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Stealth is a word guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of all but the most unseasoned gamers. In recent times it has been transformed from an innovative and welcome feature into part of the dreaded ‘tick this box’ formula; a huge melting pot of genre specifics used by Developers anxious to cover each and every base.
What we end up digesting are stealth elements that simply don’t work; either they’re badly implemented or the game’s framework has been bent out of shape to incorporate them. Small wonder then that few stealth games are seen to dominate, when so many in the gaming industry fail to understand what they are or how they work. Hideo Kojima cannot escape his role as Metal Gear Solid’s father because nobody will step forward to relieve him of the duty, the man may have his detractors but they would be hard pressed to argue that his understanding of stealth and how it should be implemented is unique.
Until recently, the West had no real equivalent, the masterful Thief series was restricted to P.C and nobody seemed willing to try and fill this most enigmatic of holes in the console market. Ubisoft struck gold with the release of Splinter Cell; a highly polished, sober and serious game based in real world locales, structured around emerging technology and political tensions.
The hero, Sam Fisher, was Solid Snake in all but name, yet his stoic adventures across a tightrope of international intrigues were a direct and knowing contrast to Kojima’s often elastic reality and fantastical characters. Pandora Tomorrow continues in this vein; sporting another Tom Clancy penned plot which threatens the release of a deadly virus on civilian populations, the story is admittedly more cohesive this time around but arguably no less dry.
Gameplay conventions from the original title are, for all intents and purposes, identical. There are some new moves in the form of a SWAT turn which enables Fisher to sweep past open doorways without being seen, the ability to whistle to attract a guard’s attention, and a tweaked split jump which enables you to scale otherwise impassable obstacles.
One of the major criticisms of Splinter Cell was its linear, trial and error game play; it confronted gamers with a rigidly scripted world and offered only very specific paths of advancement. To an extent, this has been addressed in Pandora Tomorrow, although those who hailed this weakness as Splinter Cell’s Achilles heel won’t be withdrawing their case based on what its successor offers.
The game is still heavily reliant on ‘triggers’, invisible trip-wires which, when crossed, activate an event or cause a guard to enter the area. Rather than address this issue at the core, Ubi decided to garnish Pandora Tomorrow with elements which attempt to take the edge off such inflexible mechanics.
One of these is the tightening of security after an alarm is sounded, such a blunder in the original Splinter Cell usually meant game over but here you are often allowed three such alarms before failure. The penalty involved is one of guards suiting up for battle; first donning flak jackets which means they can withstand more bullets, then later using helmets to thwart the ever reliable air-foil or shot to the head.
All of which are nice touches which add to immersion, but leave us feeling that with this sequel, Ubisoft, much like IO Interactive with Hitman2, haven’t so much addressed the problem as attempted to disguise it. Games with an extravagant style but solid foundations are one thing, even when base elements are flawed they are cut an amount of slack due to their not entirely serious palate and tone, Pandora Tomorrow, however, has no such shield of goodwill to hide behind.
As a single player experience it is a title which passes the time well enough, the sheer slickness exuding throughout acts as a kind of tranquilliser – smooth, dynamically lit locales soothe and reassure the player, but as with the drugs themselves it is only a matter of time before you feel numb and disconnected from what is happening all around.
There are levels which stand alone as magnificent set-pieces, most notably Fisher’s aerial drop onto a moving train bound for Nice; bulleting through the French countryside as you crawl along the roof, buffeted by wind pressure, searching for a way inside and through the cars to your quarry. Unfortunately such gravitas just cannot be sustained, before you know it the game has shifted back into yet another generic, middle eastern locale, and some may muse that Clancy would be better off keeping his plotlines to a less interactive medium.
Visually the game stands up well to the other versions, coming somewhere in-between the Playstation 2 and Xbox versions of the game. While the lighting and shadows still impress, they don’t have the wow factor that came with the original game.
Anyone familiar with the game on other platforms will know that the GameCube version is missing online play. While Nintendo may be pretending online gaming doesn’t exist, it was a major part of what made Pandora Tomorrow so great on the other systems. So, is Pandora Tomorrow a strong enough title to endure without the innovative multiplayer portion? That, regrettably, is an answer which is not easy to give.
The original Splinter Cell is similar enough in both scope and design for you to use it as a gauge for how Pandora Tomorrow will grip you, it can no doubt be picked up for a pittance after entering the budget range some time ago. That is the sensible course, but if you truly trust yourself as a gamer then you really need only ask this question; Do you play games to escape from the rigid, constricting reality we have all around us? Or as games become more familiar, and closer to our everyday lives, in their search for realism, do you find them improving, rather than diminishing, in enjoyment and value?