NEWS - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow

We've spent plenty of time talking up Pandora Tomorrow. The single-player game has lots of little improvements, but mostly they are subtle. The real meat of the game is right here, in the multiplayer sector. While getting four Xbox debugs set up with people available to play on any game is difficult around here, we made it happen multiple times for this one, and we've had some amazingly fun LAN game experiences as a result. The brilliance is in how the developers at Ubisoft in Annecy, France actually made stealth not only work within the confines of a multiplayer game, but work even better than in the single-player game thanks to human opponents (who are smarter than your standard AI drones) and a new set of gadgets and abilities. For the hole-living among you, Pandora's multiplayer splits four players into two teams: the spies, and the mercenaries. Most people know by now that spies play in third-person and try to accomplish goals, while mercenaries play in first-person and try to stop them, so let's look a little closer. First up, the spies: they control similar to Sam Fisher, with the ability to jump, grab ledges, run softly while ducking, use thermal and low light visions, etc., but there are small changes to the controls. They pull themselves up onto platforms faster and move faster in general, are able to run up walls a few steps to help grab high ledges or flip back about 10 feet to land on closely-following mercenaries, and can use certain gadgets without going into aiming mode. Their gadget and gun list is even more different than Sam's, with you being able to pick from smoke grenades (which will severely slow down a mercenary if he tries to run through it), chaff grenades, sticky cameras, spy bullets (that let you listen in on conversations), alarm snares (to set off sound diversions that will make mercs think you are somewhere you are not), and flash bangs, in addition to a non-lethal gun that will only stun mercenaries (and has a laser sight where mercs can only see the dot, but not the laser line). Mercenaries play quite differently, but still move around with an impressive 3D game engine that rivals the best first-person shooters on Xbox (for now, anyway). Their ability list is limited in that they move extremely slow while crouching, cannot jump, and thus cannot go to every area that spies can. Their visions are also not as strong, with a red motion detection view (that puts a big box around any moving person) and a blue electromagnetic view (that lets you see the spies better when they use their special visions), neither of which are as clear or easy to use as the thermal/low light views on the spy side. Merc weapons help them even the playing field. They have frag grenades, laser and proximity mines (so you can set traps for the spies), phosphorescent grenades (that makes the spies footsteps become very apparent), spy traps (that allow you to see the spies on your map and listen in on their conversations), flares, and tazers to slow spies down (so they can't run away easily). To restrict the spies from having too easy a time, there are motion detectors and cameras built in to the levels. You can shoot them out as you go so the mercs won't know exactly where you are, but they will know you are close to a goal if you shoot these...unless you are messing with them, which we have come to realize plays a big part in the overall strategy. You can set off alarms and then head in the opposite direction, or set off alarms and hide nearby, because even if the mercs are standing a few feet away from you, they won't always see you -- the levels can be very dark. The level we've been able to play (and play, and play...) is an under-construction San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art. The spies start off on a gravely rooftop area that the mercs can't reach, but they can't accomplish anything from up there, so they have to enter the museum area and locate their targets as fast as possible. Inside, there's a cafe area in the center, with a sun-lit room with multiple stairways on one side and a big marble stairway on the other side. You can also find your way outside to a city view at sunset, but it's unlikely you'll spend much time out there. For the Neutralization mode, the goal is to get to and lock down a certain number of targets, and you can customize everything from the amount of player lives to the amount of time the game lasts, all of which are extremely important in balancing the game to your tastes (and skills). The key to all this is that the items for both teams seem to balance each other out perfectly, so even though the spies have no real firepower of which to speak, they can still escape from mercs in a head on battle, with careful use of smoke grenades to slow mercs down and their climbing ability to get away. That same smoke can also be used to block doorways or narrow hallways, and it's much more useful than you might imagine. Also surprisingly useful is the tazer attack that the mercs have. You'd think you could just gun spies down, and sometimes you can, but the tazer will keep them in one place to give you more time to gun them down -- making it an extremely worthwhile weapon. There have been tons of great little moments using these abilities in our office games thus far, but perhaps the best came when I had a spy standing on top of a stairwell and was able to grab a merc from behind as a hostage. I then had a clear view of the only entrance the other merc could come in from, since I was on top of the stairwell, so I was able to watch guard while I shouted at my partner to run to the goal and neutralize it in a hurry. He made it just in time and we won the game. Any time you can grab a merc as a hostage, it's an impressive feat, and if it wins the game for you, the other team will hate you for days. This is one of the most original multiplayer games in a long time. Please don't find a way to break it once it hits shelves.

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