Genre: Stealth Action
Release Date: March 27, 2004
How could Splinter Cell, the critically acclaimed stealth-based action game, possibly be overtaken by another stealth title? It's true that many games have touted stealth gameplay such as the Metal Gear Solid series and the Tenchu series and pulled it off and others such as True Crime: Streets of LA and Rise to Honor include a stealth aspect that is barely playable enough to list it as a feature on the box and in the marketing. Still though, no game has ever came close to capturing the stealth essence that made up the core of Splinter Cells gameplay, a large dose of realism coupled with slightly unusual gadgets and the ability to accomplish a specific feat in a variety of ways using whatever combination of acrobatics, weaponry, and diversions you wanted. So, how did Splinter Cell suddenly become overtaken in nearly every conceivable way? The developers over at Ubisoft gave it a sequel.
There are two major parts to Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, a new single player experience as well as the innovative and downright addictive multiplayer. In the single player mode you reprise the role of Sam Fisher, a shadowy operative for the equally shadowy Third Echelon, a secret branch of the U.S. government. Without saying too much (a.k.a., I've been gagged) a sudden attack on U.S. property in a foreign country by a group of armed men has brought Sam back out into the field, investigating that which turns out to be a much more complex and deep problem than a simple hostage situation. Among other locales Sam will visit such cities as Bethlehem and places such as a speeding French bullet train as it tears across the French countryside.
The multiplayer mode is an experience unlike what almost any other game could ever give you. Essentially there are two teams, spies and mercenaries, who each have specific goals to achieve depending on the game type. The spies are from an organization called ShadowNET and look very different than what your run-of-the-mill Third Echelon operative looks like. The mercenaries are from a group called Argus, and are who you would call if you expected a ShadowNET spy problem and need a group of heavily armed men to protect certain things. Each team is widely unique in almost every aspect of their gameplay. As the spy you must use the darkness to your advantage, disable traps and trip mines, shoot out cameras that will relay your position to the mercenaries, and either avoid mercenaries using stealth, temporarily put them down with stun bullets, or kill them outright by grabbing them from behind, optionally whispering a witty one-liner into their ear via the Xbox Live headset and then breaking their neck. The spy has access to tools such as flashbangs to blind mercenaries and spy cams to get a better view of a situation, as well as the standard night and thermal vision modes as seen in the original Splinter Cell. As the mercenaries you play in a first person perspective and are armed with weapons that definitely aren't meant to stun, such as an assault rifle with a powerful scope and a grenade launcher slung under the barrel. The first person perspective really puts a great deal of tension into the gameplay, as unlike the spy who can rotate their camera you have to manually look around, using the merc's spotlight to cast light into a darkened corner or doorway. The mercenaries can also use gadgets such as a tazer to shock enemy spies and a proximity mine to potentially blow them away for good. Like the spy the mercenaries also have two vision modes, though wildly different. Instead of night and thermal vision modes the mercenaries can use motion-tracking and electro-magnetic vision to scope out the opposition. The motion-tracking view casts the entire screen in a cloudy red haze but illuminates moving objects with a white box, though objects moving very slowly don't register. A skilled spy can literally walk up to a merc using motion-tracking as long as they don't move too quickly and the merc doesn't switch vision modes. The electro-magnetic vision mode picks up things such as a spy who has his night or thermal goggles activated, and ambient things such as television screens and other electronic devices.
The multiplayer component is built for Xbox Live, though it can also be used over System Link as long as each player has their own TV, console, and copy of the game. Regardless of the way you are playing the game there are various modes of play to use interchangeably on a large handful of levels, such as sabotaging an object inside a Cinemaplex or doing an escort mission inside of a deserted hospital that is under construction. System Link play was both lag and problem free, and though hopefully (and undoubtedly) the Xbox Live component shares those characteristics Live play was unavailable at the time of writing. A potential rough spot for many folks is the fact that the game is limited to 3 on 3 gameplay. Some gamers may dislike this limitation, but the reasoning behind it is sound. Though the levels are indeed large and expansive having a small amount of players really lends the game much more tension rather than having the player shoot spy after spy or sneak past merc after merc.
Did I mention SC:PT looks really, really good? Everyone and their grandmother knows how far the original Splinter Cell raised the bar in terms of sheer graphics excellence, but SC:PT raises it that much higher. Lighting cast from light sources still gives objects a real-time shadow like it did in the first, only now the lighting can change colors, casting colored shadows and colored light rays. Yes, I did just make a huge point about the color of the lighting, yes I am aware that it sounds like I am exaggerating, and no I am not. Sam Fisher is much more detailed this time around, occasionally wearing different gear and body suits to suit the operation, the ShadowNET spies in the multiplayer mode look sinisterly anonymous and high tech, and the Argus mercenaries easily have the ability to strike fear or at least caution into the very heart of any spy with their spotlights shining around the room and their bristling assault rifles. The levels themselves are much more detailed this time around regardless of which mode of play you are in, a underground subway train temporarily casts moving beams of light and flings debris such as newspaper pages around as it speeds by in a nearby tunnel while the reflection of a guard with his searchlight on is reflected by the water in a ornamental stream filled with plant life.
Michael Ironside returns to do the voice work for Sam Fisher, likewise for the voice actor of Lambert, the both of which will undoubtedly make fans of the original game rest easy now knowing that their favorite characters aren't going to have a new voice alongside their new missions. Music didn't play a huge part in the original Splinter Cell and still doesn't in SC:PT, and other than the menu music what music you do hear is likely to be very subdued and used to subconsciously create tension or a specific mood rather than to entertain the player. Many of the same sound effects from the original game are reused in the sequel have been reused such as the spy weapon and gadget sounds as well as other sounds like a bullet popping a light bulb, but the originals were just fine as it is and since they don't sound recycled or overused that isn't a bad thing by any measure.
If you liked the original Splinter Cell and don't have Xbox Live, you really owe it to yourself to pick up Xbox Live alongside Pandora Tomorrow as the multiplayer component can easily be said in the same sentence alongside such adjectives as "addictive", "innovative", and "mind-blowing". It doesn't hurt anything at all when the full-bodied single player game, featuring everyone's favorite Third Echelon operative, is equally worthy of the game's purchase price. Put the two together and it's a clear choice really, with a single player experience worthy to be a sequel of the original and a multiplayer addition capable of dropping any gamers jaw Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is definitely a game that any self-respecting stealth fan should go out and pre-order immediately.
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