Ubi Soft have sent a couple of, highly regarded, old friends to visit the gaming masses; how they’ve been missed. Sam Fisher and Splinter Cell appear to have dropped a little weight and greyed a touch since we last spent time together, but they still know how to light up a room.
They’re filled with the same glorious qualities we’ve come to expect from their time at Ubi Soft; engrossing tales of terrorist shenanigans, shadowy stealth, exotic locations, evolved character animation, and faultless dry humor. They might not have anything new to tell us, and maybe they’ve grown a little anorexic when it comes to originality, but, based on the strengths of their past accomplishments, if they ain’t hungry, don’t feed ?em!
Pandora Tomorrow sees the NSA dispatch ageing operative, Sam Fisher, against Suhadi Sadano; leader of the Darah Dan Doa guerrilla group threatening to release a deadly contagion upon the unsuspecting globe. Across varied locations, including: Paris, Indonesia, Jurusalem and even Los Angeles’ LAX airport, Fisher must track and neutralize Sadano through the standard ?prevent the end of the world scenario’.
Story aside, Pandora Tomorrow really isn’t so drastically different from the original Splinter Cell. But, while it’s still glorious presented, sumptuously lit, effortlessly controlled, tightly scripted, and fabulously executed, there are some notably major differences this time around. Pandora Tomorrow’s single player mission, though compelling in a time of story nonchalance among the developer fraternity, is woefully short. A paltry eight missions stand between Sam and saving the world. Perhaps an all-encompassing ten hours of dedicated gameplay will see him safely achieve covert and unacknowledged glory. Video games do not come cheap, we don’t pay pocket change for them–and never have; a measly ten hours (regardless of its supreme quality) is simply not enough to justify the asking price. Maybe the uninitiated Splinter Cell game players will gather a more lengthy experience, as the lack of familiarity is likely to affect their performance transitionally. However, Splinter Cell was a hugely successful title so, for everyone else who finds Pandora Tomorrow akin to riding a favorite bicyle, the relative brevity will surely disappoint.
It would appear Ubi Soft hope to counter any criticism leveled at the single player game with the inclusion of an outrageously impressive online multiplayer mode. Based around a story point referred to during the main game, the multiplayer option finds two opposing forces battling for supremacy. Shadownet members represent an NSA-like spy organization responsible for locating and destroying biological weaponry. Players opting for Shadownet as their assigned affiliation take on a similar physical appearance to Sam Fisher, but their faces are completely hidden. By comparison, the Argus Corporation is a mercenary outfit dedicated to preventing Shadownet’s success?and the major difference for anyone choosing to be an Argus mercenary is that they’re dropped into the multiplayer in a first-person perspective, whilst Shadownet team members play in third-person.
The multiplayer offers three diverse game types to choose from: Extraction mode requires that Shadownet spies locate a set amount of armed biological weapons and safely transfer them to a designated extraction zone. The Argus mercenaries must simply prevent Shadownet from achieving its goal. Neutralization mode sees Shadownet infiltrating locations to find and destroy various ticking biological containers; again, Argus mercs are charged with preventing their success. Sabotage mode places the Shadownet spies in a slightly more perilous situation to the other two modes, as they need to use hack modems to safely disable the biological threat. The extra time needed to fulfill the mission objectives provides the Argus mercenaries with the chance to detonate the virus containers prior to the completion of their countdowns.
Pandora Tomorrow’s eight multiplayer maps exist separately from the locations in the main game and provide renewed variety including a movie theatre, a hospital, a museum and a laboratory. Graphically adorned with typical Ubi Soft attention to detail, players become immersed in environments where simply hugging shadows and waiting for looping enemy AI to provide opportune kill moments abruptly becomes a thing of the past. The Shadownet spies exist almost like ninjas, as they effortlessly dangle from high ledges, slip silently from corner to corner, and conceal themselves elegantly atop stacked boxes and within the enveloping darkness. The Argus corp. mercenaries appear almost bullish by comparison; but Shadownet players should not be deceived. Armored and strong, the mercenaries wear visors connected directly to the multiplayer level’s security systems, and this quickly addresses any gameplay imbalance. The visors are multi-functional and not only track movement but also recognize any electromagnetic traces emitted by the Shadownet spies’ thermal goggles. It’s a constant battle of point and counterpoint, and it’s why the multiplayer mode on Pandora Tomorrow transcends the traditional notions of team-based gaming.
