Expectations and hype for Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow are remarkably high, and deservedly so, considering the first Splinter Cell turned the stealth-action genre on its ear. So does Pandora Tomorrow follow the path of greatness forged by its predecessor? Yes and no. Let’s break this down into the game’s two major components: single-player and multi-player.
People usually want the bad news first, and we’re happy to oblige. While the original Splinter Cell broke ground by opening its environments to exploration and player creativity, the levels in Pandora Tomorrow feel considerably more linear. They also omit logical places for inventiveness on the part of the player, and sometimes even punish the player for trying to be creative. For example, there is a segment where our leading man, Sam Fisher, has to navigate the baggage handling backrooms of LAX. Looking above the conveyor belts you’ll see a small catwalk that runs above the viewable areas of the belt and is completely shrouded in darkness. You can try jumping up there, but your attempts will be in vain – guess that would have made it too easy. Just because you see it doesn’t mean you can do anything with it.
Furthermore, the story narrative this time around simply isn’t as interesting, perhaps because we’re already accustomed to Sam and his Fifth Freedom lifestyle from the original Splinter Cell. Nothing really drives the player to perform well besides avoiding hearing Lambert (Fisher’s superior) screaming disparaging insults at Sam for screwing up a mission (via a USB headset if you have one). Sometimes your stealthiest machinations are spotted (despite concerted efforts to the contrary) and this leaves both you, and Sam, flabbergasted as to how anyone saw through such shadowy exploits. The first Splinter Cell wasn’t this harsh about it; it’s as though developers Ubi Soft ran out of clever ways to make Pandora Tomorrow cool and instead just wanted to make it harder – way harder.
With other gaming gems currently available such as Prince of Persia (great exploration, ingenious level design), and Rockstar’s Manhunt (awesome stealth mechanics), Pandora Tomorrow’s uninspired levels, limited interaction, and flawed stealth/enemy awareness system are detrimental elements that are unforgivable. There are diamonds in the overall rough here, but they don’t come close to make up for the frustration you’ll endure in order to get to them.
Getting to the other rating criteria above, the graphics are quite good, for a PS2 game/Xbox port, or any game for that matter. Reflections, water, light, shadows, night-vision glare effects – it all comes together to build a believable and cohesive world to run around and be stealthy within. Levels are broken up into smaller chunks when compared with the Xbox version of Pandora Tomorrow, which helps maintain the PS2’s visual luster – but it’s not too big a deal; it just means a few extra load times.
Sound effects are conveyed competently to the player, but they’re wildly inconsistent as to how they affect the game’s environments. Sam now comes with the ability to whistle to distract an enemy’s attention. However, on one occasion, two enemies standing not twenty feet from Sam didn’t react at all when he whistled – but after firing a silenced pistol at a wall a veritable mile away, they both bolted directly at Sam’s (hidden) position. Hmm, odd that they wouldn’t investigate the wall, where the bullet’s impact surely would have been audible. Reactions to shooting out lights are also inconsistent. Sometimes a guy standing right under a light won’t react at all when abruptly showered with glass and bulb fragments, whereas somebody standing a hundred yards away might come running. Also, if you’re aiming at anything – anything at all – whether it’s a vital headshot or strategically breaking lights, you’d better stop, crouch, hold your breath, take a valium, and go to sleep before firing. Apparently our highly trained, super-top-secret agent Fisher is a lousy shot. He also can’t climb or jump over rails, or anything else that stands more than about knee-high. Players should be made to feel empowered when experiencing a video game of this nature, not handicapped.
The overall worth of the single-player mode is debatable, but, in this reviewer’s opinion, it’s largely nil. It serves as scant little more than a training ground for the game’s multi-player mode, which is clearly where most of the design budget was spent.
Many games are accused of having a medium-to-strong single-player experience with multi-player modes tacked on as an afterthought, having not thoroughly fleshed out what could have been a great addition to a title. The exact opposite is true with Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. If you made a grocery list of things that you want, and expect, from a game, then outstanding graphics, intuitive control, intelligent level design, and excellent environment interaction would be somewhere near the top, right? Get your PS2 online with Pandora Tomorrow and you’ll find them all.
