Reviewed: May 31, 2004
Released: March 23, 2004
The saga of Sam Fisher certainly makes for great fiction, but in my experience with the military it has always been about a ďteamĒ effort. You rely on your men and your men rely on you and there is no place for the ďlone wolfĒ, ďrogue agentĒ, or ďcovert commandoĒ.
No doubt such occupations exist in organizations with higher levels of national security than I was privy to, so I must confess a bit of guilty pleasure, combined with a bit of healthy skepticism when I slipped into my NSA-issue stealth suit and took on the role of super-agent, Sam Fisher in his latest adventure, Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow.
The original Splinter Cell is arguably one of the best PC stealth games ever made. Before it, there was little, if anything, to define the genre on the PC. And while the original game was an almost perfect example of a flawless action game, there were a few features gamers demanded, namely online play, and Ubisoft has followed-up with a sequel that delivers the goods.
Pandora Tomorrow is set in the very-near future with a story that could easily be extrapolated right from todayís headlines and the ongoing resentment by an increasingly restless world population. Using real world locations and situations you are thrust into an explosive scenario of terrorism, hostages, espionage, and relentless action.
Despite the hype of the new online features and multiplayer modes, Pandora Tomorrow still offers a solid solo campaign for those who are unable or unwilling to take their game online. Those who played the original Splinter Cell will feel right at home with the controls. Sam has a few new moves added to his repertoire and these are so intuitive and natural youíll wonder why they werenít in the first game.
The first is the new SWAT-pivot move that allows Sam to spin across doorways, alleys, or other narrow openings avoiding detection while hopefully obtaining a better vantage point. Itís a standard move that is taught in basic training, which only makes it a more glaring omission from the original game.
Sam can still double-jump and suspend himself in narrow gaps, but he can now continue that move one step further by performing another jump and grabbing a high ledge to pull up. This is not taught in basic (or advanced) training and is more of a showcase move than anything else. Even a trained gymnast isnít likely to pull off this move with 10-20 pounds of weapons and gear strapped to their body.
Naturally, all these new moves provide the designers plenty of opportunities for you to use them during gameplay. Unlike the original game where you had a training room to learn the ropes, Pandora Tomorrow features on-the-job training, as you are guided through the old and new commands during the introductory mission.
Pandora Tomorrow doesnít support gamepads so there is no analog movement to control the speed as Sam moves about. Instead, you can adjust the speed by rolling the mouse wheel to several presets. This takes a lot of the finesse out of moving around stealthily and left me feeling rather detached from the character. There is also no rumble support on the PC, which takes away considerably from the lock-picking experience.
The health system has been radically changed to resemble something more along the lines of Half-Life. Instead of loading up on med kits and healing at will you now find first-aid stations where you are given the choice to fully heal or partially heal based on your need and the situation. Healing is now a real-time function. Unlike the first game where you could pause the game and quaff a med kit for instant relief, Sam must now go through an animated sequence that takes several seconds, during which he is totally vulnerable to attack and further damage.
Some other subtle changes have crept into the game design including a multi-stage alert system for enemies. It basically follows the rules of the first game where failure to dispose of bodies properly or getting caught on camera triggered the alarm and too many alarms ended the mission, but this time around the enemies will step up their game as the alarm levels increase.
This is a two-fold system that rewards stealth gamers with slightly easier gameplay and raises the challenge bar for careless players. Of course you can always wait for the alert level to decrease on its own, but in missions where time is an issue you donít always have the luxury of hiding in a dark corner waiting for the guards to give up.
You still have a wonderful assortment of gadgets including several new toys to play with. As with the moves, the missions are designed around their use as well. Youíll be eavesdropping with the laser mic, rappelling down zip-lines, picking locks, and using all sorts of nifty vision modes including my favorite, the diversionary spy camera.
Enemy AI has been stepped up several notches, not only to conform to the new three-alert model but to also emphasize the benefits of stealth gameplay. Pandora Tomorrow is not about shooting. When your targets are wearing body armor and helmets, taking them down with a bullet is often futile. The game subconsciously encourages you to play slowly, watch, learn, anticipate, and dispatch only the enemies you must as inconspicuously as possible.
