In 2002, Ubi Soft redefined the Stealth Action genre with Splinter Cell, a modern day “spy thriller” that introduced gamers to Sam Fisher. A newer, harder edged “anti-hero” of espionage, Fisher’s scenario as a Splinter Cell – that is, a lone field operative supported by a minimal intelligence staff – focused more on realism than fantastical elements. Instead of a philosophical soldier with a mullet or a sex crazed spy, gamers got a grizzled veteran whose primary concern was securing his objective. Coupled with plenty of firepower and extremely cool gadgets, Fisher was an operative for the new millennium. Thanks to a new terrorist organization, his skills have never been more needed in his latest assignment, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow.
Pandora Tomorrow, like many of Clancy’s novels, takes current geopolitical situations and heightens the potential “what if?” factor. Set in 2006, the United States has established a military base in East Timor to shepherd the baby steps of the newly created nation. Aside from protecting the fledgling country, the U.S. has a number of other interests in hosting a base in Southeast Asia, notably keeping an active eye on North Korea and the Middle East. Unfortunately, their presence has stirred up a hotbed of anti-American sentiment in the region, which spills over into the assault and occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. Under the leadership of Suhadi Sadono, a guerrilla fighter and regional underground hero, the militants have taken hostages and have threatened to release a biological agent if their demands aren’t met. Fisher, at first dispatched to break in and retrieve top secret files in the captured embassy, quickly becomes embroiled in stopping Sadono and his bio-threat.
For players of the first Splinter Cell, the basic game elements will be familiar to you. Stealth remains a premium, as Sam needs to act in complete secrecy to accomplish his missions. This involves staying out of sight by sticking to the available shadows, destroying light sources to create new areas of darkness, and avoiding wandering patrols that may stumble upon you. While you can avoid some of these potential threats, some soldiers (and even civilians) may need to be incapacitated to avoid blowing your cover. One of the things that the first title illustrated was the ability to take and “dispose” of bodies by hiding them in out of the way places. In Pandora Tomorrow, this actually becomes vitally important, on par with that of a secondary mission objective, and players can actually fail missions if corpses aren’t hidden.
Sam’s also sporting a number of newer moves to aid his stealthy infiltration of areas. For instance, one of his more flexible maneuvers from the first game was a split jump between narrow areas to avoid patrolling soldiers. Well, now Sam can shift his weight from leg to leg in preparation for a jump to a higher ledge. Also, he can now fire from this acrobatic perch, reducing the need to land on passing foes with perfect timing. Similarly, Sam can fire if he’s hanging down from a ledge, rappelling off a wall or hanging upside down, giving him more killing options in battle. However, Fisher won’t just run blindly into areas that he doesn’t feel safe in. He can perform a quick SWAT turn around an open door or corridor, making it much harder to target. He can also sidle along a surface, firing or throwing grenades into rooms to surprise and eliminate targets before they know it. Once he does have the element of surprise, Sam can do a number of things, including interrogating enemies for information, using them as a human shield, or forcing them to operate machinery for him.
While Fisher may not have additional field support from other operatives, he manages to do just fine thanks to his weapons and gadgets. Many of the weapons that Sam used in the previous title have returned, such as his silenced pistol and trusty SC-20K. These also include the non-lethal ammunition that he used to knock out opponents, such as ring airfoils, sticky shockers and gas grenades. Apparently, he’s also learned a few new tricks, as he’s brought along some new equipment. Sam can use emergency flares to wash out heat sensors on automated turrets. He can also use chaff grenades to destroy electronic equipment, like turrets or cameras, and flashbangs to blind anyone in its detonation radius.
On top of the single player campaign, the PS2 version has copied the rabidly popular multiplayer mode from the Xbox. Up to four players can take each other on in a competition that pits the spies of Shadownet up against the mercenaries of the Argus Corporation. The basic idea of multiplayer mode builds on certain elements found within the single player game: containers filled with viral biotoxins have been scattered throughout a level. The spies from Shadownet are tasked with infiltrating and manually disarming these containers (Neutralization mode), capturing and removing the containers from the area (Extraction Mode), or electronically disabling the canisters (Sabotage Mode).
