Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow Hands-On Impressions
We check out Sam Fisher's sophomore outing on the PlayStation 2.
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It's no surprise that Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow made the splash that it did when it was released for the Xbox and PC earlier this year. Ubisoft's second installment in its acclaimed stealth action franchise did more than just give gamers a by-the-numbers continuation of the original game. Instead, Pandora Tomorrow offered an engaging and polished single-player experience that expanded on the original game's best elements.
While such a move was to be expected, the multiplayer component took some genuine risks by featuring a taut, controlled four-player experience that was distinctly different from the typical 12-plus-player offerings on Xbox Live. Despite the risky choice, Pandora Tomorrow delivered stellar single- and multiplayer experiences with a hefty amount of appeal. We had the opportunity to check out the upcoming PlayStation 2 incarnation of the game to see how Sam Fisher's latest mission is coming together.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the Splinter Cell series casts you in the role of Sam Fisher, a highly trained and experienced commando who works for a top secret military organization called Third Echelon, which is devoted to keeping the world safe. Given the rather "dynamic" nature of evil, Sam's hours aren't quite nine to five. As a result, the spy veteran finds himself jetting all over the globe, at random times, to deal with all manner of threats. Pandora Tomorrow finds Sam on the trail of a guerrilla leader who is threatening the free world with a biological contagion. The devious villain leads Sam on a chase around the globe to such varied locales as a speeding passenger train that's hurtling across Paris and to a military camp in Indonesia.
The gameplay in Pandora Tomorrow's single-player game hangs onto--and builds on--the core mechanics introduced in the original Splinter Cell. You'll sneak your way through various stages by avoiding or incapacitating any unsuspecting guards (or the occasional civilian) who might otherwise threaten your mission of secrecy. As with other stealth games, it's not difficult to attract unwanted attention by moving too quickly, making too much noise (like a bull in a china shop), or blundering into a well-lit area. And as if this all wasn't bad enough, Pandora Tomorrow features other nasty surprises for you. Hidden antipersonnel mines (visible only when you toggle your thermal vision), infrared trip wires (likewise), booby traps, motion detectors, security cameras, and other such painful--and deadly--devices will constantly keep you on your toes.
However, although it seems as though you're hosed (and perhaps outmatched), you've got plenty of tricks up your sleeve too. Sam is typically armed with a silenced pistol, as well as his trusty SC20K multipurpose experimental assault rifle, which can be used for either silent sniping (when lethal force is permitted) or activating various gadgets, like diversionary cameras and smoke grenades. Additionally, Sam's assault rifle can fire alternative types of ammunition, including electrifying (but nonlethal) rounds. Fisher's other gadgets include lock picks, an optical fiber wire that can be maneuvered beneath a closed door for viewing what's behind it, and his combined night-vision/thermal-vision goggles. He's fully decked-out to get the job done by any means necessary.
The multiplayer game is limited to just four players at a time. You'll play as either ARGUS mercenaries or Shadownet spies. The twist to the premise is that the Shadownet spies handle much like Sam and feature a third-person camera. The ARGUS mercenaries, on the other hand, are quite different and are played in a very standard first-person-shooter fashion. Teams don't have to be balanced, so you can have three-on-one matches if you like, which makes for quite a bit of fun. The first time you try multiplayer, you're given a quick interactive tutorial of both the Shadownet and ARGUS sides, although you'll need a lot more practice than what is presented here. Success or failure in Pandora Tomorrow's multiplayer hinges on cooperation--in fact, more so than in your average game.
You'll find three distinct multiplayer game types based on the aforementioned premise. In the neutralization mode, Shadownet needs to both reach and disable several different viral containers, while ARGUS needs to stop Shadownet. Extraction mode is kind of like Counter-Strike's hostage rescue. Basically, Shadownet needs to find the viral containers so that they can be brought to an extraction point, while ARGUS needs to prevent this from happening. Sabotage is similar to neutralization, but here Shadownet must dispose of the viral containers by hacking into them with modems. It takes a while for the modems to finish the job, so ARGUS has an opportunity to destroy them before the countdown is complete. Meanwhile, Shadownet operatives must make sure the job isn't interrupted.
Pandora Tomorrow's multiplayer experience, which was so appealing on the Xbox, appears to have been faithfully re-created on the PlayStation 2. You'll use the USB headset to chat with your teammates, or, if you're a Shadownet spy who happens to get the drop on an ARGUS mercenary opponent, you can vocally taunt a foe as you drag him around. As you'd expect, there will be some tweaking done to some of the multiplayer maps, but the experience shouldn't be too different from the Xbox game.
Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow's graphics are quite sharp on the PlayStation 2. While the previous version of the original Splinter Cell on the system looked good, there were some notable performance issues. This time out, we were surprised to see the game running quite smoothly, although it did bog down in some of the same spots the Xbox version did. Although there have been some concessions made for the hardware's limitations, the game is looking surprisingly comparable to its Xbox cousin. The beautiful lighting effects and excellent animation have come over intact and still pack a nice punch. You'll recognize some recycling of animation, but Sam has a few cool, new animations thrown into the mix. One of the most striking elements of the game's presentation is the inclusion of some new extremely impressive new environments. The level of detail and subtle interactivity is very cool, and it does a good job of selling the experience. In addition, some of the graphical effects for the multiplayer modes are very nice, such as how an ARGUS merc's vision gets distorted by static when he takes a hit. It also appears that the unsightly artifacting around the light sources on Sam's stealth suit--a minor but unsightly distraction in the Xbox game--have actually been done away with, resulting in a cleaner look overall.
The audio in Pandora Tomorrow is taken straight from the Xbox and PC games--warts and all. You'll hear Sam Fisher's excellent gravelly voice-over, which is provided by actor Michael Ironside, as well as some good banter between Fisher and his commanding officer. This interactive exchange really helps to flesh out their characters. Alas, the audio for some of the supporting cast still sounds out of place. However, this slight blemish is overshadowed by an excellent musical score that helps set the tone for the various levels. The tracks will pick up or trail off depending on whether you're sneaking or fighting for your life, and ambient noises and various footstep sounds are all very well done. In an interesting twist, the PS2 version alone will let you use a USB headset to receive incoming transmissions from your superiors, which ought to enhance the immersion factor considerably. The PS2 version of Pandora Tomorrow won't benefit from Dolby 5.1, but its Pro-Logic II support still offers a strong audio package.
From what we've seen so far, Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow has made the leap to the PlayStation 2 surprisingly well. The game looks to represent a marked improvement over the presentation and performance of the original Splinter Cell on the PS2. PlayStation 2 owners who are partial to stealth games and who haven't picked up the PC or Xbox version of the game will definitely want to check out Pandora Tomorrow. The PS2 version will add one new mission set in a jungle to the story mode, and existing missions will also have new alternate pathways. There will even be a new bomb-defusing minigame similar to the existing lock-picking minigame fans should be familiar with. Even though the single-player game will be a little longer, however, the game won't offer new cinematics or story segments that expand on its narrative, as was the case with the original Splinter Cell on the PS2. This is still a conversion of an already stellar title, though, so you can't argue with its content. Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow is currently slated to ship this June for the PlayStation 2. A GameCube version of the title is expected to ship shortly thereafter.