Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow is the follow up to the wildly successful Ubi Soft spy thriller franchise. Pandora Tomorrow throws you once again into the shoes of Sam Fisher, an NSA agent who is the one and only agent in a lonewolf operation to fight global terrorism. Using a combination of high-tech spy gizmos and good old-fashioned dexterity, Fisher conducts clandestine operations across the world. Pandora Tomorrow's focus is on Asia this time around but there are obligatory trips to the Middle East as well as Europe.
One of the great things about this title's predecessor was the way it implemented the concept of stealth. Because Fisher is outnumbered and often times outgunned, he will have to rely on being discrete in front of security apparatus (cameras, sensors, mines and such) and enemy personnel. The premise is structured such that you can't go in guns blazing and take out everyone a la James Bond. Fisher's health bar will let you take on, at maximum, maybe two or three thugs before he takes too much damage. Most of the time, you will be controlling Fisher with sweaty palms and hairs sticking up your back as you use audio cues (most missions tend to take place at night in the shadows) to evade patrols and creep up on unsuspecting guards.
The developers have tinkered with the original formula and their additions have made Pandora Tomorrow a superior product through and through. First, this title is more forgiving. In missions that do not require the utmost discretion, you can trip alarms (whether mechanical or human) up to three times. Each time the alarm level is raised, Fisher's foes will begin donning flak jackets and helmets making it even more difficult if you opt to exercise lethal force. It's a great design decision that strikes a balance between risk and reward.
Those who remember Fisher's prior outing will no doubt remember how gorgeous the environments looked. The great thing about them was how they were functional too. Ambient light and fires cast shadows which can be spotted by sentries. Different floor surfaces give off different sounds when you walk on them. And they sound even more different when you run on them. The ability to control these elements constitutes the stealth part of the game.
In this title, all of these elements have matured to the next degree. For example, rather than have you dodging fixed light bulbs, the missions in France open up with a subway passing by. Not only is it deafening but the spotlights on the train will light you up to any unsuspecting sentries. On the other hand, the East Asian settings have lush foliage which you can camouflage yourself amongst. Many of them grow on water, though, so walking on them will undoubtedly make some noise. In one incident, while crawling through the luggage cart on a moving train, I thought I was in complete disguise by not turning on any lights until I ran past a dog that couldn't stop barking. Little details like these heighten the challenge and compensate for the more forgiving three-tier alarm system.
Fisher has gained a few moves in his repertoire, allowing him to circumvent obstacles. He has one move where he stands up against the wall. This has been expanded to enable you to shoot around the corner with a pistol. To get from one side of a corridor to another while against the wall, you can do a quick shuffle that looks extremely cool. Fisher's overall animations have improved and again the visual splendor is functional.
The controls to execute these moves are fairly intuitive. I still miss creeping around with the analog stick on the Xbox. However, the PC mouse and keyboard combo gives a different kind of suspense.
Getting beyond the looks, the plot is similar to most stories that come from the Tom Clancy genre of games. A seemingly random act of violence occurs. The game opens up with a tutorial mission that puts you in an American embassy under siege from terrorists. As you travel around to piece together the clues, the Pandora part of the game will gradually become more lucid. Suffice to say, it involves weapons of mass destruction. I won't give any clue as to what kind but you can no doubt guess from everyday BBC or CNN news that it could be nuclear, biological or radiological.
The sound effects are some of the best in the business. You'll come to appreciate it because playing the game will involve paying attention to each and every audio cue. The surround positioning is also second to none. Even on a PC, where you may not have a receiver or a 5.1 setup, the 3D positioning becomes an asset rather than an unnecessary CPU drain during the game.
Wait -- there is more to this product than you think. As if a stellar single player component was not enough, the developers ran out and created a separate multiplayer game. This portion of the game is divided into two teams; ARGUS mercenaries, who play the game in first person mode, versus Shadownet spies, who play the game in third person mode. The spies are weaker than Sam Fisher. They don't have much in terms of lethal weapons while the mercenaries are given the big assault rifles. However, both parties carry special gadgets (motion sensors, various types of grenades, mines, etc.) that, if used correctly, can even out the odds. There are only four players in the game but the game works well even if it's three amateurs against one expert. Chances are the expert will know how to use his or her tools and execute the correct tactics to overcome the numerical disadvantage.
There are a series of maps built specifically for multiplayer. Many are smaller geographies to fit the four player limit. They share one common feature though. Every map and mode pits Shadownet in an offense against the ARGUS mercenaries. The spies either have to find the biological weapons and destroy them or they have to escort it or set up computer terminals that will remotely destroy the contents. With so few players, voice communication is important and teamwork is almost a must since you can't just lock yourself in a corner and do your own thing. It's definitely a refreshing take and I'm positively thankful the multiplayer game didn't degrade into some glorified deathmatch.
Pandora Tomorrow continues to rely on event driven artificial intelligence and copious amounts of scripted events to keep the game dramatic. That's the nature of the beast. In this title, the trial and error problems that made the original a little too difficult have disappeared. PC gamers get the ultimate treatment as they can save and restore at any point in the game.
So many things that went right with Splinter Cell have been expanded, improved and made better through the creators' attention to details. Nearly every facet of the spy game is more mature and polished. Pandora Tomorrow shouldn't disappoint and had such a great effect on me, I found myself trawling the NSA website for jobs the next day. Like fine wine, this franchise has definitely become better with age.