Review by midwinter
"Licensed To Sneak, Licensed To Kill"
Tom Clancy certainly had his numbers right when he penned the original novel, Rainbow Six, back in 1998. Though the concept may have seemed far fetched at the time, the book accurately predicted a rise in global terrorism sometime during the first few years of the new millennium. Well what do you know? He was bang on the money... quite literally in fact! Sadly enough as recent history has taught us, if you're going to fight terrorism then you're also going to need to rewrite the old rules of engagement... enter Splinter Cell's covert agency, Third Echelon. In order to counter this new threat, Third Echelon was established as an autonomous branch of the military capable of actions that the American government could never publicly sanction. From assassinations to covert op's, its mandate was simple. The pre-emptive neutralization of all threats to American interests both at home and overseas via the use of highly trained splinter cell operatives. In the event of capture, the President could disavow any knowledge of these agents and still maintain plausible deniability... a perfect solution to protecting an imperfect world. Welcome to 2006, welcome to Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow...
Say hello to Sam Fisher, Third Echelon's top operative and the #1 reason why we weren't all blown to smithereens last year. Having seen action during Georgia's abortive ''information crisis'', Sam now finds himself on assignment in Jakarta where militia leader Suhadi Sadono has occupied the U.S. Embassy building there. As is the way with such things, Sadono's terrorist actions have been well thought out and are in fact the opening gambit of a far greater plot... one that has the potential to bring the United States to its very knees. What is Pandora Tomorrow? And who is backing Sadono's activities? It's while putting the pieces of this deadly puzzle together that Sam is lead on a wild goose chase through such exotic locations as Paris, Jerusalem, and Indonesia. Sadly however with millions of lives hanging in the balance, there'll be little opportunity for sightseeing. Instead what players can expect to find are 9 of the toughest missions yet. Each literally overflowing with intrigue and suspense. Though the plot rarely lives up to so high they must be illegal expectations generated by the first installment, its numerous twists and turns are sure to entertain players none-the-less.
At its heart, Pandora Tomorrow is little more than an update. Don't let this simple statement dissuade you however as in cases such as this, the term ''too much of a good thing'' doesn't necessarily apply. With the success of the original Splinter Cell fueling their creative fires, UBI Soft Shanghai have spit polished the award winning gameplay until it positively shines. Once more the name of the game is stealth, and whether you like it or not you're going to have to be a hell of a lot more careful this time around. Aiding players in their quest to sneak is the same excellent camera system utilized in the original. Though similar third person games have long been plagued by bad perspectives, Splinter Cell has constantly avoided this fate by making the angle fully adjustable on the fly. No matter the situation, players can spin and turn the camera any which way they want thereby exposing even the most obtuse of angles. And this is as they say a... Good Thing. For throughout Pandora Tomorrow's 12+ hour challenge, players are going to have the odds firmly stacked against them. Yes that's right... be prepared, slow and steady wins the race.
So you think you know how to successfully infiltrate an enemy stronghold do you? You've shot out the lights, checked that everything has remained quiet and it's slowly becoming clear that no one has noticed your subterfuge. It's time to get to work then right? Well think again Mr. Bond... eerrr Fisher, you're about to be taken to school. It's not that Sadono's henchmen are all that much more intelligent than the Georgian soldiers seen previously, for the AI has seen the barest minimum of improvements. Though they may be slightly more attentive, many of the old behavioral patterns are still present and exploitable in the same old ways. Guards will always investigate any suspicious activity up to a certain pre-established point before turning back if nothing further has caught their attention. And it's still possible to shoot out multiple lights without raising too much suspicion. Instead Pandora Tomorrow's increased difficulty can be more directly attributed to the sheer number of guards and civilians now populating some stages. And nowhere is this challenge more evident than during the overly brutal 3rd mission. Simply put, Jerusalem is a sneak & snatch nightmare of densely packed proportions. With the city behind you however, the rest of Pandora Tomorrow feels like a cakewalk in comparison. Never soft and spongy, it's more of a rock cake to Jerusalem's Tyrolean style hard cake...
If players are going to stand a chance against Pandora Tomorrow's increased albeit uneven challenge, it's going to be a good idea if they take maximum advantage of Sam's updated little black book of tricks. Of the handful or so freshly implemented moves available, the SWAT roll is perhaps the most useful. Used when passing open doorways, it effectively minimizes Sam's silhouette thereby allowing his presence to go unnoticed for those all important extra few minutes. It's a great addition to the already excellent move set and one that budding operatives are sure to take full advantage of. It should also be noted that it's now possible for players to draw their guns while hanging from pipes. Caught in a compromising position? No problems, just whip out your pistol and introduce the bad guys to what Uncle Sam's 5th freedom liberties are really all about. Oh! And the ability to whistle in order to get a guard's attention was also greatly appreciated too. Who said you couldn't teach an old spy new tricks huh? Sadly however the much hyped ''highly improved'' split wall jump continues to be the weakest link as opportunities to use it are once more few and far between. Realistic maybe, disappointing... definitely.
