There are so many great things about Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow that I don’t even know where to start. Not only does it have everything that every game should have, but also it has the things that you don’t always expect? like authenticity and good writing. Pandora Tomorrow is the second in the Splinter Cell series, and one of several games to feature Tom Clancy’s wealth of creativity and skill as a consultant for the games. The highlight of this title is its figurative double-value. The incredible and complete multiplayer mode provides an entirely different experience from that of the single-player game, which merely expands upon what the original Splinter Cell had to offer. Sam Fisher is back in his old role with a new challenge. A terrorist organization is threatening the world with a highly lethal rendition of the smallpox virus, and is ready to launch the disease as the drop of a hat. Sam’s mission is to identify the suspects, discover the virus, and prevent its release. It’s classic Clancy.
The single player game is similar to the original Splinter Cell, albeit, this time around the game is a lot harder. If you played the original Splinter Cell, then you will quickly recall the basic tactics of shooting lights, picking locks, and staying silent, but the level design in this sequel has much more beef to it than the original. The difficulty of the levels vary with the mission parameters; such as whether or not you can use deadly force, and how well lit the areas are. The first two parts of the Jerusalem mission are notably difficult as you are not allowed any deadly force, and, for the most part, the only means of non-lethal force you are given are your fists. This can get tricky. I have to bring this up is because it applies to many of the missions. While you will usually have your trusty assault rifle; the game encourages the use of more creative means to dispose of the enemy goons.
The story is compelling and seems to come straight from the brain of Tom Clancy. It is carried by high caliber dialogue throughout the middle of your missions, and supported by cut scenes between levels. These give you the background on the state of the world and why things are going down the way they are. The best thing about the story is it paints over some of the frustration that can accompany the single player missions. While some levels can be played very smoothly and your goal is clear; others require a series of try-and-try-again to get past an obstacle of guards, but the story grips you so well that it becomes worth the minor agony. While it is tedious, it is a testament to how good, albeit crude, the enemy AI is.
As in any other stealth-oriented game, when you make a noise or catch the eye of a guard, they will let you know about it audibly and then poke around their assigned area. When the search timer runs out, they will let you know again (audibly) that they are tired of searching and go back to their patrol. The level designers did a good job of preventing you from making a break for your next desired crevice. Even though it’s fairly easy to not be identified even after you’ve alarmed a guard, in cases where you can’t use lethal force you cannot even do that if you wish to progress.
The levels are all good in length and mix up how you complete them quite well. They balance outdoor and indoor environments, and have many obstacles that make them more entertaining; such as cold vapor in a cryogen lab, and dense foliage in the jungle maps. Those are just examples of the creativity that goes into making the missions unique and challenging; all good signs of quality level design.
The multiplayer needs its own introduction. In a nutshell, the multiplayer mode of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is addictive and compelling; if not revolutionary. Rather than the traditional format of big teams and large maps to support a capture-the-flag type mode; Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow has delivered its multiplayer in a way we haven’t seen before. The games are limited to a maximum of four players, and the teams aren’t locked, so three versus one is possible to all those sick enough to want it. The spy team must infiltrate the map and do something to the ND133 virus canisters depending on the game mode: from simple neutralization mode (where the spy deactivates the canister with a brief interaction) to extraction mode, where a spy must grab the canisters and a make it back out to the extraction point. The mercenaries’ role does not vary much between game modes – they play as the defenders in a first person view planting traps and shooting spies on site.
Each side also gets a set of unique tools to help them complete their mission. Spies get chaff grenades and flash-bangs to disrupt the mercenaries’ vision. Chaff grenades also neutralize motion sensors for a time. Their gun fires electric shots that will stun a mercenary for a short time. Thus, the entire setup of the spy player is not to kill, so much as avoid and run away.
While spies can kill mercenaries, it is very difficult and risky. Mercenaries can plant spy traps and proximity mines to surprise any clumsy spy. They have frag grenades, and the very cool phosphor grenade, which causes spies footsteps to glow. Mercenaries also get two views different from the normal thermal and night visions. The motion tracker view will highlight any displacement of air, a.k.a. movement, and the other view allows a mercenary to see any electrical activity; which is useful when a spy must plant a modem next to the ND133 (as required in sabotage mode).
The maps vary in size and theme; some are bogglingly complex, like the vertigo towers which involve four towers joined together by catwalks and zip lines. One nice feature is the voice chat support, which increases a team’s effectiveness greatly. A little extra feature they added is the ability to whisper some last words to your opponent when you grab a mercenary from behind. It only works for spies though.
The graphics in multiplayer are slightly less impressive than in single player, but, more importantly, they run much smoother. In the released version of the PC edition, there is a crippling bug that causes the punk buster feature to disable itself, and remove the button to re-enable it. But since release that issue has been addressed and fixed.
The graphics in the single player of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow are superb. It offers some of the best texturing I have seen in any game. The polygon models are no slouch either. Overall, the graphics compete anything on the shelves today. One fault that I did notice, however, was the pixilated nature of shadows in certain Radeon cards. Even at 800 X 600 mode, the shadows seem terribly blocky and bad. As I mentioned earlier, the multiplayer graphics are toned down for speed; and while they are still good, there are slightly more errors – mostly in lighting. While the polygon models and overall appearance of characters in multiplayer mode is less detailed than that of the single player, it’s really hard to notice, as most of the time you’re in the dark.
One thing to note is that Pandora Tommorow will eat your machine alive. On a 2Ghz AMD and a Radeon 9600, the out of the box settings left me watching a slideshow. After I toned it down one notch of resolution to 800×600 it became notably faster, but still well under twenty-five FPS in some situations. If you have the machine to run it though, Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow is an incredibly smooth playing game.
The sound is for the most part good. While they could have had more sound, what they do have is very crisp and realistic. The one popular criticism of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow sound is the voice acting of the non-important characters. From Jerusalem to California, every single thug and civilian speaks English with remarkable proficiency. While it’s something to be excused on some level, as occasionally the thugs have something important to say, I personally could go without the “Please don’t shoot me!” in English, and wouldn’t care if it was in French. The voice acting of the main characters, however, is near perfection. The mission dialogue is riddled with sharp one-liners and solid Clancy-flavor writing.
All in all, Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow is an exquisite game, one that every serious gamer should have. The overall presentation of the game is excellent: controls are intuitive, and there is less than a thirty-minute learning curve, for both single and multiplayer seperately. Not only is it an experience, the value of the game is more than many other games out there, as the multiplayer and single player are completely different experiences. The graphics and sound are excellent – with the exception with a handful of minor flaws. If you have any remote interest in a stealth shooter you have to try this game, you won’t be disappointed.