Spies may, at first glance, seem somewhat weaker than their mercenary counterparts. They are restricted from killing their opponents, and are essentially relegated to only one weapon, the sticky shocker, which freezes mercs in their tracks for a short while. However, spies are incredibly agile, and are able to climb fences, hang off ledges and flip off walls, among other gymnastic moves. What’s more, (aside from an uncanny ability to disappear into shadows right in front of your eyes), spies have plenty of gadgets to cloud the mercenary’s electronic equipment, making their detection almost impossible. There’s nothing more infuriating than to watch a spy disappear thanks to a well thrown smoke grenade.
Mercenaries, on the other hand, are packing heat and have no problem using it. Creatively, mercenaries play multiplayer mode in first person view, while the Spies use the familiar third person control scheme. The mercenaries, while armed to the teeth, aren’t nearly as mobile or as perceptive as the spies are, so they’re forced to rely on sensors, surveillance and detection gadgets. They can lay spy traps that will indicate where the agents are or cover an area with phosphorus that will leave footprints if spies walk through it.
If you’ve played the first Splinter Cell, then you’ve got a sense of the graphical details that are present in Pandora Tomorrow. While they’re not as detailed as the Xbox version, Sam still animates very well, and his new moves are really nice. Split jumps, upside down hanging and zip lines in particular are rather nice impressive. Perhaps the most impressive facet of Pandora Tomorrow is the multiplayer mode, particularly the first person view of the mercenary, which is simply incredible to play with. Most of the other moves, particularly those for Sam and patrolling enemies, do seem somewhat recycled from the Xbox versions. For most other games, this wouldn’t be a good thing; however, the Xbox version is such a high quality title that it holds its own in translation. What doesn’t hold up, however, are some of the textures, which aren’t nearly as detailed and in some cases are rather bland and unimpressive because of the lack of system and graphical horsepower, and oddly, this seems to also result in random frame rate drops or stuttering during play. The other thing, which affects part of the core gameplay mechanic, is that the dynamic lighting that was a staple of the first title is significantly reduced in this version. The Xbox featured many more light sources that could be shot out to increase the amount of shadows around a level, but this hasn’t translated over at all. In fact, this increases the amount of unnecessary reloads you’ll have to do because of an indestructible light bulb placed in an awkward area.
Sound is rather solid, thanks to the high degree of attention paid to sound effects. Glass shatters, bullets ricochet and explosions echo with a solid degree of realism. Most of the time, however, you’re going to be paying more attention to the level of sound Fisher is creating as he moves through each stage without alerting enemy soldiers. Fortunately, tracking ambient noise, raising and lowering the game’s subtle soundtrack with each fight really draws you in when playing. This is supported by Michael Ironside, whose lends his distinctive timber to Sam Fisher again.
However, there are a number of significant issues within the basic gameplay for Pandora Tomorrow. I mentioned the reduced number of light sources that can be broken within this ported version, which not only is a graphical issue but is a massive gameplay problem. Just how, exactly, am I supposed to stick to the shadows when I can’t create the ones I need to pass a level? This starts to turn the game into much less than a stealthy title and much more into a fast paced action title with stealth elements. This also helps contribute to part of the greatest issue within the game, that of the absurdly sketchy AI. In particular, these guards seem to be extremely farsighted. It’s possible for the AI to spot you from far away (again, thanks to these light sources) but for some reason, be completely confused up close. For instance, I managed to hide literally two feet from an actively searching guard in a lit room with no cover near me by crouching down. The befuddled guard looked around and walked away. However, a little later, I tried to traverse a courtyard, was spotted immediately and chased until I could reach some shadows a ways off.
Pandora Tomorrow also seems to be much shorter and much less difficult to play through. For instance, playing Splinter Cell, you had to be much more aware of any potential slip you made because it would automatically force you to start all over again. Pandora Tomorrow, by contrast, has plenty of checkpoints and save points scattered throughout every mission. What’s more, because it’s sometimes easier to sprint through areas instead of sneaking through thanks to the haphazard AI, you may find yourself completing the single player campaign way too quickly. What’s more, thanks to the excruciating load times, you may spend more time watching load screens due to the trial and error nature of the gameplay. In fact, by the time you start to feel like you’re getting into the plot, the game’s over. Were it not for the excellent multiplayer addition, it probably wouldn’t be worth returning to this title when the single player game is over.
While Pandora Tomorrow is a solid sequel to the critically acclaimed Splinter Cell, the port over to the PS2 has degraded significantly. Intermittent AI detection, graphical issues that affect core gameplay and length issues truly diminishes the impressive nature of this game. Fortunately, the impressive multiplayer game salvages this game from simply being a quick rental without replay value.