Pandora Tomorrow’s control configuration is incredibly easy to adapt to, whether you’ve prior experience with the series or otherwise. The level of intuitiveness it provides for the player is quickly becoming synonymous with Ubi Soft in general (Prince of Persia, Ghost Recon). This episode of Splinter Cell elaborates on certain character abilities within Sam’s repertoire. For example, the wondrous split jump in tight corridor spaces can now be taken one stage further. Not only can Sam crash down on oblivious enemies, he can also now lean his body weight on one leg and quickly push upward from that position to grab ledges. While on poles, Sam can dangle upside down like a chimp and shoot errant bad guys as they struggle to locate him; he can also perform an incredibly stealthy SWAT turn across open doorways, which actually makes him look as though he’s show boating a little.
Small in-game details have been modified for Pandora Tomorrow and, though not earth shaking in relevant effect, they add some extra polish to the main game. The subject of alarm raising has now been altered from its original three-strikes format to a progressive tiered system, which sees guards strapping on more and more protective gear and adopting renewed vigor on their patrols. The AI is noticeably improved too, though still not perfect. Taking out one of two stationary guards with a sniper shot will no longer result in chin scratching by the remaining guard as he prowls half-heartedly in search of the perpetrator?and then resumes his (now lone) vigil. In Pandora Tomorrow the alarm is instantly lifted to tier one during an open encounter, Kevlar vests are donned, and shadowy corners are thoroughly explored. But, be warned, the enemy AI isn’t so evolved that they patrol areas in a non-linear fashion; Sam can still slip by undetected or quietly pick off his adversaries after a few moments of memorizing their movement patterns.
Ubi Soft don’t do things with a lightweight attitude; their portfolio of achievement in the gaming world stands as absolute proof of the commitment and passion they have for everything they do. Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow further exemplifies their belief in pushing the graphical limits of today’s consoles. The light sourcing is unfailingly attractive, atmospheric and well observed. The level environments are beautifully realized and richly detailed; from the sway of plant life on a shallow stream as Sam glides silently through it, to a tiny spider web blowing in the breeze passing through an underground train tunnel. The FMV preambles for each mission are also top quality; while never trying to dazzle through performance, they add a gorgeous artistic flair to the proceedings as well as keeping the player drawn to the plot line (the opening sequence to the game is fabulous). It’s all gold. No one creates gaming ambience like Ubi Soft.
Michael Ironside’s (Starship Troopers, Total Recall) hard-edged and menacing voice work makes Sam Fisher one of the video game world’s most memorable characters, and, fittingly, Pandora Tomorrow allows for that quality to shine. The secondary characters are also consistently well rounded and help give the game that little extra bit of oomph in the authenticity standings. Game music generally pops up to reflect certain, often pivotal, moments throughout the story; it grows frantic during critical situations, it suddenly chimes in whenever Sam raises an alarm, or it’s merely there in the background as perfect accompaniment over an FMV segment. Though a largely unnoticed compliment to the gameplay, occasionally the music can seem a touch intrusive, especially during bullet-heavy action moments when Sam’s receiving guidance information via his OPSAT earpiece. It’s a minor criticism, though, and easily forgiven.
Even though the stellar multiplayer option exists to effectively make Pandora Tomorrow an inexhaustible opportunity within gaming society, it still struggles to truly excel in terms of single-player longevity. Indeed, the only grievance to be found during this review is that the time, alone, in the dark with Sam?was over far too quickly. Playing the missions through on normal will pose scant challenge to those well versed in the Splinter Cell experience, though periodic situations do lend themselves to that annoying trial and error approach that belies both skill and timing. Attempting the game on hard soon ramps up the challenge, and players may find that a mere eight missions is perfectly adequate as they battle to adapt to the suddenly unforgiving, but thoroughly worthwhile tilt.