Review by MSuskie

"SINGLE PLAYER REVIEW: More of the same is, for the most part, a good thing."

Due to my insistence on not getting into online gaming until it's an absolute necessity, I unfortunately was unable to delve into the most talked-about and highly acclaimed of new features in Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, which is obviously its multiplayer mode. So, allow me to get any explanation of this I can provide out of the way before I start criticizing the game. The Splinter Cell series is, as you (hopefully) know, a stealth-action franchise focused on immersion and realism. The multiplayer mode, which is available only to online gamers (i.e. not me), has a unique spies-versus-mercenaries setup in which players split into two teams. One team has the tradition Sam Fisher controls, and must rely on stealth tactics and tricky thinking to win. The other team gets a more FPS-like control scheme that allows them to use brute force to stop the spies from completing their objectives. The mission design and variety in strategies is supposed to be amazing, and I've heard that any online Xbox owner absolutely must pick Pandora up for this mode alone. I feel the need to tell you this, as I can offer no insight on this seemingly delightful addition to the gameplay.

I picked up Pandora knowing that I was unable to make the most of the package, and I must say I still had a good time. Pandora's single-player mode is very much like that of the first game. That's both a good thing and a bad thing. It's a good thing because I still consider Splinter Cell to be one of the best and most influential stealth-action games on the planet. I even said in my review of that game that I liked it even more than the much more story-packed Metal Gear Solid, the previous king of the genre. All of the familiar elements are here: The great graphics, the complex and advanced move set, the gadgets and weapons, the intense integration of story-related moments into the gameplay design, and the dark levels, always set at night so you can make the most of Sam's black outfit. But Pandora's similarity to it predecessor is also a bit of a shame because now that the wow factor has worn off, many of the flaws that plagued the original are back and starting to become apparent.

I note in particular one very aggravating scenario towards the end of the game that forces you into combat when the entire purpose of the game is to allow the player to remain silent and hidden. I won't ruin the story details, but let's just say that you've got to capture an important character without killing him or even knocking him out. He's in a small filming room, taping a broadcast that explains his plans to attack the U.S. As such, he's got four other guys in the room, all of whom are armed with machine guns, and all of whom are watching him very, very closely. After the broadcast is over, he leaves immediately with his guards and you lose your chance to grab him, resulting in a mission failure.

The problem with a setup like that is that there is really no stealthy way to capture the leader without alerting the other guards. The only thing you can do is take out all four guys and then find a way to grab the main baddie, and this is one of the few incidents in which the game actually falls apart. See, the Splinter Cell controls were not designed with intense combat in mind. Picking your weapon, taking it out and aiming all take time and precision, so whenever you're forced into a firefight, the game loses its spark by sending the player in the wrong direction. In this case, I had to use what weapons I had – and this was at the end of a level, so all of my ammo was gone, thus resulting in me getting creative and using my “secondary weapons” – to fight off four guys and somehow find a way to get behind the leader and grab him. And the leader has a gun that can kill you in one hit, too. Lovely. I'm not kidding when I say that I literally played through this section over a hundred times, trying all sorts of strategies. I eventually managed to lure two guards into a dark corner and stealthily knock them out, then kill the remaining two with a frag grenade. But it wasn't easy and took a lot of practice.

What I'm trying to tell you is that Pandora, like the first game, requires patience, and lots of it. The gameplay in concept is very trial-and-error. You'll constantly be running in front of guards or cameras that you didn't see, only to say to yourself, “Oh, there was a guard there? Well, now I know!” and restart at the last checkpoint. Finishing a level in Pandora isn't just a matter of staying alive – at times, you'll have to actually avoid setting off any alarms, which becomes very difficult in some of the later levels that require you to be as stealthy as you can be. Sometimes, guards seem to be alerted of you when they shouldn't be, when you're quiet or hidden enough to remain a ghost. Other times, an objective will be unclear and you'll wind up knocking out a guard that you were supposed to keep conscious for a retinal scan. Checkpoints are kind of frequent and there's usually a chance to save before every really tough section. Expect to play through certain segments a dozen or more times as you carefully examine your environments and learn from your mistakes.

I'm at least glad that the developers were able to keep some of the stage designs fresh and exciting to recreate exactly what made the first Splinter Cell so fun in the first place, the feeling that you really are a secret agent on a mission. One of my favorite chapters in the game had me dropping onto a moving train and moving to the front, one car at a time. Since the train is a standard passenger train that holds civilians, you have to keep a low profile and prevent any of the passengers from noticing that there's a guy with a gun dressed in black on board. I found myself crawling along the top of the train with the wind in Sam's face, shimmying along the sides of the cars and slipping past windows when it's dark, hanging off the sparking underside of the train to reach a distant hatch, and even turning off the lights and sneaking through passenger cars without being seen. I seriously felt like Jack Bauer. I'm not kidding. In another mission, it was raining and thundering outside, and whenever there was a flash of lightning, my cover of darkness was blown. In a later level, I had to sneak into the LA airport and hide behind stacks of suitcases in a baggage claim. There's a lot of variety here.

