Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow First Look
Sam Fisher returns in the highly anticipated online-enabled sequel to Splinter Cell.
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The original Splinter Cell was a promising and polished first foray into the action stealth genre for Ubisoft. The French publisher's Montreal Studio crafted a potent mix of deep gameplay, impressive visuals (most notably the nuanced lighting), a rich story, and engaging characters (such as its lead character Sam Fisher), that helped the title stand apart from others in the crowded genre. Originally released to much acclaim on the Xbox in 2001, Ubisoft also released GameCube and PlayStation 2 versions of the game (developed by Ubi Shanghai) earlier this year that offered some tweaks to the Xbox game's core content. For the game's sequel--dubbed Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow--the reigns of the promising franchise have been handed to Ubi Shanghai, who is hard at work on creating an ambitious sequel that aims to top the original game's single-player component and Ubi Annecy who hopes to offer an equally compelling online multiplayer game. We recently got the chance to take a look at the upcoming game on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox (it's also slated to appear on the GameCube and PC) to see how Sam Fisher's latest adventure is shaping up.
One of the first goals in the game was to revisit the original Splinter Cell to take a hard look at what worked and what didn't. Ubi Shanghai is keenly aware of the criticisms leveled at the first game and is working to ensure that, along with all the new material, the core Splinter Cell experience is as tight as possible to provide a solid foundation to build on. The first facet of the game to come under scrutiny was its narrative. The original game's complex tale of intrigue, espionage, and politics was strong but lacked focus, partially due to the fact that it had to introduce players to Sam Fisher's world. Pandora Tomorrow's story is a much tighter narrative that's tied much more closely to the single- and multiplayer game experiences. While the exact details are being kept vague for now, expect the game's tale to mirror world geopolitics and to offer some logical extensions of current situations. The tighter focus--and already established world--is allowing the writers to focus more on Sam's character, and it allows them to flesh him out a bit more. At the same time, you can expect to find a host of new faces, both good and bad, in the mix.
The story will also feature a greater scope than the original game and will offer a more dynamic view of Sam's organization, the NSA. This time out, Sam won't be the only operative in the field. The game will acknowledge that other agents are going about their business as you guide Sam through his in some unique ways.
While Ubi Shanghai is keeping Pandora Tomorrow's story vague, the developer is much more open about the title's gameplay. You'll find two main modes in the game now: single-player and multiplayer. The single-player game is where you'll play Sam's new adventure. While the game's core mechanics and control are based on the original, Ubi Shanghai is implementing a number of refinements and additions to offer a tighter overall experience. You'll still control Sam in a third-person view, and you'll have access to his robust move set, which works very nicely for stealthy sneaking and killing. However, some of his moves have been tweaked to make them more useful. For example, Sam can now shift his weight to his right or left leg while performing his well-known split jump. In addition to the old favorites, you'll find Sam has new tricks up his sleeve, such as a speedy swim move that lets him slip past open areas, like doors, so that he can get to the safety of the shadows. As you'd expect, shadows and light will play an integral part of your spying experience. Ubi Shanghai is playing around with the mechanic and has come up with some slick variations that will force you to use your head if you want to make it through a mission. For example, you'll have to use the constantly changing shadows on a moving train to make your way through to your goal. Another slick new addition is the nice use of force feedback, as your controller will shake when you're near a mine--as a warning.
Now, as big of a badass as Sam is, physical prowess isn't always enough to get the job done. Fortunately, Sam's physical skills will be complemented by a slick assortment of gadgets, like assorted weapons and night-vision goggles. His trusty FN7 pistol has been upgraded with a laser sight to make targeting easier. The catch is that your targets will be able to see the laser sight, thus forcing you to weigh the pros and cons of being detected. This decision will carry quite a bit more weight in Pandora Tomorrow, thanks to the game's new enemy AI. Your foes will now feature various states of alertness, which will influence their behaviors pretty dramatically and will make Sam's life a lot more difficult. For instance, enemies in the first state of alertness, usually triggered by some slip-up on your part, will be more cautious and will put on flak jackets. The next state of alertness will send them scurrying for helmets. Additionally, this next state of alertness will cause enemies to be hyper-aware of their surroundings, thus making it that much more difficult for you. No matter how tense things get, though, Sam's gadgets will help you find a way to complete your missions. A fiber optic camera, for example, will let you get a peek at certain areas without exposing yourself. One of the main factors in deciding the tweaks and additions to Sam's moves and gadgets is gameplay. The team is working to ensure that the level designs allow you ample opportunity to play however you like and also let you use Sam's skills as often as you'd like. For example, there's a train level that lets you work your way to your goal by going through the cars or by going outside the cars, so you can walk on the roof of the cars, cling to their sides, or climb underneath them.
