Friday, December 17, 2004

Review: Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (XBox/PS2/GameCube)
Posted by Ariel :: 1:07 AM

Single Player Review:

For some reason or other I was extremely hyped for the first Splinter Cell. I can't remember why exactly, but hearing about an exclusive XBox title that was going to completely revolutionize the stealth action genre had me rushing out and buying it the day the game was released. It was a purchase that I am extremely happy I made. The game use of the X-Box graphics capacity to generate real time shadows and the nice uses of filters made for an innovative experience that was addicting as it was challenging. I remember that Dan was engaged in Skies of Arcadia at the time and we would each play our respective games for hours on end, talking breaks to eat, drink, and tell each other of the awesome game exeperiences that we just had. Which is why I bought Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow day one as well.

In case you didn't know, Splinter Cell is one of the most artistically well designed games on any system. It doesn't have the prettiest or best graphics (certainly not on par with DOA or Ninja Gaiden) but it has the best use of real time rendering I've ever seen. The world of SC is one of stark contrasts, where Shadows fade into oblivion and harsh lights expose the rest of the world and while everyone else fears the dark, you revel in it. No other game has given me so many options in order to remain a ghost, nor forced me to use them as well as I had to in order to succeed.

Most stealth action games are heavier on the action than the stealth, catering to the button mash mentality that is believed to be prevalent in our ADD generation. This game is a stealth game with action in it. You get spotted when you aren't supposed to and it's game over. Unlike other games with stealth aspects (*cough*MGS*cough*HITMAN*cough*) you can't just eliminate everyone who gets in your way. Without permission to utilize the fifth freedom (The right to do whatever is necessary to protect the other freedoms) you have to rely on stealth and cunning in order to achieve your objectives, not brute force. If you are not ot be spotted in a mission, then DO NOT BE SPOTTED. Patience is a virtue and darkness is your best friend. I was dumbfounded the first time I shot out a light and bathed a room in darkness because it seemed like such an obvious idea that I wondered why no one else had done it.

The other games in which I have played the role of a one-man inflitration unit usually have you gather your weapons while doing the mission, ostensibly keeping the earlier parts of the mission from being too easy. Here, they send you in with all the gadgets you're ever going to need. The only thing you pick up are usually frag grenades and maybe some flares, but you have all the amunition and tools you need to confront every situation. There is also no lecturing here. If someone needs to communicate to you they'll let you hear it over the communication patch implanted into the back of your ear, while you are still playing the game. Imagine that, not breaking up the action for exposition.

Sam Fisher is a veteran of his trade and it shows in the way he moves and the manner in which he executes his mission. He doesn't wonder at the morality of his actions, nor asks dumb questions. Plus he can be an intimidating SOB when you need him to be. His abilities are really only limited by your own and his skill at accomplishing his tasks is only limited by your ability to carry out the action.

The first game had only industrial and urban landscapes, but this game takes you to the outdoors, in day time no less, to perform your missions as a splinter cell. The first stealth game to have woodland environments did it excellently, giving Sam a new camo set to blend in with his surroundings and allowing you to duck and hide among the foliage.

The game is pretty linear, however, and so ends up being a trial and error in several cases, although there are a couple of ways to do certain sections of a mission, there is usually only one right way to do it. It's not as exactingly linear as the first game and hopefully SC: Chaos Theory will expand on it even further.

The story, however, is excellent. It probes deeper into who Sam is, and reading the messages you find off of soldiers bodies, or the dossiers you receive on your targets and potential threats add depth to the world. I even guessed what the storyline for the next game might be based on subtle clues placed into the cutscenes of the game, which play out as a news report for the most part. All other story information is deseminated by communications between Sam and his handlers, while you play the game, or conversations you have with others in the game, including one with a hostage you hold. The story is excellently told to you while you play, so that the amount of time control is taken out of your hands is cut down to a bare minimum.

The story is standard Tom Clancy fare, realistic military intrigue. You actually care about the people involved and confront some moral issues yourself over what you are doing (I know I did a couple of times) before you follow Sam's lead and follow your orders, trusting that you are serving your country to the best of your abilities. Splinter Cell is one of the few games that made me react to the violence I was inflicting in a thought provoking manner, because every person in the world seems like a real one. They write letters, send e-mails, have conversations, so that putting a bullet in their head is not as easy as pulling the trigger. Most people said they had a hard time keeping track of the story in the first game, although I had no trouble (though I do read a lot of Tom Clancy) with it and actually enjoyed it.

