obviously using first-person view for the mercs limits their field of view, helping to counteract the huge weaponry and ďhome fieldĒ advantages they possess.  This isnít the only limitation the mercs have though, as their high-powered weaponry and armor also prevents them from sneaking around like the spies do (climbing crates and such).  To counter these limitations mercs have flashlights, laser lights (identifies characters in shadow), EMF (Electromagnetic Field) Vision, and Motion Vision.  The EMF Vision allows a merc to locate interference given off by electronic devices, including spy goggles (used by spies of course), computers, etc.  Motion Vision displays air turbulence created by objects in motion, making it easier to track spies lurking in the shadows.  On the other hand, spies have both night and thermal vision, the latter of which is useful for picking up laser beams (that trip alarms) and other environmental hazards.  Of course, they risk being detected by EMF any time they use them.

Each side has its own gadgets as well. Mercs have several at their disposal including mines, Spy Traps, Tazers, and other more standard gadgets.  Spies have Spy Bullets (mark an enemy hit by it on the radar or light up an entire zone) and Sticky Cameras in addition to others that help them get past obstacles in the environment.

Overall, the online mode hasnít passed Rainbow Six 3 as my favorite Xbox Live game (yet anyway) but it is an excellent addition to the franchise.  While the different sides alone arenít really that innovative, how they interact is.  The unique capabilities each side possesses result in a balanced online experience thatís completely different depending on which side the player chooses to play on.  That level of strategy is not often found in most Xbox Live games.

As good as the first Splinter Cell looked, this one blows it out of the water.  On a technical level everything has been improved, from the detail on Sam himself to the environments.  Outdoor areas are very realistic, with swaying grass and thick jungles that are simply stunning.  Urban areas look better than ever, especially Jerusalemís unique blend of old buildings and modern amenities.  Weather and particle effects are better than ever, especially the driving rain in Jakarta, which really adds to the overall mood of that level.  Itís really the artistic direction that makes the difference though, whether it is the neon-lit streets of Jakarta (as seen through the pounding rain mentioned before), the suffocating jungles of Indonesia, or the tunnel in Paris that lights up only in certain areas every time a train passes.  Sure the technology is there, but itís used in such a way that almost every area in the game looks as unique as the one before it and I consistently found myself simply stopping and admiring the surroundings.  The new EMF and Motion Vision modes found in multiplayer look good enough, although after seeing what Retro Studios did with the various visor modes in Metroid Prime they fail to impress like the night and thermal modes did in the original game.  Itís also a shame that they didnít fix the clipping problem, as fallen bodies still have a nasty tendency to fall right through walls.

As with every other element of the game, the sound blows away virtually anything else done on the Xbox.  Dialogue is even better than before, as Lambert & Fisher talk more than ever and other characters often have humorous one-liners to add.  Even among the secondary characters, the voice acting is great and adds a lot to the overall experience.  Sound effects are once again used well, and often-good indicators of how stealthy Samís actions are.  If Samís running on a hard surface or doesnít land softly, the player will know right away that heís making too much noise.  Itís also thus far the only Xbox game to support 7.1 audio channels.  I donít have that kind of a setup, but it all sounds great on even my very basic surround sound.

Highs:

  • Veterans will feel at home almost immediately, and yet there are still a lot of new moves and other gizmos to master.  Familiar yet fresh is exactly how a good sequel should feel.
  • The storyline is better this time around, and the characters have more personality through their dialogue and actions than before.
  • The graphics have been given little technical improvements, but the settings and art direction really set this game apart.
  • The online mode is extremely innovative.

Lows:

  • The ending (including the final encounter) is weak and unsatisfying.  Watching the finale isnít nearly as satisfying as being able to play it, especially if it ends up being a lame one. If thereís one advantage the MGS franchise still holds over this one, itís that Kojima knows how to create a boss battle that leaves the player with a sense of accomplishment.
  • My nitpicky complaints from the first game werenít fixed: dumped bodies still clip through walls, Samís goggles still glow too much and yet go unnoticed by the enemy, and Sam shouldnít know a door is locked without first trying it.  Granted, two of the three are necessary evils for the sake of good gameplayÖ
  • The original was such an advancement for the genre and gaming in general that any kind of sequel isnít going to have the same effect, even with the addition of an awesome multiplayer mode.

Final Verdict: 

With improved play mechanics and an innovative multiplayer mode that extends replayability considerably, Tom Clancyís Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is a shining example of how a sequel should be done.  The complaints I have are minor in the overall picture, and the weak ending is easily overlooked when the journey to get to it is so great.  While it doesnít land with quite the same impact as the original, itís still something all gamers should experience at least once.

Overall Score: 9.7

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