Familiarizing yourself with the new and old gameplay mechanics in the single-player game will serve as a good primer for part of the multiplayer mode, called mercenary versus spy, which features a unique twist. As mentioned, Pandora Tomorrow's story will allude to the fact that there are other NSA operatives in the field, so the game's multiplayer mode will let you play as one of these operatives. Generally speaking, the mode will charge spies with infiltrating mercenary bases to steal information from a computer. Mercenaries, on the other hand, want to try to prevent spies from doing so. While the operative you'll play as will handle like Sam, there's one notable omission: All your gadgets and weapons will be of the nonlethal variety. This is a bit of a problem, as the aforementioned mercenaries are armed to the teeth with a lethal assortment of weapons and tools, such as motion trackers, mines, and an EMF (electromagnetic field) detector that can be used to sniff out spies. For instance, the motion trackers will direct mercs to a moving spy, and the EMF will work like a variation of the standard vision modes and tracks spies via the electric fields given off by their gadgets.
Before you vow to only play as a merc in the mode, consider that the mercenaries have their own twist/handicap: a first-person mode. Whereas spies have standard third-person views that let them get good looks at their surroundings, the mercenaries have their own views, which are restricted to those of the first-person type (much like any other PC FPS). It's an interesting dynamic that, along with the constraints put on the spies, helps form a unique system of checks and balances. As you'd expect, the Ubi Annecy team is working to ensure that the multiplayer mode is as balanced as possible. One of the key choices the studio has made so far is to limit the number of players. While players will be able to choose any combination of spies and mercs for the mode, the maximum number of players will be four. According to reps from the team, the four-player limit has been imposed to maintain the tension that is key to the Splinter Cell experience. Maintaining tension is also the reasoning behind the size of the levels in multiplayer as well. Rather than create massive levels that were suited for many players, the team has opted to create good-sized levels that are expansive but tight enough to ensure that mercs and spies won't lose each other. There are also some subtle, but cool, touches that bring tension from a whole new angle. Much like how Sam can get behind an enemy and grab him or her as a hostage, spies will be able to nab mercenaries and can use them as human shields--or they can just humiliate them. When this happens in the game, the merc will be at his captor's mercy until he's released. The best part of this is that when the two players are locked together, they'll be able to communicate via the PlayStation 2's USB headset or the Xbox Live communicator, which seriously bumps up the humiliation factor. While the multiplayer mode is a unique way to bring Splinter Cell online, it will actually have ties to Sam's adventure. Despite being a separate mode from the single-player game, the multiplayer mode will flesh out Pandora Tomorrow's story by offering supplemental info.
The graphics in Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow will show off an assortment of tweaks and additions that are comparable to the work Ubi Shanghai has done on the gameplay. Thanks to the studio's experience with the Splinter Cell engine and all the current consoles, the visuals are coming together quite nicely. The two work-in-progress versions that we saw for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox were in different states of development, but both looked good. The PS2 trailed a bit behind the Xbox and lacked audio, but it offered an impressive peek at an Indonesian jungle level that was a dramatic change of pace from the environments in the first game. The field where Sam started out was full of lush vegetation, and it reacted as he moved through it. The buildings in the compound he infiltrated were varied, as was the terrain in the surrounding area. The frame rate was already moving along at a good clip and was comparable to the retail PS2 Splinter Cell. The texture quality was high and very crisp. The lighting was still coming together but looked good. Sam's model featured a good amount of detail, particularly on his swanky new camo outfit, and it animated well. The Xbox game was further along, so it was used to show off a train level and the multiplayer mercenary versus spy mode. The train level was a tightly constructed claustrophobic level that was in sharp contrast to the expansive jungle. Sam was forced to make his way through train cars and had to avoid being detected by terrorist and civilian passengers. The demo showed off the different paths that are open to players. Additionally, it served as a nice showcase for both the improved gameplay and the graphics engine, which displayed an impressive amount of detail and featured slick lighting effects. Little touches, such as a subtle camera shake, visible sparks coming from the bottom of the train, and the wind effects observed when Sam walked on top or hung next to the train, were nicely done. These little touches even tied into the gameplay, as Sam was forced to watch the reflections of passengers in a window to time his covert movement past a doorway. Some contextual animation was on display as well, thus ensuring Sam's movement would reflect what he was interacting with. The graphics in the multiplayer level we saw were obviously comparable to the earlier versions of the game and looked very good. The first-person merc view worked well and featured some nice work on its HUD (heads-up display), which is functional without being too obtrusive to your field of view.
While the audio wasn't even close to final in either game, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is slated to feature audio bells and whistles that are comparable to its predecessors. So PC and Xbox owners can look forward to Dolby 5.1 support, while PS2 and GameCube owners will get Dolby Pro Logic II. The game will use many of the same actors from the original Splinter Cell for its voice cast, and the game will feature an original score.
From what we've seen so far, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is looking very promising. The single-player game looks to offer a good level of challenge and deep gameplay that will merit some exploration. The multiplayer game is an intriguing approach to taking Splinter Cell online, and we're curious to see more of it. The mechanics are interesting and should be quite engaging. We're especially curious to see how the player-limit ends up working out. If the game is balanced properly and offers enough variety in its options, there could be all kinds of fun (and humiliation) to be had in it. Toss in a robust graphics engine that sports some nice improvements and you've got what appears to be a very worthy next installment in a slick franchise. Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is currently slated to ship this March. Look for more on the game--especially details on the GameCube and PC incarnations--in the coming weeks. For more on the game check out our video interview here.