And all of that just covers the single-player experience. The multiplayer one is a completely different story. Presented as a quick, 1 minute cutscence, Operation Shadownet is the where the multiplayer takes place. Two Shadownet spies square off against a pair of Argus Corporation mercenaries. The game is always 2 on 2 teams with a wide variety of different objectives to accomplish. Sam shows his age here as these newer spies can run up walls, leap over railings and move more lithely than he can. Fortunately these skills are challanged by the mercenaries, who are stuck in first person mode, but are tougher and more heavily armed.

Both sides have their own sets of equipment to use against the other, along with different skills (the spies can put you in a choke hold, choke you out or snap your neck, but the mercs can flip you over themselves and have a shoulder tackle attack). They are extremely well balanced for the most part and SC utilizes the communicator feature more fully than any other game I've played. Both players can talk to their enemies, if they are close enough, which leads to the some excellent opportunities for taunting and gloating, especially when you have a merc in a chokehold or you've just stunned a spy, but the teamwork necessary to succesfully accomplish your mission, from either side, fosters constant communication between you and your partner. So much so that the ability to tap your enemies' communications becomes extremely useful, just as in real combat scenarios.

Not since the advent of teams in deathmatches has such a multiplayer concept altered the way people think about online play. Who could've imagined that stealth multiplayer would end up being so much fun, intense, and filled with action. If you haven't played online, go out and do it know. Right this very instant. You will not regret it.

Overall a great game is made even better and revolutionizes yet another genre of gaming as we know it today. Some will knock the single player but it's multiplayer is just mind-boggling.

Multiplayer Review:

When Ariel and I bought Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, I was actually short on cash, and unsure whether I should open my copy. That uncertainty lasted for over a week. It manifested itself over that time into genuine apprehension: I thought the first Splinter Cell was the best Tom Clancy game I'd ever played, but still not really my cup of tea. The stealth play was excellent, but implementation issues in the controls (toggling instead of instant action), snail-paced crawls through dark passages, and realistic, but check-my-watch waiting for the exact right time killed my buzz for the game. I suppose, to an extent, I was looking for more action than stealth.

And thus my apprehension. However, after reading and reading about the multiplayer, I decided to break the seal, thus rendering it impervious to return. But folks, seriously, the multiplayer in Pandora Tomorrow is worth the price of admission alone.

As Ariel said, you pit two Shadownet Spies against two ARGUS Mercenaries, with varying abilities granted to each. Spies are granted the ability to move fast, hug shadows and take hidden paths through levels. They lose the ability, for the most part, to engage in combat - they can sneak up behind Mercenaries and knock them out or snap their necks, if they get into the right position, but most of their equipment is non-lethal ordinance: a long-range tazer-gun, spy cameras that can shoot gas to knock out Mercenaries, to a variety of grenades (smoke, flash, chaff). Mercenaries are the complete opposite. While anyone familiar with guiding Sam Fisher through his adventures can pick up and play (initially) a spy, Mercenaries have an unfamiliar-to-Splinter Cell first person vantage point. Mercs are extremely well armed, posessing a combination assault-sniper rifle and lethal grenades, tazers and mines, amongst other gadgets.

Each side is granted special cameras, each of varying usefulness. The Spies get a thermal camera and a night-vision camera (these are cameras Sam Fisher has at his disposal). These are probably equally useful: night-vision goggles can shed light on some of the darker spots you'll find yourself in, while using the thermal goggles can help you find the mercs if you lose them. Mercs work a bit differently. Their equipment seems to be run by internal computers which displays information through their visors, and gives them two special modes: the first, a motion-detecting camera, the second, an electromagnetic camera. The motion-detector turns most of the screen a bright orange, allowing you to see only faint shapes. But should a spy move too much anywhere within your visible range, it will pop up on your visor for as long as you can still trace him. The electromagnetic visor works a bit differently. If the spy uses any sort of technology, such as their own cameras, they light up brightly. However, the sacrifice here is that everything in the world either turns black, or black with a blue outline (such as with boxes). In both mercenary modes, you sacrifice the ability to see the world as it is for the hope that you'll catch your opponent slipping up.

