Review by Polonius

"More of the same -- only better"

The first Splinter Cell became the definitive sneaking game, usurping Metal Gear Solid's position and frankly making it look silly. Splinter Cell scoffed at the ridiculous freakshow MGS offered, and instead cut the path of the completely serious, politically-motivated plot well deserving of the Clancy name. And now the sequel arrives, with the rather silly name of Pandora Tomorrow. Well, it hasn't betrayed its roots, despite the name. It's as gritty as ever, and pretty much as good -- perhaps even better -- than the first game.

Splinter Cell is, and always has been, one of those games which assumes a realistic tone, but has a bit of absurdity that the player has to ignore to truly appreciate the game. Pandora Tomorrow inherits this; you follow the rules, and then everything is fine. But still, there are a few things that might grate with the less sympathetic player.

Firstly, darkness is abundant. Less so than in the first game, where the CIA headquarters were as dingy a medieval tomb, but the player will still never be pressed to find a comforting bit of darkness. But at least this time there are parts with almost complete illumination, where the player has to make his own darkness by shooting out lights; or have the timing and precision of a god. I guess this mass of darkness that consumes most levels is sort of okay, but really is just detracts from the realism, and therefore immersion, and perhaps just highlights the strings of the game a bit too much. Maybe a few more actual sneaking parts, where the player has to time their runs, would've helped this, since a lot of the game is less sneaking than shooting out lights and capping guards. Which is still fun, but not too varied.

Second on our list of the absurd: alarms. Maybe it's just me, but I think the alarms just got harder. If a guard so much as breathes into his radio, an alarm goes off. Many times I shot a guard down as he was emitting a noise that may have possibly suggested panic, and that was enough to trigger an alarm. Harsh, like the rest of the game, then. And no game has truly mastered the alarm system -- I mean, one alarm going off should really mean all hell breaking loose, doubled-up security, sniffer-dogs, etc. The works. Nevertheless, Pandora Tomorrow includes a rather nifty alarm counter -- the number of alarms allowed versus alarms already set. Usually you are allowed three alarms before mission failure (thankfully, no matter how unrealistic that may be). Also, there are now alarm stages: stage one -- flak jackets on, as the announcer says, and guards in the next section don their armour (why they haven't got it on already is a mystery). Stage two: helmets on. Very tough helmets, too. Stage three: you lose. Simple, and a nice addition. Keep a low profile for long enough and the alarm stage will reset. Easier said than done, as usual.

Lastly: specificity. Nasty word, for a nasty mechanic. Double-jumps used to be all but useless in the first game, allowing access to maybe a few high up places. But at least you could pretty much double-jump whenever you wanted. Now you can only double-jump in pre-specified areas -- namely, where you can split-kick. And, of course, the split-kick is non-adaptive. You can't use it unless the walls are exactly the correct width apart. This is one example of the restrictions placed on the player. As an aside, it's also a bit unfortunate that wall-mines have become almost obsolete. There are only one or two levels which have them, and even then you can't really set them as a trap usefully.

But enough of that. What about the improvements? The HUD has been overhauled, with new graphics and more information displayed overall, alarms, health, notes, etc. Fisher now has even more moves, though most of them you won't be able to use much -- such as hang-shooting and the split-jump extension. The main improvement to gameplay is the move towards a less linear experience. It's still very linear, of course, but now there are a few multiple routes you can choose, and not all of them will be obvious to you immediately. So now, it isn't just which guards you knock out/kill that provide the variation. Also, the locations themselves are more varied, with jungles, trains and airports, rather than just the offices and embassies of the first game. It must also be mentioned that the levels do look brilliant. Not content with simple shadows, Ubi Soft has introduced fog, smoke and a brilliant rain and lightning effect. While the improvements are mostly subtle, in certain cases they do make all the difference in the visual appeal of the game -- such as the flash blindness that occurs if you wear your nightvision goggles in the lightning.

One thing that annoyed me was that this game is actually shorter than the first. By two levels. And some of the levels are not as long as the levels in the first game: the train level, for example, is really exciting and refreshing, but far too short. Of course, you will be failing a lot, and the game's difficulty does ramp up the overall length, but once you know what you're doing, which no doubt most Splinter Cell veterans already do, you'll get by checkpoints with relative ease.

Apparently, the game has an excellent multiplayer mode. I wouldn't know, since I don't have access to X-Box Live. So the question really is: does the single-player of Pandora Tomorrow warrant purchase? Well, I would say yes. Simply because, although it may be very similar to the previous game, it is different and fresh enough to immerse the player once again into the Tom Clancy universe. Don't expect anything but minor surprises, but if the first game wasn't enough for you, then this is the perfect purchase.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 04/13/04

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