The missions are creative and tightly integrated into the levels but there are times when you feel you are being led along a tightly scripted sequence of challenges. More often than not there is only one solution to any given problem aside from the obvious choice of killing or sneaking. Certain parts of certain levels require the use of a particular gadget or one of Samís nimble moves. Thereís no real satisfaction in figuring anything out since there arenít too many ways to screw up.
Multiplayer is the highly touted feature of this sequel, and I must admit even I was surprised at how well they merged what was previously a single-player experience into the multiplayer realm. As a veteran of every Clancy game since the original Rainbow Six Iím a huge fan of online multiplayer gaming, especially in a clan or squad-based environment, and even though Pandora Tomorrow limits the online fun to two-on-two matches this game could revolutionize the way we play games online, or at least encourage other developers to hone their online components to something as clever as this.
The core of the multiplayer component is built around two teams, Spies and Mercenaries, each with their own unique abilities, advantages, disadvantages, and viewpoints. Spies are all about stealth and play much like Sam does in the single-player game. You get all sorts of gadgets like night vision goggles and smoke grenades to assist you in this style of play. When creeping up on your target and snapping their neck is you primary weapon your game just got a whole lot different. Spies are played from the traditional third-person view.
Mercenaries come with plenty of firepower and gadgets to help them detect those sneaky spies. Their EM vision mode allows them to see anything that moves, even in the dark, and if a spy is using anything that uses electricity they will light up like a brothel in Amsterdam. Mercs also have helmet-mounted lamps that can turn the darkest passage or room into a sunny day at the beach. The multiplayer levels are populated with plenty of cameras, laser alarms, and motion sensors to hopefully make up for the limiting first-person perspective that mercs are forced to play from.
With two very defined teams and varying styles of play you already have the basics from some great match-ups, but Ubisoft hasnít stopped there. The online modes are totally customizable. Playing as either SHADOWNET or ARGUS, you can choose from games like Neutralization where the spies must infiltrate and locate several viral containers and neutralize them within a certain time limit before the mercs find and kill you.
Extraction plays much like Neutralization but instead of disabling the containers you must bring them back to the extraction point within the time limit. Sabotage mode is even more fiendishly clever. You place a modem on the wall near the viral containers to start a countdown for neutralizing the virus. If the modem is destroyed you will need to place another to resume the countdown.
All of these modes are incredibly fun and challenging to play and are surprisingly different based on the team you are playing as. Spies are racing against the clock while trying to remain stealthy while the mercs are aggressively hunting down the spies while simultaneously protecting the viral containers. Itís a perfect mix of stealth and action integrated into a simple and effective game premise that has set a new benchmark for online games.
Worth mentioning is the annoying default control configuration for multiplayer that is radically different from the default settings of the single-player game. Assuming you have learned the ropes by playing alone you will want to take the time to reconfigure your online command set to match what you are used to. It only takes a few minutes but remains no less annoying.
I had the privilege of reviewing both the PC and Xbox versions of Pandora Tomorrow, and the PC version easily blows past the Xbox. Developed simultaneously for both formats, the PC version has the luxury of having access to current hardware while the Xbox is relying on two-year old graphics technology.
My PC was able to crank out stunning visuals at 1600x1200 with a lot more polygons, thus alleviating all jaggies, and delivering sharp textures and wonderful lighting and shadow effects. The framerate was noticeably faster on the PC and just about everything that looked great on the Xbox now looked just a bit better.
Of course, your level of quality will always be based on your system configuration and being able to deliver sharp graphics isnít always a good thing as noted in the games unique vision modes. Night vision on the PC offered an image that was noticeably sharper and much more detailed than you would get in real life, making the slightly blurred images on the Xbox more realistic in the end.
If you thought Sam couldnít possibly look any better than he did last year youíd be wrong. Sam is now modeled in ultra-high detail including all of his gear, which is now independently modeled and animated based on physics and movement. The animation is still all hand-rendered for the smoothest character movement of any game to date.
Watching Sam walk, run, jump, climb, shimmy, or do anything else is pure poetry in motion. The new animations for the SWAT turn and split-jump-grab are nice but the coolest new move in Samís growing list is the ability to hang upside-down and fire his weapon from an inverted position.
