Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow Multiplayer Hands-On Impressions

We check out the latest build to see how the taut cat-and-mouse multiplayer gameplay handles.

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Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow
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Splinter Cell was a game that had almost everything, including riveting gameplay, gorgeous graphics, and the military coolness that the Tom Clancy name conveys. But the one thing sorely missing from agent Sam Fisher's first adventure was multiplayer gameplay. Unfortunately, once you finished the single-player game, there were no online worlds to conquer. That's going to change in Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow, Ubisoft's upcoming sequel. Not only is Fisher coming back to save the free world in what promises to be yet another enthralling single-player campaign, but Ubisoft is finally giving us the multiplayer gameplay we've always wanted. So how does one translate a stealth action game--especially one that's all about skulking in the shadows--into a multiplayer game? We've been playing with a build of Pandora Tomorrow, and we've got a pretty good idea as to how the company is going to pull this feat off.

The spy has position and surprise advantages on this hapless mercenary.
The spy has position and surprise advantages on this hapless mercenary.

Pandora Tomorrow doesn't play like a typical multiplayer action game. Instead of having huge games with upward of 16 or more players, Pandora Tomorrow will only support up to four players, each of which gets to play as either a spy or mercenary character. The spy character plays exactly like Sam Fisher in the single-player game, so you're a Splinter Cell commando, and you view the action from a third-person, behind-the-back camera perspective. The mercenaries play the game from the traditional first-person perspective, much like in tactical action games like Counter-Strike and Rainbow Six 3.

The multiplayer component will contain several gameplay types, and we got to try one called "neutralization" in both the Xbox and PC versions of the game. The premise here is simple: The spy has to neutralize devices, such as security terminals, that are scattered throughout the level, while the mercenaries have to stop him. It makes for a suspenseful game of cat and mouse, but it's one where the hunter and hunted can switch places in a heartbeat.

This is what motion tracking looks like. Other characters are highlighted by a nifty-looking gray box.
This is what motion tracking looks like. Other characters are highlighted by a nifty-looking gray box.

The spy can perform all of the moves that Sam Fisher can perform in the single-player game, including climbing up on ledges and dangling from overhead pipes. However, to make things even more challenging, the spy doesn't get to carry lethal munitions. Instead, the spy gets a Taser that looks like a submachine gun, which can be used to stun mercenaries. He also gets a couple of nonlethal grenades. There's the flashbang grenade, which temporarily blinds a luckless mercenary, and there's the chaff grenade, which explodes into metallic confetti that hangs in the air like a cloud. The chaff grenade is useful because the mercenaries use high-tech vision enhancement systems, like motion tracking, electromagnetic vision, and targeting. The chaff grenade will scramble these systems, thus temporarily nullifying the mercs' technological advantages.

While the spy doesn't get any lethal weapons, he can still kill mercenaries in a number of ways. The easiest way to take out a mercenary is with a basic physical attack, whereby you can sneak up from behind and you can grab the mercenary in a nasty humiliation move. The mercenary is completely helpless when this happens, and it's a lot like when Sam grabs a character from behind in the single-player game. In fact, through the use of a headset microphone, the spy can actually verbally taunt the mercenary he's just subdued before he snaps the merc's neck. While this taunt ability doesn't serve any functional purpose, it's cool nonetheless. The spy can also climb on top of an object and can wait for a mercenary to walk below. The spy can then drop down and knock him out. The mercenary will be knocked out for a few seconds the first few times you do this, but eventually you can wear a mercenary down to the point where he'll die and will have to respawn.

Mercenaries Mean Business

Playing a mercenary is an experience that's a lot like a regular first-person action game. Unlike the spy, the mercenaries do get lethal weapons. Namely, they get assault rifles that have a flashlight and grenade launcher attached to them. The flashlight works a lot like the flashlight in Halo, so it can be useful for seeing in dark corners. However, it has a limited cone of effectiveness and can give your position away. The assault rifle also has a Taser that can be used to shock the spy. This is useful because the spy can't run while he's being shocked, which effectively lassos him in place so that your fellow mercenaries can finish him off. The Taser can only operate for a few seconds before it wears down its charge (this applies to both the spy and the mercenary), but it will slowly recharge when you're not using it.

Both classes have several visual aids--including night vision, flashlights, and electromagnetic tracking--at their disposal.
Both classes have several visual aids--including night vision, flashlights, and electromagnetic tracking--at their disposal.

As noted earlier, the mercenaries also get motion-tracking vision and electromagnetic vision, both of which are very useful in catching the elusive spy. Motion tracking transforms the view into a red honeycomb, and anything that moves is highlighted in a gray box so that it immediately stands out. Motion tracking is quite useful in dark rooms because it effectively nullifies the spy's hiding places, and it even tracks movement behind objects. However, it's somewhat hindered by a relatively short range. This means that you have to be fairly close to the spy to track him. Electromagnetic vision tracks all electromagnetic signatures, including those generated by a body or by the spy's equipment. It transforms the view into a bluish hue, so anything generating electromagnetic signatures show up in white. This is useful for when the spy is not moving and is consequently invisible to motion tracking. Once again, however, its range is somewhat limited, so a careful spy will blend in with electronics equipment that's generating electromagnetic signatures.

The level we played was called "the museum," and if it's any indication of the other levels, it's balanced to give both the spy and the mercenaries certain advantages. For the spy, there are plenty of dark corners and places to hide. The spy also has access to most of the air vents, as well as to the crawl spaces above ceilings. From these, he can peer down in gaps in the ceiling and can wait for mercenaries to walk by. The spy, however, does need to be careful about moving around in crawl spaces because his footsteps shake the ceiling tiles. A mercenary below can actually see the dust falling from the tile, thus indicating that a spy is directly above.

The mercenaries are aided by the fact that the entire level is littered with security cameras and laser trip wires, which the spy can see by using his thermal vision. Should the spy be caught on camera or should the spy activate a trip wire, an alarm will sound, and the mercenaries will be notified--via their heads-up displays--as to exactly where the spy has been detected. To make things even tougher for the spy, if he trips too many alarms, the security system will automatically lock security doors into place in doorways and air vents. At this point, all the spy can do is hide and ambush mercenaries as they arrive, or he can wait until the doors reopen.

If you're not careful, flashbang grenades or a good shoulder ram can really screw up your eyesight.
If you're not careful, flashbang grenades or a good shoulder ram can really screw up your eyesight.

If the spy gets on the ground, he's in clear trouble. While the spy can run faster than the mercenaries (which leads to some wild chases), the fact remains that the spy is extremely vulnerable to the mercenary's assault rifle. The mercs also have a burly shoulder ram that they can use to really knock the spy for a loop. The spy's big advantage is his agility and mobility, which allow him to scamper quickly out of trouble and into places where the mercenaries can't go. The spy can't get too cocky, though, because the mercenary's grenade launcher is capable of tossing explosives into both air vents and ceiling crawl spaces.

It's clear that the multiplayer in Pandora Tomorrow breaks from the traditional multiplayer gameplay of most action games--and this is a good thing. The multiplayer mode is far from a tacked-on afterthought because the designers have given a definite plan to creating a stealth-oriented multiplayer experience, and the innovations stand out. The taut and suspenseful gameplay promises to offer gamers a nice change of pace from the twitchy, faster-paced multiplayer action found in games like Call of Duty. It certainly looks like Ubisoft is on the right track with Pandora Tomorrow, and it appears that they're poised to deliver the stealth action multiplayer gameplay that we've always wanted.

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