• Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow Review - Microsoft Xbox

    A game of two halves. Never has this most clichéd of statements held more truth than in regards to Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. With an opening menu in which your only decision is to play multi or single player games, which bring with them their own opening movies, differing control systems and gameplay dynamics, Ubisoft have decided that two differing strategies are required to make this year’s iteration of the Splinter Cell franchise stand out from the crowd.

    The single player aspect of SC:PT could be construed by the more ‘jaded’ gamers out there as little more than a data disc to the original game. Created by the same development team at Ubisoft Shanghai (who ported the original to both PS2 and Gamecube), they seem to have gone with a ‘if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it’ philosophy. Minor alterations to the move list, player’s interface and graphics are all order of the day, with the core gameplay mechanics being the same as this game’s predecessor. What this means is that gamers who disliked the original’s trial-and-error puzzle solving, combined with linear routes through the levels, will once again be left cold by SC:PT. The many gamers who enjoyed the first game will, however, find much to rejoice about in the sequel.

    First call for rejoicing comes in the locales. Ranging from a terrorist-controlled embassy to a high-speed train, jungles in Indonesia (the first ‘true’ outdoor sections in the series) to finally LAX airport. Whilst varied enough in concept, the linear paths through each location mean that a corridor mentality remains from the first game, even if it seems that this game offers much more freedom in deciding which path to take through each of the many stages. Your hand is well and truly guided, whether through in-game objectives and instructions or by the more direct approach of impassable gates, fences and doors. All of this doesn’t detract from what can only be described as the most beautiful and believable locations yet seen in a console videogame. From the dark alleyways and dankly lit town squares of Jerusalem to the lush tropical undergrowth of an Indonesian jungle, at no point in the game is this belief disrupted.

    Gamers familiar with the first game will have some idea of what to expect from the lighting, which features heavily as both an extension of the believability of the areas and as a gameplay mechanic - one which is genre-defining. Ubisoft have excelled the original in this department: static light sources cast ‘true’ shadows onto surrounding objects and areas, whilst the more erratic light sources, such as swinging lights and torches held by patrolling guards, illuminate the darkness - an effect as frightening as it is breathtaking. The first time you see a torch-wielding guard directing his beam into nooks and crannies you previously deemed to be safe spots is as chilling as anything experienced in the Survival Horror genre.

    The gameplay, when boiled down to its most basic component, can only be described as an action puzzle game. Each 'room' gives the player a fresh problem to decipher, be it as straight-forward as disabling one enemy to the more complex situations where you might be required to disable three or more torch-wielding enemies whilst dodging beams from search lights, patrolling guard dogs and moving as silently as possible to avoid detection by aural means.

    SC:PT is also markedly easier than its predecessor: never are you as cerebrally tested as you were by the CIA level in the original. There will be times when you will be asked to repeat sections in the game, but never is it because there is only one possible solution - its normally down to the fact that the gamer has become too confident by what has already been achieved and tries to rush through the section. At various stages, the game throws a curveball into the proceedings in the form of quick action set pieces, which disrupt the pacing beautifully to ensure you are always kept on your toes. After adjusting to the slow-slow tempo, to then be required to kill X amount of enemies in a few seconds ups the adrenaline ante immensely, meaning that you never feel fully relaxed from that point onwards.

    One of the major complaints levelled at the original game was that the crosshair with which you aim your pistol shots was too inaccurate for such a high level covert operative. Ubisoft have corrected this complaint with both a more stable crosshair in which the pistol bullet will actually hit the target, and a laser sight which becomes equipped by pressing up on the d-pad. The laser sight needs to be used sparingly, though, since guards can detect the red dot and raise the alarm. Other minor tweaks include an inventory system which is easier to navigate (which, in turn, results in the gamer using all the items at their disposal), and an extra function of the light sensor so it now flashes when it's safe to dispose of a body in any given area. This stops the situation arising that plagued the first game, in which a body you had assumed to be completely hidden was found, resulting in mission failure.

    The AI of the guards has also been improved, and no longer will you be able to kill a patrolling guard in close proximity to another without the alarm status being raised. Guards now react better to sound, and the short-term memory loss which plagued the original game is now a thing of the past. An even more exciting addition is that some of the guards patrol patterns now seem to be randomised, you can spend minutes memorising a guard's route through an area only for it to change unexpectedly. This is something the genre needed to keep the player interested in the very few occasions when they need to replay sections.

    For games in the stealth genre, the aural is just as important as the visual, and Ubisoft have delivered perfectly in this regard. Using a revolutionary 7.1 EX technology, which enables those with the relevant hardware to hear each aural intricacy via seven speakers instead of the standard ‘maximum’ five, the soundscape is as enriching as it is varied. Enveloping the gamer in full surround sound enables the developer to implement puzzles which rely purely on hearing, from the whir of automated machine guns which are outside your field of view to the footsteps of approaching enemy guards returning on patrol patterns. The soundtrack kicks in at opportune moments, dynamically altering to reflect in-game situations, such as when you are trying to evade alerted guards.