Many of us have heard about some of the classy maps in Pandora Tomorrow’s multi-player modes (especially through the Xbox version’s earlier release date). The Warehouse, Museum, Cinema, and Schemerhorn come to mind immediately. Words alone cannot accurately, or justly, depict what makes these levels so great. You’ll find new ways to sneak towards your objectives every time you play. Now isn’t that what we truly want from a game like this?
The primary modes of play are Neutralization, Sabotage, and Extraction, and each plays entirely differently depending on which team you’re on (Shadownet Spies or ARGUS Mercenaries). Generally, the spies try to sneak in and create havoc while the mercs try to stop them. In Neutralization, the spies have to reach predetermined spots on the game map and neutralize a chemical agent while the mercs guard against intruders. This mode would have been more interesting if the chemical vials appeared in random places for each game; it would help curb camping strategies and force the mercs to think on the fly. Sabotage involves the spies sticking a modem on a pre-set point (or points) and guarding it (them) until detonation. The mercs can either kill the spies or remove the modem. Spies then have to return to an ammo store to get a new modem. Extraction involves spies trying to steal vials and return them to a drop point while the mercs guard the vials and eliminate the spies.
Let it be said that this is some of the most ingenious multi-player gaming you’ll ever have the pleasure of experiencing. Well, at least for the first few weeks. When played as designed, the game is awesome. However, after a short time, with more people picking up the game and taking it online, new unofficial and wholly annoying modes have started to crop up. Nowadays, this reviewer rarely plays online any more because everybody else seems intent on playing nothing but ?Deathmatch’. Please people! Pandora Tomorrow tries to introduce something new and original to the online experience and the lowest common denominator ruins things for those who would wish to embrace it. Good advice would be to find a few people you can trust, and put them on the game’s included buddy-list feature (thank you, Ubi Soft). Play with them, or via LAN with your friends. Ubi Soft or Pandora Tomorrow cannot be blamed for this devolution of their fine product, but the spiraling downside is definitely worth mentioning. It would be wrong of eager consumers to venture online expecting something they’ll have a hard time finding – gamers actually playing Pandora Tomorrow’s multi-player the way it was meant to be played.
Graphics and sounds are as good in multi-player as they are in single-player, and the sound inconsistencies noted in single-player are negated by the fact that other players must hear and respond to your antics, rather than an AI subroutine. Gameplay, however, steps up noticeably. Earlier it was mentioned that Sam can’t climb anything, and isn’t terribly mobile in the single-player mode? Well, apparently these faceless Shadownet trainees are, at almost half Sam’s age, considerably more agile than the graying veteran. They can climb more obstacles, jump higher, grab ledges with ease…the list goes on. An extended amount of review time was spent with Pandora Tomorrow’s multi-player portion before trying the single-player mode. Perhaps this is part of the reason why gameplay feels so much more restrictive when playing as Sam Fisher rather than a nameless Shadownet recruit some twenty years his junior.
Another area where Pandora Tomorrow is somewhat of a let down is in the absolute necessity of having to find humans to play with. Sometimes it would be enough of a fun challenge to simply run around the levels with AI ARGUS mercs or Shadownet spies – merely because the multi-player modes play so much better than the single-player. Bots, let alone good bots, are becoming rare nowadays, and it’s a loss we should perhaps lament. Training and warming-up on ego-free fodder would help newbies get into the swing of Pandora Tomorrow’s multi-player maps as well as providing a solid grounding on how the game is played.
All in all, there are some very good times to be had with Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. But we can only hope that Ubi Soft amend a number of those niggling issues mentioned herein through the upcoming Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. It is too bad that a few minor problems should plague an otherwise promising title. Since Chaos Theory’s release has seen a delay from November 2004 to March 2005, there is still plenty of time to try out Pandora Tomorrow, and it may very well be worth your while.