Cool game characters come in many shapes and forms. Ninjas are personal favorites of mine, and when you think about it Sam Fisher, the operative we’ve come to love, isn’t all that different. Splinter Cell, from late 2002, practically redefined stealthy gameplay in a contemporary setting. The game let you do some very slick things, and was one of the very first games to make a meaningful use of real-time shadows on more than just a few objects. In Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow our pal Sam is back and the developers have changed, removed, and added various game mechanics, making the gameplay even closer to perfection. A very cool multiplayer mode is in, which I’ll talk about later.
The story begins in 2006, where nasty men have invaded an US embassy, because they’re not exactly very happy with the US foreign policy. You begin by investigating this, and before you know it you’re on the trail for something much bigger. At the beginning of the game you don’t know much about the story at all, so instead of spoiling I’ll just tell you that if you liked the original story then you’ll probably like this one just as much.
The eight or so missions take you through jungle villages, a few towns, inside office buildings, through a train, and more. All of these levels are essentially linear, but there’s still a fair amount of freedom regarding how you want to play; whether to take down everyone in sight, or getting past unseen. During the missions you’re either given, or not given permission to kill people – or fifth freedom as it’s called. The levels obviously reflect this, so if you’re not allowed to kill people you’re sometimes treated with these really convenient scenarios, like guards suddenly going on a break, always facing away from you, etc. This is for the most part done in a believable way, but there are times when it’s easy to ponder whether this could actually happen in real life. And speaking of which, the artificial intelligence is also easy to spot flaws in. You’re surprisingly invisible in times when you normally wouldn’t be, so in that regard the game doesn’t differ much from the original. Even so, in my opinion the enemies do a fairly commendable effort in seeing, hearing and maybe even smelling (there are dogs you know.)
Since this is a sequel it’s natural to expect some new moves in our hero’s repertoire, and some new items in his arsenal. Well the good news is that he does have new moves, but the bad news is that there are practically no new items. Sam already could do some pretty neat things in the last game, but it felt as though he lacked a thing or two. In Pandora Tomorrow you can carry bodies AND open doors at the same time. You can whistle at guards, which can be very convenient when you want to attract someone’s attention without them seeing you. Also, when staying close to the wall next to an open door you can use what’s called a SWAT Turn, making you quickly move across the open door with a smaller chance of being spotted. Beyond that there aren’t a lot more game mechanics to learn. And since there aren’t really any notable new items to use, I was a little disappointed.
The aiming is another thing you may have wanted to see done differently. Sam may be highly trained, but there’s no denying that he doesn’t hit everything he (or you?) aims at. This might be realistic, but it can be an annoyance when you fire 8-10 bullets at an enemy, and he’s still standing. You only have two weapons; the multifunctional rifle, and a pistol. Those who have played Splinter Cell 1 are well aware that you spend much of the ammo taking out lights. This time your pistol has a laser marker that you can enable by clicking the right mouse button. This makes it so much easier to take out those pesky light bulbs, and of course your enemies too. You need to be a bit careful when using the laser marker on your enemies, because they tend to spot it rather quickly. The multifunctional rifle is largely identical to how it was the last time. You can quickly access the inventory by holding the CTRL key, which fortunately also pauses the game. The rifle addons can be selected this way, letting you shoot diversion cameras, ring foil, sticky shockers, and more. You can also zoom in, but since Sam can’t lie down you should expect some wobbliness in the aiming.
When you get spotted by an enemy a number of things can happen. Some enemies carry radios, which let them quickly set off an alarm. This time the alarm is divided into three levels. The first time the enemies put on flak jackets. The second time they put on helmets, and the third time the mission’s over. These build up, meaning if you’re spotted after the first alarm has gone off then you move onto the second alarm level. Fortunately for Sam the alarm dies down eventually. Hiding bodies somewhere dark is extremely important, because if you don’t then the alarm might be raised even if a guard didn’t spot the body – it just happens anyway.
In terms of graphics it’s looks about as pretty as ever. The levels have a high level of detail, and are fairly varied too. Some may be a bit similar to the ones in the first game, but that would be very hard to avoid. Even though Pandora Tomorrow looks similar in several ways it does have a few visual improvements (the lighting and shadowing for instance), and the performance seems to be better this time. Like last time the game world is largely static. I think a physics engine such as Havok 2 could have introduced some interesting scenarios (imagine the joy of tipping a tower of boxes over an unsuspecting guard), but at least it has the nice cloth-sim, which is a nice effect.
Sound-wise the game is also quite good. The characters from the last game obviously use the same voice talents, including Michael Ironside who speaks for Sam. Most of the voice overs are well done, but at least to me it sounded as if some of the natives you fight have a too apparent American accent. The sound effects are all top-notch, and the music fits the theme well. I’d be exaggerating if I said the game has a lot of new music and sound effects, but what’s there is perfectly acceptable. The 5.1 surround encoding is also well done, so be sure to enable it if you have the proper hardware. Unfortunately the game does seem to suffer from the same thing that has happened to a lot of people in FarCry, where various sounds and voices simply disappear. This is fixed by restarting the game, and sometimes doing certain things in the game, but it’s annoying none the less.
And finally, the multiplayer mode is what’s gotten people truly excited. I could go on for a long time about its intricate features and mechanics, but I’ll try to just summarize. It essentially revolves around two teams that fight each other; usually over some objective. Both teams are played in very different ways; such as the camera being third person in one team, and first person in the other. This mode also has a few different items and view-modes (such as a cool movement detector), which is really great when you’re fed up with the single player mode. The multiplayer mode consists of three modes; sabotage, extraction, and neutralization. There are eight maps to choose from, ranging from a warehouse to a plaza, to a museum, to a cinema, and more. I’m honestly quite surprised at the depth in the multiplayer gameplay, so I really do hope that people give it an honest try, because they just might find it to be more fun than what they’re currently playing.
Honestly, in some ways Pandora Tomorrow feels more like a very good expansion than a sequel. It does improve upon a lot of things, but I do wish they’d include more game mechanics that we hadn’t seen before. Even so, the game has an extremely cool feel to it. It is a fun game in many ways, much thanks to the dynamic gameplay which lets you combine actions in ways you’ve never seen. The single player mode can be finished in two or three days, but it tells its story well.
In terms of graphics and audio the game isn’t hugely improved over its last iteration, but it still looks no less than great.
The multiplayer alone may not alone justify the purchase, but not far from it. To me it’s a pleasant surprise to see a developer add some really new to the current multiplayer scene. I’m sure it’ll be more or less copied to death in other future games, but I’m sure most people will enjoy it.