Review by Coolhand

"Stealth Action Redefined. Again."

The original Splinter Cell was released as a challenger to the Metal Gear series for king of the stealth action games. While it's entirely personal opinion as to how well it did, the game DID break some new ground and offer some dazzling visuals and tremendous gameplay.

While the Metal Gear games tend to stray from reality quite a bit, featuring robotic ninjas, walking battle-tanks, and conspiracy-theory overtones, Splinter Cell had a gritty, real-world feel to it ... with gameplay to match. You definitely got a sense of the main character's mortality playing it.

Now the upstart is back, and it's far better than its predecessor. One incredibly innovative addition is online multi-player - the first stealth-action multi-player of its kind.

On the strength of what I read about this game, I went out and bought Microsoft's XBox Live service, not to mention a wireless router (too much computer, not enough computer room) to network it with.

So I'm in the hole $130.00 before I bought the game. This better be 11 kinds of awesome.

...Know what? Best $180.00 I've spent since that weekend in Thailand.

...did I just say that out loud?

Anyway, let's talk about Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow.

Story - 10/10 single-player, 6/10 multi-player:
I'm not going to divulge too much of it. Sam Fisher is back, and this time, he's heading to the jungles of Southeast Asia. To begin with, he has to infiltrate an overrun (and hostage-filled) U.S. Embassy in East Timor. The story is gritty, not-at-all sweetness-and-light, and whispers of U.S. agents doing not-so-nice things under cover of darkness in the name of protecting American freedoms. Kind of like a real Clancy novel.

At one point one of Fisher's ''handlers'' refers to him as ''the world's most amoral, reluctantly aging bad-ass.''

And that pretty well sums him up, I'd say.

If you want nuclear-powered walking battle tanks and transgendered psychics with laser-beam katanas, go play Metal Gear Solid (choose your version). This story sounds like something snatched out of the latest headlines (except you wouldn't read about all the crushed windpipes and garoted bad guys).

The multi-player version doesn't nearly the story; set in the same universe, players control either SHADOWNET spies or ARGUS mercenaries in deadly, objective-based games of cat-and-mouse.

Frankly ... there's about as much story to the multi-player as there is to, say, Counter-Strike.

...do you play Counter-Strike for the story? Thought not.

The single-player storyline is great, if you like realism.

Gameplay - 9/10 single player, 10/10 multi-player:
The gameplay shines. The camera very rarely puts itself in an odd place, and if it does, it's easily moved. Sam moves fluidly. The controls are very common-sensed, albeit a bit different from the first installment. Your screen shows you how deep in the shadows you are, and how quietly you're moving.

And that's important. Sam's quite mortal, and not well suited to going in guns-a-blazing. You have to analyze your approach and always, always, always have stealth your first and foremost concern. Some levels won't even ALLOW you to kill; at best you can introduce the bad-guys to a choke-hold and a good pistol-whipping.

Personally, I like hiding bodies. Works for me. Just remember that Sam is not Solid Snake, and trying to be will get you killed - quick.

It's hard. No question. Not ridiculously hard, but it will challenge you, and at times, it will overcome you a few times before you figure it out.

One quick note: I did like the inventory/OPSAT interface of the first game a bit better. But that's really a nit-pick.

Multi-player changes it quite a bit. The controls for spies are pretty similar, but it's more action-oriented. Takes a bit of adjustment, but you'll adapt fast. The faceless spies move just like Sam, and have almost all of his tricks, but there's a few differences.

First off, you don't have the light sensor or the sound monitor. That seems really lame at first, but you'll realize that they're useless in this environment. Single-player baddies don't periodically toss a grenade into a dark corner 'just because.' Humans can, and sometimes will. The light/sound sensors let you know if you're going to alert the A.I. - only a good intuition is going to let you know if that ARGUS goon is going to turn around for no reason and spot you.

Another difference is that the spy has no lethal weapons. This ain't your daddy's death-match. Spies have to escape and evade. At best you can stun the enemy mercenaries - but such actions only keep them down for a handful of seconds, and it's not like killing someone at point A so they 'respawn' at point B. Where they fall is where they'll be when they come to - which means you'd better be gone when they do.

Sound unfair? Well, the spy has a plethora of gadgets to make life hell for the guards, including two non-standard vision modes (infrared and low-light) and a variety of noise-makers and other implements of distraction.

Perspective matters, too. Spies have the same 3rd person, over-the-shoulder view as Sam does in single-player, giving you a good sense of what's going on around you.

ARGUS guards have the standard FPS, gun in the lower half of the screen view. They can't see around them the way spies can, and can't go some places spies can go.

But ARGUS guards have their own tricks, too. Electromagnetic (lets you see electronic gadgets, be they computers on the desk or a spy's active night-vision scope) and motion-sensor views even the playing field somewhat. If those fail, flip on your headlamp and illuminate what goes bump in the night - then blow the hell out of it.

Oh, yeah, the ARGUS guys more than make up for the SHADOWNET folks' lack of methods of killing. Guns, grenades backed up by REALLY nasty stuff like trip-bombs, and some neat non-lethal gizmos like phosphorous grenades (make 'em glow, them make 'em bleed) and portable motion detectors.

