|Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow|
|Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1, 2-4 network play
Back in late 2002, a game was released for the Xbox, hailed as a rival to the legendary Metal Gear Solid. It was later released for the PS2 mid-2003. It featured a much more real-world but techy approach to spying than MGS. It was seen as a rather late port, with elements such as the dynamic lighting effects showcased in the XBox version either toned down, or completely missing. It was also harder than Phil Mitchell on crack. All this in mind, Ubisoft bring out their second game to the series (behind the Xbox version, again); Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow.
The game starts well, with the intro showing a violent siege on an American embassy in East Timor, setting up your bad guys for the game - some nasty-looking Indonesian militants under “General” Sadono, and naturally your first mission. The graphics are a definite improvement over the original, and look a lot closer to the Xbox version.
Sam’s still looking pretty smart and buff, but the big improvements are with the environment. The buildings and bad guys are all fairly standard, but the little effects that make the game are still present (here and there) in the PS2 version; shafts of light stream from searchlights, split by pillars that you’re hiding behind. Run through this shaft of light, and your stealthy, if slightly pixellated, shadow is cast onto the wall. Wade through a river (as they make you do in the first mission), and as well as the already-smart effects that are there in terms of reflections and distortion, you leave some lovely ripples behind you, even if Sam’s contact with the water’s surface is a little suspect.
The first mission sees you attempting to infiltrate the besieged embassy, not on hostage protection, but to safeguard some classified information. This initial job plays like a tutorial. This might be a little slow for the Fisherites lusting for some stealthy action from the get-go, but after the basics, it’ll show even the pros some new moves Sam the man has learned since his last outing. Most are strictly style issues, and some I’ve never actually used on a mission since, such as being able to hang upside-down from a pipe and train your gun on someone, or a fancy-pants “SWAT turn” (between open doorways), that even Colin Farrell wouldn’t bother using. Some aspects, however, do help to enhance the game, such as being able to jump up again after Sam’s done his trademark “split jump”, or being able to open doors while carrying dead or unconscious militant bodies, or even being able to whistle to attract attention (rather like Solid Snake’s “tap on the wall” technique).
As for the actual game itself; you get eased into the game like a baby, as expected, but following the tutorial mission, things don’t seem to get a helluva lot tougher. At least not Splinter Cell tough. Some changes have been made to reduce the difficulty of the game from Mr. T to Ice T. SCPT’s levels, although still very claustrophobic, seem to have been tweaked to be more forgiving. This includes fewer cameras to avoid than in Splinter Cell, some easy to pass motion-sensors, and occasionally some quite erratic AI. Sometimes, they’ll spot you for hardly any reason at all, and at others, you can get away with bloody murder (quite literally), waltzing past a guard, close enough to tie his shoelaces together (a possible move for Splinter Cell 3?), even though you look blatantly obvious.
There are a few moments where it’s hard to figure out how to get past the combination of both guards and cameras, but two other game factors prevent this from being a problem. Firstly, if you get spotted by a guard or camera, that’s not the end of the mission, (despite what the President from 24 will say to you: “Fisher! What are you doing?!” when you mess up) as you now have 3 alarm stages, a.k.a. 3 chances to get spotted and still complete the mission. “Ooh, that sounds rather easy”, I hear you say. It gets easier than that, my friends. Every so often, if you don’t get spotted for a bit, the alarm stage goes back to zero again, giving you a clean slate. If that isn’t enough for you, you can simply run up to the guys, clout/shoot ‘em, and run like hell! Chances are that another few feet down the level you’ll come to another checkpoint, where your progress is saved, so there’s also no problem there. All said and done, the missions aren’t a complete doddle, and to complete most of them properly will take about 45 minutes to an hour.
Along with some smooth moves comes Sam Fisher’s impressive arsenal of gadgets that any technophile would trade his own mother for. Such available tools are the usual silenced machine gun, complete with electro-shock rounds, remote camera placements, portable distraction machines (how lazy is that?!) to name but a few. Top this off with your assortment of grenades (chaff, stun, flashbang, frag), and useful tools such as the camera jammer, night vision, and heat vision goggles, and Sam really does have everything but the kitchen sink, and all a lot cooler.
The single player mode, however, is only part of the game. The other part is played online, with a fairly innovative concept: (up to) two Shadownet spies take on two Mercenaries (the bad guys). Sounds pretty hum-drum? Well, the spies get their standard 3rd-person view, night vision etc. and their task is to either steal or deactivate some bio-chemical containers. The mercenaries however, get a nice beefy machine gun, and a first-person view, and are aiming to generally kick some spy butt. This usually leads to a lot of tense action, and some large quantities of wanton neck-snapping by the spies, only noticed by the mercs at the last moment… sound tempting? Well, Ubisoft had hailed the online version as their “SOCOM-beater”. Unfortunately, it only beats itself with a large stick. Firstly, there are not nearly enough people playing online (which is an advantage of SOCOM, since you can always join a full game), meaning you spend quite a bit of time sitting about, waiting for players. When they come, they’re usually foreign - French or Dutch generally. If no-one joins your game, you can try and join someone else’s, but join after the start, and you could be waiting another 20 minutes or so until the whole set of rounds ends, which is also limited fun.
When you do actually get to play a game, it’s pretty damn disappointing. The UBI servers seem to have been set up by a monkey with A.D.H.D, and lag is inherent in almost every game, varying from players skipping across the screen, like a little girl, to leaping across, Jonathon Edwards-style. This generally makes it hard to snap some necks, or shoot the bejesus out of something. As well as the lag problem, the maps are a little too big for 2 on 2, and you can often find yourself running to stop a canister from being defused on the other end of the map, arrive factionally too late, then have to run all the way down the other end of the map, and lose the game without seeing a single opponent! Also limited fun. Personally, I spent about 1/10th of my time on the online mode.
Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is a very competent spy game. It has a very good plot, with the usual “who can I trust?” storyline. The gameplay is fairly solid - you won’t be stuck on any annoying, seemingly impassable sections. The game only runs into problems in terms of difficulty. Any gamer who finished the original game comfortably (hats off to them) won’t find much of a challenge here, and the constant wait for checkpoints to save will grow a little tiring. However this does mean that people who’ve played MGS2 and fancy a bit more spy action (that’s a little more realistic than theatrical) can have a bash without the annoyance of having to sit in the dark for an hour, waiting for the pieces to move into their places. The online mode (quite popular for the Xbox version), feels a little rushed and “tacked-on”, and certainly not as appealing or polished as the single-player mode.
- Looks lovely.
- Great gadgets.
- Gameplay is a lot simpler this time!
- Gameplay a lot simpler this time!
- Disappointing online multiplayer mode.
- Not much replay value.