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Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow

Review By:  Jared Black

Developer:  Ubisoft Shanghai, Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher:  Ubisoft
# of Players:  1
Genre:  Stealth Action
ESRB:  Mature
Online:  No
Accessories:  Memory Card, Progressive Scan, GBA Link Cable
Date Posted:  8-14-04

By now you're probably tired of me running this point into the ground by mentioning it in every single review of a Clancy game that's ported from Xbox, but the GameCube version of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is significantly inferior to the Xbox original. Nevertheless it's still a strong game worth buying if the GCN is your only console, particularly if you enjoyed the first Splinter Cell or even Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.


The Splinter Cell franchise follows the exploits of NSA Third Echelon operative Sam Fisher. Fisher is the best of the best, carrying out missions that require the utmost secrecy and skills no mortal man should possess. This time the year is 2006, and a US military base in East Timor has been attacked by a group of "freedom fighters" bent on freeing Indonesia from what they see as an unjust government. Of course their tactics are less than desirable and they see the United States as an evil empire, thus they threaten to destabilize the region and eventually the entire world through methods that I won't spoil. Although there are hostages, Fisher is actually sent in to destroy documentation before it falls into the wrong hands. What follows is a strong storyline filled with interesting characters and a plotline with some moral ambiguity to it.

Given the sensitivity of the missions Sam carries out, proceeding with stealth is an absolute must. Thus Sam has a wide array of moves to get him through mission after mission as quietly as possible, from something as simple as flattening against a wall to jumping up in a narrow corridor and performing a split jump to hang unseen as the enemy passes below. Sam is also armed with plenty of gadgets, such as grenades, his trusty SC-20K (assault rifle with a multi-purpose launcher for things like Sticky Cameras), and even standard lock picks. Of course, his greatest asset is always the shadows.

Several new moves have been introduced in this installment, including the Half Split Jump (for more narrow corridors), Half Split Jump and Jump (jump to a higher ledge from a Half Split Jump), Upside-Down Shooting (shooting while hanging from a pipe by his legs), Back-to-Wall Throwing (throw objects from around a corner), and finally the SWAT Turn (almost invisible movement across an open door).  None of these fundamentally change the way the game is played, but they're all useful (and logical) additions that even an old dog like Sam can learn new tricks.  Sam can also whistle by pressing the Z button to draw the attention of an enemy, which I put to very good use several times throughout the game.

Despite the changes, this is still the same Splinter Cell you know and love.  Most of the game is spent lurking in the shadows, moving from location to location as covertly as possible.  Permission to use lethal force still depends on the circumstances, as diplomacy is required for more sensitive situations.  Although there are still situations where one alarm will mean mission failure, for the most part they're more forgiving now.  When in a multiple alarm situation the first alarm will cause the enemies to put on helmets, while the second alarm will cause the enemy to put on flak jackets as well.  This is reflected in the game, and makes it harder to take out an enemy without causing a ruckus.  Although it does tend to make things easier, alerted enemies are now much more aggressive in seeking Sam out and the added armor often means resorting to non-lethal methods of neutralization instead.

However, the port doesn't arrive unscathed in the gameplay department. In particular, the controls suffer a bit due to the GameCube controller's lack of buttons. For example, while Sam's SC-20K is equipped pressing the L button serves two purposes. Press it halfway down and he'll enter zoom mode, press it all the way down (until the "click") and he'll fire off a secondary weapon (sticky shocker, diversion camera, etc.). When trying to zoom in to snipe an enemy it's much too easy to accidentally fire off a secondary weapon instead (there's no warning of any kind before the "click" is hit), not only wasting a secondary weapon and missing a kill but also potentially ruining the mission if an alarm is set off as a result.

Also, like all other Clancy ports the levels had to be scaled back a bit for PS2 and GameCube. Here, the levels are actually very close to the originals though. There are a few minor changes here and there, but virtually all of the alternate pathways still exist (enhancing replay value and the dynamic nature of the game) and in some cases the new designs are actually better than before. In particular, I preferred the new "backdoor" entrance to the TV station grounds complete with strategically placed wall mine. In a few instances the changes aren't so cool though, such as several windows dynamically lit by a passing train on the other side of the wall being replaced with only one or two that aren't nearly as dynamic. These instances rarely affect gameplay though, merely the "wow" factor.