There's no other multi-player like this. It's not a deathmatch. It's tense, it's jumpy, and the adrenaline will pump. Xbox live is great, until a spy has you by the throat and is whispering sweet nothings in your ear (before sending you to la-la land and wizzing on your unconscious form).

Servers are a max of 4 people. That seems lame when you look at, say, Battlefield 1942 ... but trust me, 4 is perfect. Even with only one other team-mate, I've been friendly-fired upon by a fellow guardsman that got a little too jumpy. Imagine playing a really tense game of hide-and-seek. With guns.

Graphics/Sound - 10/10: Splinter Cell was noted for its lush graphics and great sound. PT improves on the original. You'll gawk at the sight of light coming through a moving curtain or oscillating fan when it plays across a camo sneak-suit that's half-in, half-out of the shadows. Wicked cool. The sounds are equally good.

Michael Ironsides provides the voice of Sam. His gravelly, growly voice is a perfect fit to the character.

Sam's boss, Col. Lambert, is voiced (very well) by Dennis Haysbert (the President from Fox's wildly popular ''24'').

The voice acting is very good. I always thought the dialog in the Metal Gear games was silly. This is as good as any movie's.

The music is muted but lends itself well to the tension and dramatic moments. You don't really notice it until a guard gets alerted to your shenanigans and the pace picks up ominously.

Sound effects are equally brilliant. Hearing a loose floorboard squeak underfoot will make you wince and make your heart skip a beat.

Nothing much to add about multi ... much less voice-acting, but the sounds are the same, and therefore brilliant.

Play Time / Replay factor - see explanation:

Single player clocks in, if I've been told correctly, at around 30 hours of game-time (which is a lot more than that, in real-world time). Not awe-inspiring, but as good as any other game in the genre.

Note that Xbox Live allows the possibility of single-player content downloads, which is a plus. To wit I'd give it an 7.5 out of 10.

Multi-player? Well, hell, you'll be playing it until you die of kidney failure. The game has unlimited potential if you have Xbox Live. And even if the slew of maps you get on the disk get old, there's the new content download thing. Is 11 out of 10 possible?

Before I wrap this up - a word about game comparisons:

I've compared this game a lot to those of the Metal Gear franchise. I don't want anyone to misunderstand me, or mistake what I'm saying for the rantings of an Xbox fanboy embittered that Kojima-san did not bestow the full measure of his brilliance on the Xbox.

I own every Metal Gear game (except I don't have the PS2 version of MGS2 - only Substance for Xbox). NES, PS1, PS2, XBox, Gamecube ... got 'em all.

Love 'em. Unquestionably. I *will* buy Snake Eater on release date, and I don't care what the reviewers say about it beforehand. I am a Metal Gear Whore. I admit it. I am comfortable in my slavish devotion to Konami's genius.

But come on. Snake could whip Superman's ass. Guy does double-backflips from a standing start and kicks rockets back at the guy that has the gall to shoot them at him. Watch the cutscenes in The Twin Snakes if you doubt me - oh, and if you have a Gamecube and DON'T have The Twin Snakes, shame on you, you're a horrible person.

Snake is a ridiculously bad-ass man in a ridiculously ... ridiculous world. The stories are bizarre and otherworldly at times.

Sam Fisher is a much more believable character, and his is a much more realistic world. *I* like that a lot. Maybe it's not everyone's cup of tea, but in my view the game is such that it stands in comparison to the Metal Gear games, without being a rip-off.

Metal Gear is akin to a rousing Hollywood action movie. They'll probably give it the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen treatment and ruin it, sadly...but it's over-the-top, loud, and the main character kicks ass and smokes cigs ... and he's all out of cigs.

Splinter Cell is - surprise surprise - like a Tom Clancy novel. Gripping, suspenseful, dark, and edgy. But watching a guy spend 15 minutes maneuvering in the dark to avoid a camera might get old. I'd hate Splinter Cell: The Motion Picture.

But as a video game, both have something to offer that you should not turn your nose up at.

Buy / Rent / Hunt it down / Take it back - 10/10:

...why are you still here?

Don't rent this game. It's a waste of money.

Use the rental fee to pay for the cab fare to take you where ever you need to go to find this game and buy it. Hunt someone down and threaten their child if you have to. Take an Electronics Boutique hostage and kill an employee an hour until they give you your copy.

...just kidding. Be nice to EB employees, for they have PT.

Seriously ... unless you hate stealth action games, this game's worth buying for the single-player alone.

This game is going to seriously struggle with Ninja Gaiden for control of my eternal soul ... well, at least for Best. XBox. Game. Evar.

If you have XBox Live and like stealth action, you simply have to have this game.

If the idea of brilliant stealth-action-multiplayer sounds good, or you like talking trash to people that you just ambushed from the shadows (while you've got them in a choke-hold), or you just like the sound of a genre of multiplayer you've never seen before, grab an XBox Live starter kit while you're at it.

It's worth it, I promise.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 03/25/04


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