No matter the situation however, Sam handles like a well oiled sneaking machine at all times. To be sure, these are the smooth movements of a veteran agent still in his prime. Though I was admittedly skeptical of the remapped controls at first, I'm happy to confirm that UBI Soft Shanghai have pulled a rabbit out of their hat and have offered up something that actually feels more natural than what was used in the original. In fact, the many little refinements made for Pandora Tomorrow work so wonderfully well that the first game looks positively archaic in comparison. As an example, players no longer need to select the optical cable from the inventory every time they wish to use it. Instead the option can now be found in the action box next to the basic ''open door'' command. Wow! Why wasn't it this easy the first time around? Kudos to the boys in Shanghai for some sweet streamlining work! It may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but as it is in life it's the little things that are important.
Being the sequel... *coughs* update (bugger, almost got caught that time!) to one of the best looking console games of all time, Pandora Tomorrow manages to shine like no other title can. Not only do the lighting effects set new benchmarks in excellence, but the majestically designed mission environments convey such a feeling of beauty that it sometimes defies belief. Can a game really look this good? From the startlingly realistic jungles of Indonesia to the 2nd mission's rundown French subway staging area, the keyword to remember once more is detail. It doesn't matter whether you've taken the time to admire the old newspapers that flutter gracefully by in the breeze or have startled a flock of birds into flight, the evidence of UBI Soft's love for the project is crystal clear. Long time fans will also be pleased to learn that he of the gravelly voice Michael Ironside is back once more filling out Sam Fisher's shoes. New to the mix this time however is Dennis Haysbert (as seen in Fox's ''24'') who injects Sam's superior, Colonel Lambert, with a much needed air of authority. Now if they had only noticed that the Syrian/Indonesian terrorists all sound North American then we could have had a perfectly implemented audioscape... I guess that's one detail they must have missed...
If you're been yawning at the thought of yet another by the numbers sequel (UPDATE!) then hold onto your seatbelts as we're about to reach escape velocity. In what is probably going to be the biggest multiplayer gamble of the year, Pandora Tomorrow's online game is as revolutionary as it is exciting. Spy versus mercenary action abounds as 2 teams of 2 challenge each other at what can only be described as an objective based team death match chock full of Splinter Cell style stealth action. Still not impressed? Ok then what if I were to say to you that the experience awaiting players is completely different depending upon the faction they choose to represent. As a mercenary, players are given a wide range of weapons with which to defend key objectives with. To compensate for this strength however their perspective has been limited to a confining first person view. What this means is that the initially powerful mercenary is suddenly vulnerable to rear stealth attacks. Yay to be a spy! Though spies don't actually have any lethal weapons, they do have the luxury of a far reaching third person perspective. Coupled with a wider range of gadgets and vision modes, you'll soon see that spies certainly have what it takes to get the job done. 2 teams, 2 styles of play, and one incredibly addictive yet perfectly balanced online game mode! This is tension ridden competitive gaming at its best!
When all is said and done, Pandora Tomorrow is essentially nothing more than an better than usual mission pack with an outstanding multiplayer experience tossed in for good measure. So it may not have been the fully fledged sequel that perhaps you were expecting it to be, but then again... so what? It's not as if there was anything fundamentally wrong with its predecessor anyway... and it does give players something to do while the true Splinter Cell sequel is being developed. What more could you have possibly asked for? UBI Soft Shanghai have successfully refined everything that made the the original Splinter Cell what it was while still managing to keep things fresh for players returning to the series. In a way, Pandora Tomorrow's many improvements have simply served to re-established the fact that Splinter Cell is indeed the stealth action game to beat. Whether you've come for the excellent single player campaign or have simply found yourself drawn to it by the tense multiplayer action on offer, one shining truth has been made abundantly clear. Sam Fisher is here to stay...
* The remapped controls work wonderfully well
* 9 new missions for players to explore
* There's a healthy variety of mission locales
* Beware, the guards are more attentive this time
* Sam's new moves work well and are a solid addition to an already excellent game
* Pandora Tomorrow has some of the best graphics yet
* The background music tracks and sound effects manage to hit all the right notes
* My God! This multiplayer is addictive... somebody stop me!
* A streamlined interface makes things much easier on players
* Pandora Tomorrow's story isn't quite as engaging as the original's
* The difficulty is somewhat unbalanced at times
* As good as this all is, Pandora Tomorrow is still just an update. Where's our sequel!?
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 03/28/04, Updated 03/29/04
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