The levels and environments in Pandora Tomorrow are outstanding, both indoors and out. Outdoors, we have some of the best tall grass I have ever seen outside of the real thing. It waves in the breeze and crumples as Sam walks, crouches, or crawls through it. Water is just as good as always and Sam will splash and leave ripples in its reflective surface as he walks through puddles, rivers, or ponds.
Real world architecture heightens the realism for locations like Jerusalem and France. The jungles of Indonesia are breathtaking feature lush foliage and cascading rays of light streaming down through the canopy. Of course one of my favorite levels, perhaps because I played the demo at least a dozen times before getting the full game, was the train level. This entire sequence is the stuff that movies are made from.
All the visual special effects are soundly in place. Lighting is real-time and dynamic so just about any light source can be shot to provide more cover of darkness. Lights also cast real-time shadows, not only for Sam but for everyone and everything in the game. This not only makes the game world a much more convincing place, but lends itself to some tactical gameplay as well.
The vision modes are interesting conceptually, and certainly add significantly to the gameplay, especially in the careful balancing act of multiplayer. There were many times during the solo campaign where the levels were so dark I was forced to play large section of them using my night-vision goggles, which ultimately means you are playing in black and white. One particularly interesting feature was the electrical interference that could disrupt your HUD when using various vision modes.
As with the first game, Pandora Tomorrow delivers stunning CG movies with all of the expert direction and carefully planned camera angles and special effects of a feature presentation. The movies are a welcome reward for completing missions while helping to immerse you in the underlying plot of the campaign.
Ubisoft isnít content to simply dazzle you with stellar gameplay and graphics. They are going assault your ears with the richest and most dynamic sound presentation of any game to date. Pandora Tomorrow is the first Xbox title to use Dolbyís new Pro Logic IIx, a new standard in 7.1 surround sound, and while this isnít available on the PC you can get a reasonable facsimile by using an EAX Advanced HD sound card like the Audigy 2 ZS.
The 3D sound is put to excellent use with detailed sound effects. Every footstep is heard and changes based on whether you are running, walking, crouched, and also varies appropriately with the surface you happen to be on. Even your strapped-on gear rattles as you move about. Eavesdropping has never been so fun with your laser mic or the new spy bullet.
Michael Ironside is back to lend his weathered voice to the lead character, Sam Fisher, while Dennis Haysbert (FOXís ď24Ē) joins the cast as Lambert, that constant nagging voice in your headset. Actually, their banter is quite refreshing with some genuinely witty retorts that help to lighten the mood. The rest of the supporting voice work is highly professional and totally convincing.
The soundtrack rivals the quality of any film score. The music slips into the background during gameplay only to revive during alerts or combat situations. It not only drives the emotional impact of the game but also helps in your situational awareness.
If you are playing online you can make use of the supported headset features that allow you to chat with your teammate and taunt your enemies. This isnít as obvious a feature as it is on the Xbox so youíll have to dig around a bit in the configuration utility to get it working.
The PC version allows you to save your game wherever and whenever you want. This can be a good and a bad thing. If used appropriately you can avoid needless frustration, but if abused you can shorten an already medium-length game. Experience gamers will likely finish the solo campaign in 15-20 hours with judicious use of the save system.
Going online will add countless hours of enjoyment to the title. PC gamers can use Ubi.com while Xbox gamers are forced to use Live, so there is no chance of challenging others on varying formats. And while there has been no mention of future PC content, the possibility is certainly there.
If you were a fan of the original Splinter Cell then Pandora Tomorrow is a great extension of that game and an obviously addition to your game library. Everything you loved about the first game is back and better than before. Samís new moves and gadgets are excellent and tightly integrated into the missions so they arenít there just for the sake of having something new.
The online support for the PC version probably isnít as big a deal since Xbox gamers were the ones who were really demanding it. Nonetheless, PC gamers will still find plenty to like with the new online modes and unique two-team approach to the game. At the end of the day I found the PC version of Pandora Tomorrow prettier to look at but the Xbox version was more fun to play.