Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow review
It's a cold night and the air is still. Not the greatest of working hours, but hey, everyone's got to make a living. The guard spins around suddenly, gun raised. He was sure he had heard something, but now only silence greets him. Cautiously he approaches the deep shadows that was the source of the sound. Only the guard would never hear another thing as Sam Fisher dispatches another obstacle and continues on his mission.
Sure, stealth ops sounds like so much fun. Distract enemies then nimbly slip around and take them out in a variety of ways. However, fiction has a tendency to glorify things, and so when realism is brought into the picture things can turn sour. For all the good concepts Pandora's Tomorrow does I feel that this is the game's problem. By trying to appear so realistic the developers forgot what the purpose of games actually is and they end up hurting the product overall.
SC:PT is a stealth game where the goal is not to charge in Rambo-style but to sneak around and carry out objectives without raising the alarm. The game makes very effective use of shadows in this regard. The more you are concealed in darkness the less likely patrolling guards are to spot you. Players have to be constantly aware of any sources of light or anything that might cause unwanted noise to attract attention.
Enemies move around in set patterns (mostly) so the game involves watching from dark corners to learn these patterns and then sneaking around to their back to take them out of commission. Some areas throw in multiple guards or traps so the approach has to be planned in more detail. You have a vast array of moves on offer, such as scooting up the walls of a narrow passage, doing a swat turn across an opening or grabbing unsuspecting victims in a chokehold. The controls can be a little confusing at first since there are so many actions to take but they just require some getting used to and after a while the setup seems pretty natural. Some moves also seem a little redundant as they are used very little but it's nice to have the options there.
This may sound great, but there is one huge glaring problem that causes the score of the title to plummet. This game is extremely frustrating. The whole gameplay revolves around not getting seen, which is perfectly fine, but the consequences for slipping up is instant failure. Well, there is a 'three alert' system designed to offer some leeway, but it doesn't help at all. The main issue is the fact that half the time it isn't even in effect, literally meaning that getting seen results in a trip back to the nearest checkpoint. Sneaking around those two guards might be interesting the first time, but doing it 5+ times through every section because something keeps happening sucks that fun out quickly. Things pick up with the three strikes setup, where guards equip more protective equipment for each alert stage until the third knocks you out. Scripted points will knock the alert status back to zero, but that's some time used up that could lead to further frustration as guards will be tougher to take down.
In terms of combat Sam Fisher gets his hand on a few weapons. Virtually every level gives him a silenced pistol and a silenced rifle with a scope. You can also get other weapons at times, like grenades. Oh, but wait, Ubisoft don't actually allow you to use them half the time, because apparently killing people is wrong sometimes but not other times, which just makes the whole experience too restrictive. Let's face it, when the guns come out things pick up a bit. You can use them to shoot non-living objects in any level without consequence, like shooting out lights that seems quite effective, but I would have preferred more access to this side of things.
Linearality is also a major concern. In Splinter Cell you are to do set tasks in set ways, and they'll be damned if you want to approach something a different way. Very few areas offer any sense of flexibility, with your route and actions already seemingly predetermined. You might seem to have some options, but trying to go about things a little differently is more often meet with serious opposition. This might be forgivable in some instances, but when you're faced with autofail for half of the game then the lack of options is terrible. You do get a few non-lethal rounds for the rifle, but these are quite limited compared to the size of the levels and aren't always viable options anyway.
These glaring faults are a major shame, because in game does pretty well in other areas. The approach to other obstacles is done quite nicely. For example, lock picking is more than just clicking a button, as the task requires actual input from the player to accomplish. There are other neat tricks to, such as a fibre optic cable camera to look into the next room without actually going in, or using the D-Pad to switch to night or thermal vision for a better view of the surroundings.
The single player has a pretty decent lifespan if you're willing to endure repeated trips through every section, and each level has been constructed pretty well. Aesthetic design is nice but there's a good feeling to the general layout despite being so one-tracked in nature most of the time. The environments are generally built with stealth in mind and you'll find yourself heading in all sorts of directions as you explore the locations.
At this point I should mention that there is a multiplayer component, playable using a system link or via Xbox Live, where up to four players can face off in teams as either a spy or a merc. Alas, I have not experienced this portion of the game so I cannot comment on this elemt to any degree.
It's little surprise that this game looks stunning. It can be a little hard to appreciate since you spend most of your time in the shadows, but the detailed architecture of the places you visit is astounding. Ubisoft have worked hard to craft believable locations for you to visit, and they are kept varied too. From city streets to villas to offices to trains - your journey will take you around the world. Character models, even down to random NPC number 2 walking the streets at night, come out as another success. They possess a lot of details and animate well enough to replicate the idea of human characters.
Visual effects really work in here too. The most obvious example is the use of light and shadow. While important for the gameplay, these effects are great to look at as well. Light shines in through various gaps and washes over objects and illuminates anyone who walks in the path of the light. Shadows envelop Sam as he waits patient watching the enemy (aside from the glow from parts of his equipment, which does look kinda daft considering he's supposed to be hiding). The look of the night and thermal image views is reflective of what you would expect and do a good job at that. The perspective of the fibre optic camera works nicely too.
It's easy to appreciate the audio as well. 'Background music' seems to be a very foreign concept to Splinter Cell, but that's fine since it might have felt terribly out of place anyway. It's hardly atmospheric to have a pumping rock tune blasting out while trying to act all stealthy. It's not as if no music is used at all but rather that it is sparsely used and often when it is it just sinks into the background, fitting the whole concept very well. There is a whole slew of sound effects used to signify various things and these tend to work fairly well.
Voice work is a pretty hit and miss affair. Some voices - specifically the main characters - sound great and fit their respective roles. Sam has a rather gruff voice and some interesting dialogue to match. By contrast some of the voices do seem a little lazy, with the sounds not always fitting the setting or some odd choices in dialogue, where you can't help but feel they could improve upon. Also, as a fyi, the failure message you hear whenever you blow a mission will get very irritating.
In terms of the plot you are Sam Fisher, a government spy who doesn't officially exist and who takes on missions nobody else wants the responsibility of. This basically forms the reasons for all the stealth. Sam's mission this time is to prevent a terrorist from using a biological virus to his own benefit, code named Pandora Tomorrow. There are some extra side stories in this too to keep things varied. There's certainly nothing wrong with the basic structure of the story, although the delivery tended to be a little lacking. I always felt that it was there just to set the scene but not to actually get me interested in the developments.
Returning to the comment I made earlier, the whole point of video games is to offer a fun experience, but by going too far into the realms of realism I can't help but feel that Ubisoft have somewhat missed this point. SC:PT certainly has some very nice ideas and great presentation, but it's far too frustrating and too restrictive for its own good. If you're fine with retrying often then try it, but generally I don't feel like it is worth the hassle.
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