Genre: Stealth Action
Release Date: March 27, 2004
The first Splinter Cell was and still is widely considered to be one of the best Xbox titles out there. While a peek at a screen and keeping the genre in mind one might assume the game to be a Metal Gear Solid clone, the game actually presented a much different take on the genre, with often frustrating but mostly enjoyable trial-and-error gameplay, and an extreme focus on realism, something Hideo Kojima’s famous series is definitely not known for with its roller skating, blood-sucking, psychic-powerd brand of bad guys. Splinter Cell finally gave Metal Gear a run for its money by not trying to be a clone of the game. But, as with most Tom Clancy-branded games, the sequels are usually a few steps forward, but never much of a leap. Pandora Tomorrow brings quite a leap to the table. No, it’s not the single player adventure – that’s fairly unchanged, even a bit less polished than the first adventure at times though usually it shines more brightly than the first romp did – it’s the new online multiplayer component. This mode takes two distinctly different brands of Tom Clancy action, the slow-moving stealth of Splinter Cell and the lightning-fast get in, get out, kill ‘em all without getting shot action of Rainbow Six, and combines them to make a unique online experience that will surely be widely imitated in the years to come. Buy Pandora Tomorrow for the single player, keep the disc spinning in your Xbox for untold masses of hours because of the multiplayer mode.
Let’s start with the solo campaign: while it oddly takes the backseat to a feature that wasn’t present in the first game, it is still mostly improved over the first game and brings a few new things to the table, though not nearly enough for a full-price purchase unless you really liked the first game or you need a good tough stealth romp like no other. But these changes are either bad or good, depending on what kind of gamer you are. For example, the new three-alert system is a double-edged sword for sure. Enemies will equip themselves for defense and offense more and more depending on how high the level of alert is. The thing is, you get audio cues the entire time telling you which stage of alert the guards are in, somewhat castrating the level of difficulty presented by such a gameplay alteration, and removing the sense of realism that you might have had otherwise. But many players found themselves having trouble with the first Splinter Cell, so perhaps that crowd will be pleased with this feature. This may gain new players, but the veterans will probably feel a bit burned.
The story plays out as you go along. Unlike Rainbow Six 3 where the story plays out in between missions, Pandora Tomorrow has you interrogating enemies to glean details as to what is really going on. Perhaps the Rainbow team has better pre-mission intel? It seems odd to be the one getting information and risking life and limb at the same time. But mostly this is a good thing; it makes the gameplay much more exciting. You feel like you’re really progressing the story, not just getting to the next mission of a videogame.
Enemy AI is much better this time around, as the previously mentioned three-level aggressiveness system is a lot of fun to deal with, though it would have been nice to play through it without being told exactly what stage of irritation your adversaries were experiencing. Even more so than in Metal Gear Solid, when an enemy becomes inclined to notice your movements, your heart will jump into your throat. Something about these Tom Clancy games, whether it’s the real-world settings or the possible one-hit deaths, makes them touch your very innermost primitive feelings of fear and excitement. Rainbow Six is a bit more on the excitement side of things with its run-and-gun action. Pandora Tomorrow has you shaking in your boots in the shadows, trying to make sure that guard twenty feet away doesn’t notice your tremors. And he probably will. So how will you react? Do you try to slink behind him and neutralize him with a non-violent method such as a physical attack or toxic gas? Is this one of the rare situations in which you should put a bullet in the poor man’s head? Should you simply get the hell out of his range of sight and sound and move on with the mission? Splinter Cell may have a selection of violent weapons to choose from but you’ll be using them only in the most desperate of times. That’s the beauty of the game; even less gunplay should be put to use here than in most other stealth games, and it still manages to be enjoyable.
The single player mode is fantastic, but it doesn’t feel much different from the first game. So why should every Xbox owner, without a doubt, have Pandora Tomorrow thrown alongside Halo on their gaming shelf?
There’s something really special about the two vs. two online team battles in Pandora Tomorrow. Ubisoft’s claims that four players was just enough and didn’t need to be messed with was completely right; the game is simply perfect with four players and would require simply massive stages to contain any more than that, and the games would probably take far too long once a few players were eliminated, if that were the case.
Pandora Tomorrow brings to the table one of the most “why hasn’t anybody else done this yet?” kind of gameplay concept seen in a long time. Instead of having a herd of Sam Fisher clones crawling about competing to gain a strangle hold on the other, this two vs. two format has one team of operatives that control like the Splinter Cell hero we all know and love, and another team made up of mercenaries that control just like a game of Rainbow Six 3. These are two very different types of games being thrown together, and my god, does it work. Spies are forced to crawl around in the dark, taking advantage of a multitude of tools to keep them out of sight. The only way they can dispatch an enemy is by sneaking up on the poor mercenary player and choking him or her to death. They can use any of the tools at their disposal to incapacitate the enemy, but there won’t be any headshots for them.
Mercenaries, on the other hand, are heavily armed and given equipment meant to detect those black-clad fiends hopping from shadow to shadow. But they don’t have the advantage; the first-person perspective, likely meant to show how less aware of their surroundings they are in comparison to a fully-trained spy, makes them vulnerable to being assaulted from behind. But with heavy weapons and a helmet mounted torchlight that completely eliminates shadows, mercenary players might not have much to worry about at all, as long as they learn how to maneuver their characters so as to keep a good eye on their surroundings.
As for the graphics, both single- and multiplayer modes somehow manage to look better than the original Splinter Cell, and if you’ve played the game, that means a lot. This game is all about textures and lighting. It looks worlds better than the comparatively tame visuals of Rainbow Six 3, and, in fact, looks better than almost any Xbox game on the shelves right now. The animations still need some work, though. It’s hard to be immersed in the realism of the game when you’ve got to stare at Mr. Fisher’s leg diving into the side of a wall.
Pandora Tomorrow is a Tom Clancy game. If there is anything almost every Tom Clancy-branded game has gotten nearly perfectly, it’s sound. There isn’t constant pumping techno tunes here, only minimal but perfect music. It’s all about the sound effects, though. Everything sounds just like it should, with each surface, cry out for help, instance of gunfire, etc. sound just like you think it would in the real world. And the game supports Dolby 7.1, so if you’re lucky enough to have a good surround-sound system set up at home, you’re in for a treat.
Pandora Tomorrow is fantastic. Even if you didn’t like the first game so much, if you have access to Live, you would be doing yourself a disservice to pass this game up. The single player is good, but the multiplayer is awe-inspiring. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up along with a Live kit if you don’t have one already. Now.
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