    SC:PT single player is everything that a successful sequel needs. It improves on the little niggles which were apparent in the first game whilst also adding its own touches which move the franchise, and the genre, onto higher ground. Whilst it's not as revolutionary as the first game was, it's still taking the correct evolutional steps to create a franchise which will be as enjoyable as it will be long-lived. The trial and error game play has been toned down, with the need to restart the same section time and time again kept to a bare minimum, resulting in an experience which is more entertaining than its predecessor.

    Normally, for a high profile release such as SC:PT, the single player aspect would get the majority of the development time, with the multiplayer being more of an after thought. Thankfully that is not the case in here. Rather than make the multiplayer a simple extension of the single player, Ubisoft decided to take a unique approach and gave development duties to a different team within Ubisoft Shanghai. What they produced is a ground-breaking example of multiplayer gaming: gone is the ‘twitch’ style which typifies online action games and, in its place, a more cerebral experience has been created. At its most basic, we now have the natural digital evolution of hide and seek.

    With a maximum of four players (split into either Spies or Mercs), the idea is for the spies to hide in the shadows whilst getting close enough to certain objects in order to either steal or disable them. The mercs must seek out the spies whilst protecting said objects. Whilst being simple in concept, the tactical nuances involved make for a game more varied and deeper than other console games available today. Maps large enough to hide in, with many possible routes throughout, and yet not too large as to defeat memorisation make for varied campaigns. The static placement of objectives aid the development of tactics, and teamwork (or lack of same) soon becomes the key to victory or defeat. This means that communication becomes more of a core gameplay mechanic, with the headset becoming as important as the control stick. However, play with someone showing poor communication skills and the experience becomes lacklustre and, ultimately, boring. The headset can also be used to torment your opponents when playing as a spy. Capture them in a headlock and you can spend the next few seconds whispering taunts before incapacitating them.

    One of the most unique aspects of the whole multiplayer experience is that there are two different viewpoints dependant on the team you play. Spies use a third person viewpoint similar to the single player game, though the spies move with more agility than Sam Fisher could ever muster. Think, if you will, of the ninja vampires which infiltrate Blade’s headquarters in Blade 2 and you will have some idea of how the spies can move around the levels with a freedom which beggars belief. The mercs, in contrast, are more bullish in nature, and a first person viewpoint signifies this perfectly. What this means is that two entirely different control systems and game play styles need to be learned to be able to master the multiplayer game, with both systems having advantages which the other side can counter. The mercs have superior firepower and equipment, and can lay mines and traps throughout the levels, whilst the spy has the advantage in reaching high vantage points, and disappearing into the shadows with ease.

    The spies’ third-person perspective aids them finding hiding places throughout the darkened corners of the levels, while the merc has a motion detector which picks up anything over a certain speed, and an electro-magnetic detector which shows any electrical equipment being used in the vicinity, including the spies’ camera modes. So it becomes a case of bluff and double bluff, with the spy scared of using his camera modes or moving too quickly around the levels (thus negating his agility) in fear of becoming detected, whilst the merc has to switch between views quickly in fear of becoming a sitting duck to a slowly approaching spy. Once again, this all adds to the tactics on display, with a good team on either side using decoy runs to break the other side’s momentum.

    Limiting the game to four players seemed to be a mistake by Ubisoft on first play. The levels looked as though they could accommodate much more than four, but it turned out to be a masterstroke. Four means that the teams are small enough that communication is easy to maintain between teams - you always know who is talking to you since there is normally only one other person on your team. The limit also helps to cut down on lag, which is always important in online gaming, with even the most minute breaks in the game due to poor network conditions being the exception rather than the rule.

    Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow is quite possibly the finest multiplayer experience available on Xbox Live today. It’s unique in today’s environment, where it seems that every online game is either a FPS or a racer, and the tactical possibilities on display mean that many repeat plays later and it's still feeling as fresh as the first time you played. The game improves the more you play, particularly once the maps become memorised and teamwork becomes second nature, and the longevity on offer looks to be immense. It launched with a few bugs, which have since been fixed with an update, and the poor gamesmanship on display from certain quarters means that the ranking system is becoming a joke, and yet none of this detracts from what is a defining achievement in online gaming.

    Whether wanting a single or multiplayer experience, this game exceeds on both counts. Fans of the original game will lap up the further adventures of Sam Fisher whilst waiting for Splinter Cell 2 to be released in 2005, and Live gamers will enjoy this for the unique experience on offer. Ubisoft have followed the blueprint other successful franchises have used in developing a sequel which matches or surpasses the original in every department, and with the addition of a revolutionary multiplayer game, they have pushed the genre into previously unexplored areas.

    A review by John Beaulieu