We're going to save you some time. If you bought and didn't like the first Splinter Cell, then stop reading. Pandora Tomorrow is a sequel that utilizes the same fundamental play mechanics, the same control scheme, and the same stealth-action elements as its predecessor. Even the visual presentations between the two are very similar. So if you didn't like any of that the first time, you're not going to feel differently now. You should also stop reading if you own an Xbox. The GameCube port of Pandora Tomorrow is solid, but the game still looks and plays significantly better on Microsoft's console, and it also features online play. And if you're an Xbox owner convinced there might be something completely new in this port, there's not. That is, except for a so-called new level, which you can download from Xbox Live now anyway, marginal Game Boy Advance support, and a few bits in-between.
This is all true. But if you only own a GameCube and you happened to enjoy the first Splinter Cell, you're in luck, because Ubisoft's port of Pandora Tomorrow to Nintendo's console is highly competent. It plays well. It looks good. At times it's intense, and at times it's clever. It entertains through and through by way of smart level design and unique gameplay challenges, as well as atmospheric environments and realistic scenarios. In short, you're going to have fun, despite some mechanical and technical shortcomings -- the same ones that dented the otherwise impenetrable armor of the first game.
* Third-person action-stealth sequel to the hit game Splinter Cell
* Control special operative Sam Fisher and infiltrate terrorist hideouts
* Approximately 32 "levels" to play through
* Use a wide selection of high-tech weapons and gadgets that aid Fisher on his missions
* Cutting-edge graphics take shadows and light to the next level
* All-new jungle mission in the GameCube version
* Post-mission statistics
* New alternate pathways
* Game Boy Advance connectivity
* Runs in progressive scan mode
* Supports Dolby Pro Logic II
* Requires five blocks for saves
* Single-player only; no multiplayer mode in the GameCube version
A series of crisp, well-made full-motion video sequences illustrate the surprisingly intriguing storyline that is the backbone of Pandora Tomorrow. The National Security Agency's top-secret initiative, dubbed the Third Echelon, presides over a group of advanced counter-intelligence operatives armed with the latest in high-tech gadgetry, weaponry, and special forces training. These are the Splinter Cells, of which Sam Fisher is the most elite. The year is 2006 and a newly installed U.S. Military base in East Timor has been met with strong Southeast Asian resistance. A guerilla outfit funded by corrupt factions of the Indonesian government and led by the militant Suhadi Sadono, attacks a U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, and takes civilian and military personnel hostage. Fisher is sent in to destroy any top-secret documentation in the embassy before the enemy can access it.
Pandora Tomorrow, like its predecessor, is a third-person action-stealth game. This is not Rainbow Six, but the franchises do share at least one commonality: they challenge you to think, to strategize, and to be smart about your attack plan. In neither franchise can you run forward into a terrorist camp, guns blazing, and expect to live. There are serious consequences to stupid actions, just as there would no doubt be in real life, and as a result the levels of realism, danger and urgency are enhanced, which in turn up the intensity of any given situation. You would probably not think twice about jumping into a gun battle with three or four armed enemies in a game like TimeSplitters 2, or in Dead to Rights, but that same prospect in Pandora Tomorrow is a huge, frightening gamble.
Fisher is a strong, agile agent, but he doesn't always feel that way. An entirely manually controlled camera system means that you have to simultaneously direct the character's movements and the view angle. The process may initially throw some players off, especially during high-action sequences when the character must think quickly on his feet. Fisher moves slowly -- sometimes clumsily, even -- through the moody locales, but what he lacks in speed he makes up for in ability. He can hunker down. Sneak around walls. Crawl through passageways. Shimmy around ledges. Hang and slide across wires. He can take enemies hostage, interrogate them, use them as a shield or knock them out. He can roll, split jump, drop onto foes, rappel, and more -- and he can pull his weapon and shoot at the bad guys during most of these moves. The sheer number or options at the agent's disposal is impressive and none of them are gimmicks -- each will have a satisfying place throughout the game's many missions.
GameCube doesn't have as many buttons as Xbox, and as such some of Fisher's many abilities have been mapped awkwardly to the pad. The character is manipulated with the analog stick and the camera stick controls the view angle. The A button is used to interact and to align the character with a wall. B draws and holsters weapons. X crouches. Y jumps or reloads weapons when they are drawn. Z button makes Fisher whistle, a helpful addition in order to call enemies to dark places where they can be quietly disposed. The setup gets a little more complicated where the shoulder buttons are concerned, because Ubisoft has had to use the half trigger and full trigger click to map two functions to both. Press the L button halfway down and Fisher will zoom in on something with his binoculars or his scope if a sniper weapon is drawn. Press it full trigger and he'll hold his breath. It's all too easy to accidentally press it one way when you mean to do the other, which can have a negative bearing on gameplay. The four directions of the D-Pad control night vision, thermal vision, quick inventory and gadget/weapon switching.
