"Your parents were wrong. What you canít see, certainly can hurt you."
The political landscape has changed drastically since the Cold War era, and with the rapid advancements of technology, so have the methods of covert operations. Fake shoe heels, micro-cameras, and wiretaps have given way to satellite imagery, EMP weaponry, and photo-sensitive clothing. Even with these new technologies, one thing remains the same; someone has to sneak into the belly of the beast. Enter the Third Echelon, a highly secretive branch of the National Security Agency. Known as Splinter Cells, the operatives of Third Echelon move like ghosts through the shadows of enemy territory. Your parents were wrong. What you canít see, certainly can hurt you.
In Pandora Tomorrow, Sam Fisher is called back in to action after a guerrilla militia group takes a U.S. Embassy hostage in Jakarta. Fisherís role is not to save the hostages, but to gather intel on the motivations for the attack. This is only the beginning of a story that is almost mind-boggling in complexity. Spawned from the writings of Tom Clancy, Pandora Tomorrow has all the political intrigue and plot twists of a Jack Ryan thriller, albeit without a past-his-prime Harrison Ford, or a never-had-a-prime Ben Affleck.
Played from a third-person point of view, Pandora Tomorrow has a quality and preciseness of control that more games should aspire to. When it comes to many action/adventure games, it is often enough to hope that a character moves when you press a button, but one wrong step in Pandora Tomorrow can spell disaster. Upping the ante, Sam Fisher moves with a fluidity and responsiveness rivaled only by Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Whereas the Prince pulled off some amazing acrobatics with the press of a single button, Pandora Tomorrow pulls you into the character by leaving the maneuvers up to you. Ducking, split-jumping, rappelling, climbing, and taking human shields are just a few examples of the twenty-seven different moves at your disposal.
Sam Fisher has the moves, but getting into a secured base undetected is going to take more than slipping past sleeping guards or hiding under cardboard boxes. Chaff grenades to disable electronics, lock picks, camera jammers, and an optic cable for peering under doors are some of the tools used to bypass security, though Fisherís greatest assets are the ones he wears. Night-vision and thermal-vision goggles allow him to see what the naked eye can not, while a photo-sensitive bodysuit gauges his own level of visibility. Even with his cat-like movements and high-tech equipment, Fisherís best tactic often lies in the simplicity of a dark corner.
Despite the stealth-action categorization, Pandora Tomorrow is very much akin to a puzzle game, and herein lie my only real complaints. The layouts of the levels are too linear, severely limiting the room for ingenuity on behalf of the player. See that drainage pipe going up the building? I donít know where it leads, but I guarantee that you need to climb it. More often than not, there is only one correct way through an area. I had hoped that Pandora Tomorrow would be more like the PC classic, Deus Ex, which provided the levels and left navigation completely up to the player, but such is not the case. Environments aside, enemies tend to have a robotic predictability. As a result, Pandora Tomorrow often regresses into a waiting game as you sit motionless, watching movement patterns for five minutes on end. Fisher can whistle and throw objects in an effort to distract enemies, but the implementation of these moves needs fine tuning. Standing no more than three meters from a guard and needing him to enter the shadows, I whistled and threw bottles at his feet with no response. In the end, it was the silent unholstering of my pistol that sent him running off to sound an alarm. Suffice to say, Pandora Tomorrow requires an unfortunate amount of trial and error to find the proper strategies for completing each level.
In addition to the single-player campaign, Pandora Tomorrow offers a unique online experience. In this multi-player arena, up to four people square off as mercenaries and Shadownets. Like Fisher, the Shadownets sneak through the levels in order to complete objectives. In contrast, the mercenaries patrol the levels in first-person with the goal of killing any intruders. Without having to rely upon the mechanics of A.I. opponents, multi-player battles are intense tests of skill and resourcefulness. The multi-player portion alone is almost enough to warrant the purchase of Pandora Tomorrow, but as I can attest, be prepared to get cursed out and rejected by teammates for a few dozen rounds. Communication is vital, but it means nothing until you have all the nooks and crannies of the maps memorized.
Having played Pandora Tomorrow on both the PS2 and Xbox, I have to give the nod to the Xbox version. While the PS2 version boasts an extra campaign level and added content to existing levels, the superior power of the Xbox is quite noticeable. The added content is, in reality, areas that have been chopped to compensate for the PS2ís shortcomings. I can forgive this, but the weakened lighting effects I can not. It sounds like a small difference, but given the gameís reliance on shadows, the fantastic lighting on the Xbox version is a definite factor to weigh. Regardless of which system you choose, Pandora Tomorrow will more than please fans of the stealth genre, and is an engrossing addition to a series that is sure to become a classic.
Staff review by Brian Rowe (June 02, 2006)
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