Disclaimer: This review covers the single player mode ONLY.
Splinter Cell occupies a unique space in my mind. I call myself a fan of Sam Fisher, but I'm not really a fan of his gameplay. I find it hard not to like the gruff superspy's cool-as-hell tri-goggles, that low, menacing voice, and the grizzled chin earned by being a tough survivor in a dangerous line of work. But in spite of all the nifty light effects and techno-doodads the game sports, the core experience is still the same rigid, unconvincing formula it was the last time around. Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow's single player mode has some great moments, but for every great one, there are three or four that are pretty lame.
For starters, I'm going to have to disagree with Mike—in my opinion, the game's attempt at loosening the linear stranglehold on level progression is mostly deception. You can take the side door or you can take the ventilation duct, but regardless of which you choose, you're still going to hit the same parts of the level because that's the only direction the developers let you go. Throw in the feeling of being shoved forward by doors that magically "jam" shut after you go through them and dead ends everywhere except the next objective, and it's impossible to avoid the sense that you have absolutely no freedom in tackling levels—unless you think the choice between using a sticky shocker or a ring airfoil to constitutes "freedom" in gameplay. The bottom line is that these aren't very significant choices to be made.
I do agree with Mike about the artificial intelligence (A.I.) and the way enemies react to damage, though. Shooting someone does nothing unless it's a dead-on headshot. I find it hard to believe that someone who took one in the shoulder and one in the neck would be able to shrug it off and send a warning over their walkie-talkie faster than the eye can see. As for the A.I., it was a little disappointing that the guards routinely fall for the "whistle and elbow" tactic, making Sam's right elbow the most effective weapon in the game. Whistle a few notes, watch the enemy come to investigate, and one elbow later you have an immobilized guard. This isn't that bad by itself, but other guards in the room don't notice their comrades suddenly disappear, and shooting out all the lights one by one to create darkness has no lasting effect on their behavior if you wait for the "danger" music to fade out. Do security personnel often patrol pitch-black rooms without flashlights?
Don't expect much elaboration on Sam's personality, either. At one point Sam is ordered to shoot an unarmed, friendly female civilian. When this happened, I snapped to full alert and became intrigued with the moral implications. Sam protests a bit before offing her, but she goes down with the commander giving only a brief "don't ask" statement. The subject is promptly dropped and forgotten. It's clear that Sam is a dedicated military man with a job to do, but things like this reek of missed opportunities to explore the game and character in greater depth.
Still, in spite of all my grousing and unfulfilled wishes, I knew what the Splinter Cell formula was before going into Pandora Tomorrow and I'd be lying if I said it didn't have anything to offer. If you can cope with the linear paths and the lack of an engaging plot, Mike is right in saying the game is generally better than the first effort, as detailed in the main review.
The graphics are certainly a high point, and Ubisoft gets points for top-notch presentation. The lush outdoor levels were a nice change of pace (though every bit as linear as the indoor levels), and the animation of the characters is improved.
Some of the levels themselves were very noteworthy, the best being the mission to sneak aboard a moving train. The challenge of navigating through the narrow car structure and going above and below the passenger areas was very creative, as was riding the luggage belts in a different area's recreation of LAX. Bits like this were a nice change of pace from the series' standard dark office buildings and such, and hopefully this sort of nonstandard environment freshness will be expanded on in the upcoming Splinter Cell 3.
Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow provides limited fun by letting players hide in great-looking shadows to cap unsuspecting guards, but it lacks the organic, natural feel needed to create sufficient immersion. Running from dark corner to dark corner only gets you so far, and with a character of Sam's potential it's a shame they don't give you a usable map and let you go about business the Hitman way. Taking into account Sam's tech and techniques, something along those lines would undoubtedly be the best stealth game out there. As it stands I can appreciate what Ubisoft is going for, but it still leaves me feeling hollow and hungry for more.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.