However, smart Spies are watching, and Mercenaries can be painfully obvious with what they are using. Careful, and experienced Spies will watch the color of the Merc's visors to see exactly what camera they're using. More obvious is when the Merc utilizes his torchlight, which casts bright light for the Merc, but gives away both where he is and where he's looking. Because he is limited to the first person perspective, Spies know they can't see anything beyond what they're immediately staring at. It works phenominally. Trading off with the torchlight is the laser, which can be extremely useful or extremely useless. If you happen to catch a spy in its beam, he will light up for targetting. However, given its very narrow beam, it's best used for quick sweeps of rooms upon immediate entrance.

Spies get a lot of gadgets, but their real talent is exploiting the environments of the extremely smartly designed maps that come standard with SC: PT. Any grate can be crawled up, and box climbed on, and any railing scaled. Moreover, Spies are given a lot more freedom with movement. They are faster and more limber than Mercenaries, who are totally stiff by comparison. But experienced Spies will find multiple paths into and out of most every room, including climbing up walls, upon rafters, and through airducts to get to targets and behind Mercenaries to disable or kill. Spies use their fists up close, either attempting to knock out or snap the necks of their opponents.

The immersion here is outstanding. Spies are unaffected by their various devious implements, their flash, smoke and chaff grenades, for example. So while they are attempting to get out of sticky situations by throwing off everything they have, Mercs are literally trying to sift through the fog without losing consciousness. Every flash grenade disables Mercenary sight, while smoke grenades slow and can eventually knock out a Merc. Chaff grenades, though rare, can disable any use of technology for a period of time, rendering a Mercenary vulnerable to attacks he can't defend against.

I actually disagree with Ariel about the graphics. I think the graphics (on the XBox) are some of the best you'll see in a game. Realistic, well-textured and superlatively lit. The sound effects, especially for the Merc, are superb. 5.1 sound is supported, and hearing Spies skitter about as you trudge along is enough to send a chill up your spine.

One of the things I liked most here is that cooperation is an absolute must. While I can play Halo 2 without ever talking to teammates, and do most times, you absolutely must communicate with your partner, giving locations of Mercenaries, or progress on targets for instance. A Mercenary who is knocked out from an attack by a Spy can be awakened by his team mate, but the Mercs still must coordinate to pull something like that off. Both Spies and Mercenaries have the ability to tap into these conversations amongst partners, lending a bit more espionage to an already stealthy title. I've even heard other people talking in code, should their opponents (me) be listening in on their conversations. It's extremely compelling, and the sort of thing that lends itself to playing with experienced friends. And of course, everyone wants to think of smart-assed things to say to Mercenaries when they've got them by the neck (you can actually whisper, or scream, something in their ear before you off 'em).

There are, by default, 3 multiplayer modes: Neutralization, Extraction and Sabotage. All three center around cryogenic containers called NDI33s, which contain something presumably dangerous that will be launched should the spies fail their mission. Each of these modes has the Spies as the attackers, infiltrating, neutralizing their targets and getting the hell out before mercenaries show up to spoil the party. Mercenaries are then, on defense for the entire game, running to and fro to make sure that each sector is in order. Neutralization requires that spies get to an NDI33 and neutralize it, like disarming a bomb. This usually takes some time, during which the spy is vulnerable to attacks. Extraction works more like capture the flag, with only one team on offense, and sabotage is a derivative of neutralization. Instead of standing prone at an NDI33, a spy needs only get close to the target and place a modem, allowing a spy to be free to defend the modem as it does its work.. Neutralizing in this mode takes a lot longer than in the standard Neutralization mode, letting Mercenaries have more time to shut down the modem and kill any lingering Spies. Each of the modes also has a life-limit for the Spies, should they incur too many deaths.

The most beautiful thing here is the incredible balance. Just when you start to get the hang of the Spies and start thinking that Mercs are worthless, you get completely wasted by a pair of Mercenaries who work together in concert and eliminate you without a second thought. Just when you think you're getting the hang of the Merc's, you meet - or should I say "fail to meet" - a pair of Spies who neutralize you and their targets faster than you can figure out what's going on.

Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorow has a very steep learning curve, and its gameplay may not appeal to absolutely everyone. It takes a long, long time and many matches to finally learn the ins and outs of each level, each mode and each character class. But for anyone interested in a deep, intelligent and incredibly well designed online experience, one needs to look no further than Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (on the XBox and PS2, this mode is not availible on the Gamecube). There is no better online experience out there this year.

- Dan

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