The original Splinter Cell never really impressed me much. I couldn't tell you exactly why, either, I just wasn't a big fan.
Pandora Tomorrow, on the other hand, might as well be a different game. It's a textbook example of how to do a sequel right: keep what worked, jettison what didn't, and streamline the rest. A lot of the time, a sequel winds up feeling more like an expansion pack than a new game in its own right, and such is not the case here.
Let's start at the beginning. The basic idea behind the singleplayer mission is simple, and much like the first game: people are being mean somewhere, but the United States cannot be visibly involved. That's when Sam Fisher gets involved; to get in, get the job done, and get out, without leaving a trace.
In Pandora Tomorrow, the incident in question begins with the hostile occupation of the American embassy in East Timor by an anti-American, Indonesian demagogue named Sadorno. Fisher is sent in to rescue a couple of key Americans, without letting it be known that he was there, and to gather intelligence on Sadorno. Fisher's mission, over eight stages that'll take him from Jerusalem to Jakarta to Los Angeles, is to find out exactly what Sadorno has planned, and do something about it.
The best way I can describe singleplayer Pandora Tomorrow is that it's like the original Splinter Cell, but at least 200% less annoying.
Pandora Tomorrow takes place largely in the dark. The graphics aren't spectacular, but they play around with light and shadow more effectively and memorably than a lot of other games. I can't really blame Ubi Soft for the game's environments being somewhat forgettable (with a few exceptions, like the rainy streets of Jakarta), since its basic premise means you'll be viewing half the game through the blurry greyscale of night-vision, and maybe another thirty percent of it in thermographic.
The menus and inventory systems have been redesigned, and are far more intuitive. For example, your Optic Cable and lockpicks are standard options that appear automatically when you approach a door. You don't have to fumble around with submenus in real-time that were apparently designed by Martians; they're right there, ready to be used, when you hold down the A button. Even the menus have gone from two separate listings on an LED liquid display, to a single list that contains mission information, acquired data, game options, and available equipment, all on one easy-to-navigate screen. Playing Pandora Tomorrow for any length of time makes it really hard to go back to playing Splinter Cell; almost everything is just that much better.
One small change is that now, Fisher no longer carries his own medical kit. Instead, at fairly regular intervals, you'll happen across a first-aid locker on a wall, which you can use to heal Fisher's wounds. It's a little strange, but it doesn't really change much, since it's still a lot easier to get killed than wounded.
Fisher himself is sporting a few new moves, although some of his old ones are missing. His infamous split-jump is now a sort of triangle jump, as opposed to the wall-scaling ambush technique of the previous game (dropping on somebody in Pandora Tomorrow will still take them out, but the situations in which you can do so are rare as hell, and never happen naturally). In exchange, he's gotten a "SWAT turn," the fast and soundless ability to slip across the mouth of a hallway, and has learned how to whistle. The latter comes in handy when you're trying to lure terrorists after you, while the former... well, I'm told it's useful, but I never saw the need. It's really just there to look cool, as near as I can tell, and that, of course, is a worthwhile goal all by itself.
Your arsenal includes a wide variety of grenades, as well the silenced pistol and rifle from the original game. Also, since it's been asked: yes, once again, Fisher has the accurate marksmanship of a guy with the DTs. I'm all for realism in gaming; nobody should be able to fire off a full clip from an automatic weapon and only make one hole. However, when it takes a career soldier eight shots to hit a lantern that's on the ground at his feet, that isn't "realism." That's "annoying." They aren't the same thing. Fisher's laser sight helps with that, but at the expense of stealth, as enemies in the area can see the beam.
Essentially, then, what combat in Pandora Tomorrow boils down to is that if you can possibly avoid it, don't shoot anybody. Sneak up on terrorists and elbow them in the face, jam your gun in their ear before knocking them out, use your special rifle rounds to nonlethally disable them, or just totally avoid all contact. One of the neat things about the singleplayer missions is that there are almost always multiple ways to approach a given situation. Look around a bit, and you might find a pipe to grab, or a wall you can climb, and in so doing, bypass all the enemies in the area.
That's probably the best idea, because singleplayer Pandora Tomorrow's biggest flaw comes into play when you're trying to outwit or outfight guards, as opposed to just completely evading them. Simply put, Pandora Tomorrow has the biggest problem with "psychic" enemy soldiers that I've ever seen. They'll just sort of know sometimes that you're there, despite the shadows; they instantly become aware of your exact position if you miss a sniper shot from a hundred feet away; they can spot a body in deep shadow, where it's supposed to be totally concealed, from ten feet away.
They are also, individually, insanely tough bastards; shoot one five times in the face from point-blank range, and his first reaction will be to sound the alarm, as though nothing has happened. While that's a perfectly logical reaction, I dare say that a more sensible one would be for him to fall to the ground, clutching the ruined crater that was once the front of his head. Call me crazy.
