Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is exactly what a sequel should be, and then some. The acclaimed action/espionage thriller has not been reworked in any dramatic way, but refined, expanded, and evolved into a superior version of its former self. Pandora Tomorrow is in every respect better than its predecessor, while retaining the same elements that made the original formula so successful.

NSA operative Sam Fisher is back in action, this time uncovering a plot by Indonesian terrorists to unleash biological agents on the United States. Sam is again voiced with exceptional panache and professionalism by Michael Ironside (Starship Troopers). The voice of Lambert, Fisher's commander, has been taken over by Dennis Haysbert (24), whose deep, ominous voice compliments the dark tone of the game while providing contrast to the dry-humored exchanges. While guards and other supporting characters tend not to be as convincingly acted, those who are given the most prominent roles do a remarkable job.

The game again uses the impressive Unreal graphics engine to produce astonishing interactive lighting effects. Unbreakable lights, which plagued the first game past the point of logic, are fortunately very rare. The overall look of the game has been improved, particularly in the outdoor levels where soft physics are used to create amazingly lifelike foliage. Sound and animation have been improved for a more realistic aesthetic-for example, when Sam knocks out a victim from a choke-hold, he lowers their body to the ground rather than letting them drop with a loud thud; and while the original ascribed to an absurd logic that non-lethal attacks were always quieter than lethal attacks, that is not the case here.

While the original seemed to just suggest that players use the wide array of moves and gadgets at Sam's disposal, the sequel necessitates it. Whether the game dissolves into a repetitive trudging of trial and error depends entirely on the player's ability to make use of the improved diversity and interactivity of the environments, the full stock of gadgets supplied on nearly every level, and the expanded repertoire of moves which, unlike the split jump in the original, may be utilized often and with rewarding effect without always being necessary.

The game offers a number of new challenges and rewarding ways to overcome them. Sam is confronted by an assortment of new traps, including trip-wire triggered land mines, motion detectors, and automated laser-sighted guns that act as search lights, as well as old standbys like as guards with flashlights, dogs, wall mines, turrets, cameras, land mines and the like. Guards now use a three-tiered alarm system in which each stage of the alarm prompts them to add body armor in anticipation of a confrontation with Sam. Sam's once painfully underused split-jump (though personally I seem to have found more uses for it than others in the original game) has been reworked so that he can also fit into smaller spaces and shift his weight from side to side, which in turn can be used to reach high places. Sam also has a brilliantly useful "stealth roll" by which he can, with speed and total silence, shift from one side of a door to another. This not only helps immensely when scoping out rooms or moving past well lit doors, but it can be used in many instances to slide between other objects in the environment. Additionally, Sam can hang from a pole suspended by his legs and fire downward on enemie, although I didn't find much use for this move. Finally, Sam now has a nice little whistle he can use to draw the attention of enemies. Unfortunately it is placed on the black button, which in the original was used to access the inventory (now delegated to the white button), early in the game I would occasionally draw the attention of enemies by mistake while trying access a gadget for a quiet kill.

Like the first, Pandora Tomorrow is still unapologetically linear, but Splinter Cell was never about exploration; it is about putting players in complicated situations and forcing them to find solutions. Levels have been opened up somewhat, particularly in the latter half of the game, but not in the sense that the game loses its focus; instead, players are afforded opportunities to solve situations depending on their own style of play. Often, finding a simple alternative solution can be quite rewarding; on one level, I faced a number of snipers from the vantage point of a sitting duck on a small moving cable car. In a panic, I dropped off the side and was pleasantly surprised to watch Sam grab hold of the cables and stealthily slide to his destination.

The only significant complaint I can level at the single player game is that the artificial intelligence falls short of being convincing, although for the most part it is adequate. Again developers overlooked reactive animations to bullets-if I shoot a guard in the chest but do not kill him, he will stand there and reach for his radio. If I shoot a guard, I want to see them react convincingly-losing balance, panicking, grasping the wound in pain, etc. I would have also liked to see the developers take a cue from Metal Gear Solid and allow guards to track footprints and other environmental disturbances (particularly now that the soft physics engine has been used to create lifelike foliage) and perhaps make civilians act less like suspicious mercenaries at the slightest disturbance. Otherwise, I found all little touches to the single player to add up to an experience even more enjoyable and rewarding than the original.

The biggest surprise of Pandora Tomorrow is its multiplayer. In sharp contrast to many other games' hackneyed, hastily tossed-together multiplayer, Pandora Tomorrow offers one of the most creative and compelling online games ever made. Players assume the role of either a spy in the vein of Sam Fisher or a commando played from a first-person perspective a la Rainbow Six. The spies must infiltrate a compound and use an assortment of gadgets and skills in a mission of sabotage; the commandos are given an assortment of weaponry, enhanced vision and traps to seek out and kill the spies.

The spy experience is most like a quick, streamlined version of the single player game. In addition to increased character speed, the menu system has been optimized to compliment the fast-paced play. They also have access to some interesting gadgets and abilities, such as chaff and smoke grenades that can be either tossed at a target or dropped at their feet. Their weaponry is non-lethal-players have to grab a commando from behind to kill him (and, in a nice touch, spy players can talk to the commando players from this vantage point, making for some nice kiss-off one-liners). The commandos are slower and equipped with explosives, spy traps, a flashlight, and some insanely cool vision enhancements to detect electronic devices and motion.

The games are fast paced and very suspenseful, filled with all sorts of subtle touches, such as devices enabling spies to overhear the conversations of the commandos and motion-triggered alarms that alert the commandos to the presence of a spy. It's truly a creative concept that is executed flawlessly. It is not a mini-game exploiting the core game's concepts, but an entirely new game that brilliantly expands on them.

Combined, these two games add up to a phenomenal package. Pandora Tomorrow is a truly outstanding game that, though not without a few flaws, surpasses the original in every respect. Rating: 9 out of 10

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