Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow

25When you buy Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, you’re getting two separate games. Ubisoft reminds you of this by shunting you back and forth through a front end where you choose single-player or multiplayer, stopping off at your desktop along the way. This pointless interlude, the first and last thing you see every time you play, is indicative of how awkward Pandora Tomorrow can be, split as it is between a middling single-player retread and a bold multiplayer paradigm, both compromised by an unabashed quality-control-be-damned sensibility.

The most familiar part of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is the single-player sequel to Splinter Cell. There are only minimal changes in the continuing adventures of Sam Fisher, making it another strictly linear stealth game in which you’re sneaking down that hallway whether you like it or not. It’s really a puzzle game, a string of discrete challenges with specific solutions.

Some levels have a new three-tiered alert system in which the guards grow increasingly wary and don more armor as you make mistakes. When you reach certain locations, the alert resets, making the game more playable but also less realistic. But worry not, since many missions (including the first one) still retain the ‘one hit and you’re out’ alarm system. One nice touch involves guards quickly calling in the threat when you’re detected, giving you one split second to draw your gun and take him out (if the mission allows lethal force, obviously). Although released on console systems alongside the PC version, Pandora Tomorrow lets you quicksave between activating auto-save checkpoints, and the game isn’t that tough on the Normal (default) difficulty.

7The storyline in Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, tucked into loading screen text, data sticks, and conversation snippets, has the same Clancyriffic quality of the first game, though behind all the fancy secret service acronyms stands a somewhat jumbled plot. Even if you pay close attention, it’s not always clear why you parachute into Jerusalem to get someone to work on your gun and why you put a bomb on a plane locked up in some Third World barn and then warn the pilot, a CIA agent hanging out with drug lords for some reason.

But unlike straight-up action games, techno thrillers rely on an ongoing storyline to raise the stakes and give them a human angle. For instance, imagine a Bond movie without a villain. But in Pandora Tomorrow, Sam’s only encounter with the arch villain happens in the third mission and is cut short because the villain has to take a phone call. Then there’s a villain switcheroo, followed by a villain restoration, followed by a catwalk puzzle for a finale. The story concludes with a cut scene in which Sam recklessly risks the lives of millions of people on a gamble that LAX employees will tend to a stray bag as if it contained weapons of mass destruction. Who needs super agent Sam Fisher when you have airport security?

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The engine looks as good as it did in the last Splinter Cell, taking advantage of its awkwardly contained settings to jack up the photorealism at the expense of scale. Although there are some larger open areas, they’re not used to great effect. The outdoor environments might as well be tunnels. In a vast underground cavern, Sam has to progress along a series of tightly controlled walkways. The lighting is as stunning as ever, although there are some weird pixilated shadows that can make it look like someone from an Atari 2600 game is standing in the light. The animation is still superb, with a few new tricks. Sam ties off and shoots up at health stations. He can hang upside down like and fire his gun. He can pass a doorway with a SWAT twirl. Like the split jump, some of these tricks are strictly optional and you might play through the entire game having only seen them in the tutorial.

13While the solo portion of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is fair if not original, the multiplayer Splinter Cell is a good deal nicer. Players are split into two teams: spies trying to steal an object and mercenaries trying to defend it. Each side has a different set of gadgets, different weapons, and even different perspectives. It’s a stellar example of game design that creates tension and presents a challenge by giving each side a distinct set of tools. Even if it were a standalone product it would have been a four-star game, making it up for the somewhat mediocre singleplayer.

System Requirements: Pentium III 700 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 32 MB Video, Windows 98

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