Two moments in the original Splinter Cell stand out in my memory. Both are bad. The first is the premise of the CIA infiltration level: you're in there on your own, tooled up with some powerful weaponry and you can't bloody use it. These CIA guys, your own people, are allowed to rain bullets into your body, but retaliation is met with dismissal. The second moment is later, in the Chinese Embassy level, and a more personal affront. I'd just activated a Save point when the third alarm level was triggered. Somewhere back there I'd obviously left a body with a toe poking out of a shadowed corner. Result? Mission abandoned, leaving that Save in a perpetual loop of failure.
I still love it, though.
Splinter Cell was just shy of greatness; a few extra scribbled notes on a pad away from being the best game of its kind. Its frustrating genius kept me playing, not just because of the compelling plot or those wonderful toys, but because it was so damn tense. Like Thief, it had something different about it: the shadows, the oblivious bad guys passing just inches away, the danger behind every doorway, the unashamedly voyeuristic feel. But it was hamstrung: silly little flaws poked holes in the darkness. Flaws so obvious that it was difficult to come to terms with. Which is why my long trip to see the development team in Paris was so rewarding. I saw at first hand the strides they're making. I heard them talk about the flaws of the previous game and their determination not to make the same mistakes again. Heartening to say the least. So, Pandora Tomorrow, then...
It's being built from the ground up, discarding all that was wrong with the original to make a more rounded experience. With Pandora Tomorrow, the forum posts, the letters pages, the fan sites and the reviewers' comments have all been heeded. This game, say the developers, is a big 'thank you' to all those that made the first one the success that it was. Sure, it plays very much like the first, but it's been filtered through all the criticism. The development team want the fans to realise they've been listened to. The sheer bloody-minded difficulty is gone. No more CIA-type levels, thank God.
Also gone is the three-level alarm mode that made saving such a hazard. The enemy's alert status doesn't end the game if you trip too many alarms, but they will respond to a heightened sense of threat. The first threat level will make them more aggressive in their searches. Activate a second state and they'll put on flak jackets. Activate the last state and they'll add helmets.
This system is nicely shown off in the first level. Sam just happens to be fighting an Indonesian guerrilla group this time. He nails some goons with a sniper rifle; the enemy drop like sacks and the alarm level raises. The guards start scouring the area with extra vigour. There's nothing to prevent you carrying on, except your own skill. At no point will the game simply stop. It's doubly interesting to see the 'terrorists' not being portrayed as out-and-out godless villains, particularly in the times we live in. The methods of Suhadi Sadono, leader of the cell, are abhorrent, but he's portrayed as fighting for his people and a way of life.
Gun accuracy had also been a major gripe of the fans. The handgun was always far too inaccurate. The developer's argument is that it was deliberately underpowered, to force player's to use stealthier methods, but they've listened all the same and added a laser sight. The downside is that the enemy can spot the dot and follow the beam back to its source. If you want to use it, you'll have to be sneaky about it.
Another complaint was that the original was a little too formulaic. The linearity, despite being wonderfully elegant, was stifling. Being told exactly where to go all the time shattered the illusion of the lone operative living on his wits. So the developers are rustling up a number of levels which feature alternate paths. One of these levels deliberately sticks the middle finger right up to the critics. It's set on a terrorist-packed passenger train humming its way through France; you can't get more linear than that, on the face of it.
But this level beautifully demonstrates a number of Pandora's innovations and improvements. You can choose to go over, under, through, or along the side of each carriage. Each route throws up its own challenges and stretches the game's lifespan better than the blood of virgins. The most impressive bit is watching Sam Fisher move along the side of the train. His precarious monkey swinging is almost a rhythm action game in itself combined with wondrous lighting effects. Sam clings to the side of the train, moving past the windows. If he's in front of a window when a light passes, he'll be spotted by anyone looking out. Meanwhile, the traditional routes - inside, over the top or under the train - give a few more insights into some of the game's other improvements.