Final Glimpse: Is that a sticky shocker in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
When Splinter Cell was released in 2002, the gaming world instantly had a new heavyweight in the stealth action genre. Combining cutting edge graphics and intense, realistic gameplay, SC soon became the darling of gamers and critics everywhere. While not perfect (and truthfully, what game is?) the adventures of Sam Fisher made a huge impression on the industry, and propelled Ubi Soft to the top of the developer's food chain. A little less than a month away, and Xbox's everywhere will be spinning Sam's newest adventure -- Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. Let's have a peek at what we can expect?.
Of course, since the first game featured an excellent camera system, and a repertoire of solid moves for our hero, rest assured that the core gameplay mechanics remain intact. The team has simply added a few things, and enhanced a couple of others. For instance, you'll still be able to do all the cool stuff from the first title, but Sam now has the ability to hang upside down from a pipe or rafter and shoot at adversaries, and his split jump has been tweaked to improve its effectiveness. In case you hadn't guessed, shooting someone while in that position looks extremely cool. In addition, Sam's SC-20K rifle now has a quick zoom function, and his pistol comes equipped with a laser site for more precise aiming (however, guards now have the ability to take note of the red dot on them, and respond accordingly). The optical cable -- for looking under doors - now has night and thermal vision incorporated into its functions, and Fisher now has access to chaff and flashbang grenades. These, of course, would be used to temporarily disrupt electrical equipment, or blind and confuse an enemy. Your binoculars now sport a built in microphone, so you'll be able to listen in on enemy conversations without switching gadgets. Also, Sam now has a cool new swat turn move, in which he pivots rapidly past an open doorway to avoid being spotted. He'll also be able to whistle to attract an unsuspecting guard into position to be taken out.
Splinter Cell's graphics, particularly the lighting and shadow effects, remain to this day some of the finest to grace the Xbox yet. Pandora Tomorrow looks to put that engine into overdrive (rotten pun alert!) with spectacular new lighting nuances. Animator James Green: "We wanted to take Sam out of the typical dark industrial settings of the original game. Pandora features some beautifully lush outdoor environments that will really surprise fans who expect to see Sam crawling through air vents in some factory." In fact, these outdoor settings will add much in the way of play mechanics - they'll force you to work even harder at being stealthy than the first title. For instance, one mission takes place during the day at a terrorist-run Heroin plantation (called Kunang Camp) in the jungles of Indonesia. Sam will not only have to be cautious when moving through the foliage -- lest he rustle branches or disturb a flock of birds (calling attention to his position) -- but the sun also moves in real time, constantly changing the position of shadows that Fisher can hide in. Another mission takes place in Jerusalem, where you'll have to avoid civilians, as well as mercenaries. If spotted, Sam can move fast to disable the guard before he radios an alert. Each mission will have multiple paths and features numerous ways of completing each goal. In this way, Pandora Tomorrow looks to outwit its predecessor by creating a more open ended gaming experience.
Judging from the screen shots and demos I've been privy to, SC: PT looks absolutely stunning, and should feature some of the finest graphics the Xbox is capable of producing. Expect soaring production values as the plot unfolds before your eyes. Additionally, Michael Ironside reprises his role as the gravel-voiced Fisher, and once again brings life and personality to the character.
The single player game promises to be an immersive adventure that really places you deeply into the role of a lone operative, but Pandora Tomorrow also features a robust and extremely creative multiplayer mode for Xbox Live. The game supports 4 players in either a spy, or mercenary role. The spies try to sneak in, and the mercs try to stop them. That's a glib assessment of course, and you should expect to find some serious depth in the online component. Spies are given the standard third person view seen in the single player campaign, but the mercenaries are furnished with a first person view only (and will play similar to Ubi's Rainbow Six 3 from that perspective). This is obviously in place to balance the gameplay, and while spies will be more agile and quicker on their feet, the mercs will be equipped with assault rifles and other gadgets that will create a level playing field for both sides.
Spies won't be able to use lethal force (while the mercs will) but don't let that fool you. A plethora of moves, as well as useful gadgets, more than makes up for this inequity. A Taser gun for stunning the guards, flashbang and chaff grenades, as well as the basic physical attack, all add up to some major headaches for the mercs. You'll be able to knock a mercenary on his ass with a drop from above, or you can grab one from behind and hold him helpless while you radio your partner to head toward the objective. One of the cooler aspects of this move is the ability to taunt the merc through the headset while you have him hostage. Looks like trash talking just went to a whole new level.
Mercs will be equipped with the aforementioned assault rifle, as well as a flashlight (though it's important to remember that this tool can also give your position away) to scout dark corners for their prey. The assault rifle also has a Taser attached to it, which can be used to stun a spy long enough for your teammate to put him down. The mercenaries get motion-tracking and electromagnetic vision as well, both of which will be utilized extensively in your hunt for the transgressors. While it has a limited range, the motion-tracking is useful in dark rooms, and will track movement even behind objects. Electromagnetic vision displays all electromagnetic signatures, and can pinpoint a spy simply by seeking out the equipment on his person. The level design is rich with cameras, laser trip wires, and all other manner of high tech military gear, which should insure a fantastic and realistic experience once you hop online. Ubi Soft's Gunther Galipot: "The mercenary has the upper hand when face to face with his opponent, but his weaknesses are linked to what he can't see, whether it's behind him, above him, or just a few feet away, hiding in the darkness. The spy is able to see without being seen. Shadow and surprise are his best allies. From the safety of darkness, he feels capable of anything - only to feel suddenly vulnerable when he is discovered." It sounds to me like both roles will be equally fun to play, so whether you choose a spy, or a mercenary, get ready for some seriously tension filled gaming.