One addition that I really appreciated in Pandora was the inclusion of a whistle button. Whistling is very much like knocking on a wall in Metal Gear Solid, as it's used to get the attention of your enemies. This can be very useful when you want to shoot or knock out a guard without steeping into a lit area. By whistling, any guard that hears the noise will walk towards it to investigate. They'll walk blindly into dark areas and will usually take a moment to look around and check for the source of the noise. The whistle button can be a great way to toy with enemies, drawing them into a certain spot where you can jump out and covertly smack them on the head. The stupidity of Pandora's enemies can lead to many great moments. My only complaint is the placement of the whistle button – the black button. In the first game, wall-hugging was done with the white button and your inventory was accessed with the black button. In Pandora, wall-hugging is performed by clicking the left thumbstick, and you inventory is opened with the white button now. So occasionally, still being used to the old control scheme, you'll try to go into your inventory and whistle instead, giving away your location. This is very annoying until you get accustomed to the change.

Pandora's level designs are still fairly intelligent and revolve around that whole jump-from-shadow-to-shadow thing that we've come to expect by now. Shooting out lights to create darkness is still as cool as ever – hiding in the shadows and spooking your enemies truly makes you feel like Batman. Rappelling down walls, climbing through elevator shafts, infiltrating public areas, and doing all of that spy-related stuff is still as richly rewarding as ever, and Pandora's single-player campaign is loaded with singular moments of satisfaction. The levels are still very linear, and although they can be tackled with varying levels of aggression, most people won't play through more than once. The true revolution in mission layout didn't come until Chaos Theory, unfortunately. Also, the back of the box says Pandora features seventeen levels. My ass. You'll enjoy all of the game's eight lengthy missions before the game comes to a close.

Even the story itself is pretty good. While I thought the original's plot was a lot of typical Tom Clancy mumbo jumbo that was very difficult to follow, Pandora's story is pretty simple and almost feels like a mix between the third and fifth seasons of 24. In short, Sam Fisher is going after a man named Sadono, who's using the code “Pandora Tomorrow” to issue commands to release boxes of small pox in select locations of America. It's simple and easy to follow, and though there are some details I missed on my first run, I enjoyed it much more than the original's convoluted mess of a plot. My only complaint in this department is the game's rather anticlimactic ending.

Finally, we come to the technical portion of our review, and you can bet that Pandora is every bit as pretty as the awe-inspiring title that preceded it. The big thing that Ubisoft nailed was lighting, and that's because it plays a key role in the gameplay area. When you start shooting out lights to conceal yourself in complete darkness, you'll get the sensation that you really are disappearing. The game's three vision modes (normal, night, and thermal) all look outstanding, and thermal mode especially can always provide fun as you watch a freshly killed guard go from warm to cold in an instant (I'm a sick bastard, I know). Sound, on the other hand, isn't so great. The effects are fine, but I found the music to be very loud and distracting, to the point that I had trouble making out some of the dialog. The soundtrack is supposed to simulate tension, but I thought it actually took away from the game. Also, while the voice acting is great, the accents aren't. I find it a little weird that an Indonesian man who's threatening to attack America has an American accent himself, but whatever.

Pros

+ Same great Splinter Cell gameplay!
+ The new online multiplayer mode is a source of endless fun (or so I hear).
+ Some really inventive missions designs.
+ The new whistle buttons rocks.
+ Still as technically marvelous as ever.
+ It is, simply button, stealth-action done (mostly) right.

Cons

- The levels are still linear and very trial-and-error.
- Stupid, stupid placement of the whistle button.
- A few genuinely frustrating moments.
- The soundtrack is distracting, and the accents are horrible.

Overall: 8/10

Yeah, even though I wasn't able to take advantage of the one thing that apparently makes Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow something truly special, I still had fun with it. If there's anyone out there who is thinking about picking up this game but doesn't have Xbox Live, ask yourself this: Would you be okay with an experience that, while different from the first game, still plays and functions identically? If you liked Splinter Cell, then I recommend that you pick up Pandora regardless of your online situation, because the single-player mode, though not nearly perfect, is still loaded with memorable moments. Pandora from what I hear would probably get a 10/10 from me if I were only able to take advantage of the online multiplayer mode, but as such it earns an 8/10 for its great but flawed single-player campaign.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 06/26/06


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