Being discovered isn't as crippling in Pandora Tomorrow as it was in Splinter Cell. In several missions, you'll be able to trigger up to three alarms, causing the guards to put on helmets and body armor, before your mission's over. That aside, it's still infuriating when a highly realistic action game occasionally breaks its own rules like this. I'm not even talking about natural exceptions, like the intermittent lightning bolts in the Jakarta stage, which often reveal your position; I'm talking about guards who can see in the dark, or don't react at all to gunshot wounds, or who can hear a man skulking quietly from a hundred feet away, in the middle of a thunderstorm.
(I also have to agree with an opinion I've read online: should there be a Splinter Cell 3, there really needs to be an option to turn your radio off. Near the end of the time I spent with Pandora Tomorrow, I was really, really sick of being told that I was "paid to be invisible.")
I'm overstating the case, but I've played a lot of singleplayer, and it's something which sticks out. For every time I got killed or blew the mission because of a psychic guard, there were three times that I was able to successfully sneak up on somebody, or use a distraction to my advantage. That one psychic guy, though, exercises a power to annoy that's well out of proportion to the role he plays in the game.
Singleplayer Pandora Tomorrow is an improvement in almost every way on its predecessor, but its weak spots are pretty glaring. That being said, you can fairly safely skip playing it altogether, because the real reason to buy Pandora Tomorrow is for its multiplayer mode.
I've been saying for years that a console game, featuring third-person stealth-based action in an online, multiplayer environment would be a lot of fun. I figured that the upcoming online Syphon Filter would do nicely in that regard, but Pandora Tomorrow has beaten it into stores, and in so doing, has raised the bar. There've been multiplayer games before now that had the option for stealth, but it wasn't as integral to the gameplay as it is in Pandora Tomorrow.
In multiplayer Pandora Tomorrow, you'll be playing with up to three other people, as either a spy, working for the government agency SHADOWNET, or a mercenary, employed by ARGUS (Armed Guardian Services). In general, the spies want to infiltrate a compound, and defuse, steal, or sabotage several crucial pieces of equipment. The mercenaries wish to prevent this.
Playing as a spy, you'll be playing in third-person mode, as in singleplayer. (One of the only reasons to play singleplayer is to practice for playing a spy online.) Armed with chaff grenades, flashbangs, sticky cams, and a shock rifle, the spy's job is to use natural cover, stealth, and his wits, as opposed to fighting it out. The only lethal weapon you have is, if you get the drop on a mercenary, taking them hostage and breaking their neck; otherwise, you're stuck with a low-budget replica of the Sticky Shocker and your spy cameras.
When you're on the mercenaries' team, Pandora Tomorrow turns into a first-person shooter. You'll be armed with a rifle, frag grenades, and mines, with the ability to use motion sensors and electromagnetic detection goggles. If you see a spy, you'll probably be able to cut them down with one burst of rifle fire. You also have the on-site security measures working in your favor, such as photoelectric sensors and automated cameras. You'll probably have a hard time covering your beat at first, but you have a few laser or proximity mines to help you pick up the slack.
If actual fighting happens, it'll do so very, very quickly--if anyone's killed, it'll happen in a matter of seconds--so it's something of a misnomer to call this an "action" game. It's a question of one team's paranoia, tactics, and reaction time against the other team's wits, skill, and their ability to exploit the environment.
Pandora Tomorrow may be the single most skill-oriented multiplayer game on Xbox Live; the only unbalancing factor is the experience of the individual. Each level is very good about putting both sides on equal footing: mercenaries can set traps and control obvious entry points, while spies have a ridiculous amount of ways to gain access to whatever facility they're invading. One or two stages are a little unbalanced, such as the hospital, where the ND133 units are a little too close to each other for comfort, but that's forgivable.
Of course, like any Xbox Live game, multiplayer Pandora Tomorrow is largely dependent upon its players for a truly decent experience. I'm not saying this as a warning, because it is a common-sense thing. Instead, I'd like to make a few requests, of all the PT fans reading this.
Spawn camping is a practice sent up from hell to drive good men mad. Don't do it.
When I'm a mercenary, and I've only got one ND133 unit left to protect, and I'm protecting it, that isn't "camping." That's "shielding my objectives like I'm supposed to."
Either knock me out, kill me, or run the hell away. Please do not sit there and toy with me for a minute at a time, shocking, stunning, or gassing me in rapid succession like some kind of writhing stress ball. It's kind of rude.
These are small concerns, yes, and they may be unique to the people I was playing with. It had to be said, though, if for no other reason than it always has to be said.
Pandora Tomorrow is a game you pick up for the interesting and psychologically taut multiplayer, and maybe, if you're bored, check out the well-designed but uneven singleplayer mode. It's not without its flaws--I think multiplayer could do with one more person on each team, given the size of the levels, and singleplayer has that issue with superhuman guards I was talking about--but it's still a pretty good purchase for stealth action gamers.