The control mechanics could definitely be more intuitive. That noted, Pandora Tomorrow is still a lot of fun due in large to a winning relationship between Fisher's abilities, gadgets and weapons, as well as his use of stealth in conjunction with the designs of levels and the placement of enemy characters. Ubisoft has done a phenomenal job of using light and shadow in the game, and not just for graphic effect. You'll need to stick to the shadows or the terrorists will see you. As a result, the seemingly simple process of using night vision to see in the dark -- and the levels in the game are very, very dark on GameCube -- is entertaining. Throw in a couple of ignorant terrorists and the challenge of creeping by them -- literally right under their noses -- without being spotted, and you have an engaging, intense situation. The title also delivers strong level-based puzzles. You will need to deactivate security cameras, hack into computers, pick locks, interrogate the enemy to gain new information, utilize a laser microphone to listen in on conversations, and more, and all of these gadgets are rewarding for different reasons.
Enemy artificial intelligence is a mixed bag. On the one hand you have decidedly stupid civilian types who seem to wait for Fisher to knock them out and on the other you have terrorists who sniff the hero out in dark environments or find the bodies of their fallen comrades and then sound the alarm.
The levels are varied and filled with alternate pathways. Fisher travels from Indonesia to France and to the States, and along the way visits such locales as a U.S. Embassy, a Heroin Village, a Komodo Shipyard, a TV Station, a Cryogenics Lab, a Jerusalem Market and even a Paris to Nice Train. The latter level is particularly impressive because the agent must maneuver through the inside of the train as it speeds along, then its top, and finally its underbelly, all without being spotted by the enemy. Because there are multiple ways to tackle any given situation, replay value is enhanced some.
It's a good thing that the single-player experience in Pandora Tomorrow is a compelling one, because as GameCube owners will no doubt already be aware, the coveted online multiplayer mode present in the Xbox build of the game has been completely tossed away for the Nintendo port. The GameCube version doesn't have a multiplayer offering, period. It's not online. It has no split-screen play. It's a strictly single-player title, which is naturally disappointing. We realize that Nintendo has not glamorized GameCube's online functionality, but it is all too possible to make GCN titles online-compatible, as Sega has proved with its Phantasy Star Online games. It's a shame that so far Sega remains the only developer that has taken GameCube owners online.
Ubisoft has attempted to substitute for the lack of an online mode. The GameCube build features a so-called new level. But Xbox owners have been able to download that same level for months. It features alternate pathways, of which there are very few. And it enables some excessively gimmicky Game Boy Advance connectivity -- you can access a mission radar on your GBA, for instance -- that hardly warrants your time.
Splinter Cell for GameCube runs in progressive scan mode and the game looks surprisingly good, for the most part. Fisher himself is detailed and high polygon in nature. While his animation is generally stiff -- as it is in the Xbox version -- Ubisoft's amazing use of light and shadow more than makes up for this technical shortcoming. As Fisher moves through the levels, shadows cast onto walls and light realistically illuminates darkened rooms. More impressive still, light casts its presence on Fisher himself. In one level, for instance, beams of light shine through a wall grate and when the hero walks through them you'll be able to see the shadows reflected on the character model. Environments are similarly detailed, with real-time cloth physics, along with advanced, shimmering water effects, and an impressive particle system.
That noted, the GameCube version is not as pretty as its Xbox predecessor. This is evidenced in three key areas: filter effects, lighting and framerate. When Fisher uses night vision goggles, the GameCube build lacks the motion-filled blur of the Xbox; the same can be written of the thermal vision. Meanwhile, all sorts of environmental lighting effects, from the headlights of the oncoming train to the shimmering of fire, have been dumbed down in the GCN port. And finally, the framerate has suffered greatly. While the fluidity is usually acceptable, in some cases, the game's motion is downright choppy. Our complaints stated, this is still one of the prettier games to grace Nintendo's system, and in our opinion that's saying a lot.
Meanwhile, the audio experience in Pandora Tomorrow is excellent. Background noises and subtle music create a sense of mood that is extremely intense. When guards approach nearby, the music changes. When fisher walks through the inside of a stopped train, you can hear the creaks and strains of cold steel. When terrorists call out for help, their voices echo down corridors. And all of this runs in crispy Dolby Pro Logic II for those of you with compatible stereo receivers.
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