Since this sequel plays a lot like the original, the real innovation when it arrived on Xbox was the inclusion of an inventive online mode. Basically it's Spies vs. Mercenaries, with Splinter Cell type sneaking on the spy side and Rainbow Six type FPS action on the other. Each side has it's own strengths and weaknesses, and the result is what many have called the best Xbox Live game yet. Naturally, GameCube owners get none of this. As I mentioned in my
Rainbow Six 3 review I don't exactly expect online play on GameCube due to Nintendo's foolish lack of an online strategy, but Sega has proven that it can be done easily and Ubisoft certainly didn't have a problem with including it in the PS2 version. In its place GameCube owners get an extra level (which is good but short, and also in the PS2 version), post mission statistics (also in the PS2 version), alternate pathways (also in the PS2 version), and a new interface for disarming trip wires (pretty cool actually, but also in the PS2 version). The only real GCN exclusive is weak GBA link capabilities in the form of an on-screen radar and remote access to turrets and such, but that's so 2002 and not much of a bonus.

The graphics are not as nice as the Xbox version, but hold their own. Although there are fewer dynamic light sources (some destroyable lights have been replaced by ones that can't be shot), the ones that remain are still impressive. Character models are animated decently, and cast real-time shadows anytime they walk near a light source. The environments have slightly fewer objects in them, but are still really detailed and not even close to being as stripped down as the environments in the
first Splinter Cell port.


Even though it's one of the better-looking GCN games out there, it still has a few minor problems graphically. A few textures are really blurry, although Ubisoft did a good job of by keeping them confined to "out of the way" parts of each level and thus less noticed by the average player. The night and thermal vision modes lack the motion-blur effect found in the Xbox version, and a variety of other special effects (like water) simply don't match up to the original. The framerate is choppy in some areas, and simply not smooth in others. Finally, the GameCube version is a little TOO dark and forces the player to use night vision in many areas it really shouldn't be needed. Turning the brightness up on my TV allowed me to see a bit more naturally in the really dark areas, but in the process washed out everything else.

The one area that never seems to suffer in these Clancy ports is audio, and that's the case here. Dialogue is even better than before, as Lambert & Fisher talk more than ever and other characters often have humorous one-liners to add.  Even among the secondary characters, the voice acting is great and adds a lot to the overall experience.  Sound effects are once again used well, and good indicators of how stealthy Sam's actions are.  If Sam's running on a hard surface or doesn't land softly, the player will know right away that he's making too much noise. The music is typical Clancy military stuff, and sounds good. The game also supports Dolby Pro Logic II, which is obviously a plus in a game where sound plays an important role.

Highs:

  • Veterans will feel at home almost immediately, and yet there are still a lot of new moves and other gizmos to master. Familiar yet fresh is exactly how a good sequel should feel.

  • The storyline is better this time around, and the characters have more personality through their dialogue and actions than before.

  • Even if there are a few minor problems graphically, this is still one of the best-looking games on the GCN. When it shines it REALLY shines, and the problems are infrequent enough to allow it to shine often.

  • An extra level, GBA support, and a few other tweaks not found in the Xbox version are still pluses, even if they aren't that impressive.

  • I was pleasantly surprised by how close the levels in this game were to the originals found in the Xbox version. Even when there was some compromise, it was done to minimize the impact on gameplay.

Lows:

  • No online mode (or any kind of multiplayer) is a disappointment.

  • The ending (including the final encounter) is weak and unsatisfying. Watching the finale isn't nearly as satisfying as being able to play it, especially if it ends up being a lame one.

  • My nitpicky complaints from the first game weren't fixed: dumped bodies still clip through walls, Sam's goggles still glow too much and yet go unnoticed by the enemy, and Sam shouldn't know a door is locked without first trying it. Granted, two of the three are necessary evils for the sake of good gameplay…

  • I can handle the fact that the GameCube version doesn't look quite as good as the Xbox version, but the overall darkness of this port was a constant distraction throughout the game.

Final Verdict:

Although the loss of an online mode is disappointing, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is still a great single-player experience that I recommend. If you own multiple consoles though, you're better off buying any version other than this one.

Overall Score: 8.5

Additional Media (Xbox Version)
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