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.