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Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow

The split-jump, for example. The fuss made over its inclusion in the original game proved misplaced. Tragically, the levels weren't designed for it. In fact, you could only use it tactically three times in the whole game. Naturally the sequel puts that to rights. On the train, for example, you can use split-jump to brace yourself between carriages, the passengers and terrorists passing underneath without a clue.

But Pandora is not all about light tweaking. Currently, the development team are only ready to reveal one major addition, but it's the one I've been begging for ever since the invention of the stealth genre: multi-player.

This is no tacked-on extra, but a complex piece of storytelling that slots into the storyline of Pandora Tomorrow. In the same way Enter the Matrix played off The Matrix: Reloaded, the multi-player sections are components of the storyline that you hear about in the single-player game. They're integral to appreciating the whole scope of the game. It's not the Spy vs Spy deathmatch that everyone hoped for, but it is a logical, story-based step that could make Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow the definitive multi-player game of the year.

The format is Spy vs Guards, two player classes who form the best loved bickering twosome since Tom and Jerry. Up to four players face-off per side but this is not Splinter Cell as we know it. Surprisingly, the view shifts to first-person when you play as a guard. The reasoning? These guys are hunters, and need razor-sharp reactions to succeed in the job. In other words, the guards benefit from the traditional twitch gaming angle while the Spy sticks to stealth tactics because third-person offers neither speed, nor accuracy, but does enable Agents to make the best use of cover.

It doesn't stop there. Vision modes are different too. Instead of night or thermal sights, the guards have a motion tracking capability and an electrical signal sensor, as well as a low-tech flashlight. You'll need this equipment to fight the black-on-black spies, but it's all about picking the right gadget at the right time. A spy will effectively become invisible if he decides to stop dead in the dark and turn off his vision modes. Unless a guard thinks to counter with a stab of his flashlight. If the spy makes a break for it, and a guard has tracking vision on, then the scuttling infiltrator will be picked out in a grey box over a red background. You can also pick up the electrical interference spies cast like dandruff when they use vision modes.

Shockingly, Sam is sacked for multi-player. Instead, sneaky gamers play as Shadownet spies. They rely on acrobatic movement even more than Fisher. They're a covert operations unit, sent in to take deal with situations too hairy for our hero. They have different moves and a greater emphasis on agility. Their forward roll will cover more area, and they can recover faster from a tumble. The pipe grip has been expanded, so spies can switch from a horizontal pipe to a vertical one, turning levels into a giant climbing frame. Every gadget choice is but a-button away but the game won't pause. Clearly, the Shadownet spies have been developed to make the multi-player game viable but they do prove that stealth doesn't necessarily mean slow.

The upshot is that Splinter Cell multi-player plays out like a high-tech game of cat and mouse. The sneaking, slippery spies are dark forms that slide past backlit doorways; the panicky guards have to fight the very shadows that loom in every corner. The outgunned spies must pick their moments with deadly precision; sitting, coiled in a corner. Watching.

The levels are built for multiple assaults. Every building can be accessed from doors, open windows and sewers, but everything is wired, alerting the guards to intruders. Watching the developers spring their way through the levels, crystalises how well this approach could work. Headset voice comms add to the atmos. Take an enemy hostage and you can trash-talk his ear off. But it gets better. Exchanging tactics with your teammates over the wire adds a whole new dimension to the assault, but brilliantly, the enemy can intercept your communications and listen in. There are more impressive details yet: hazy flashbang after-shocks cloud the view and ring the ears; injuries stream incriminating bloodtrails and you can use the walls to backflip over the head of any pursuer.

Just when it's getting too much the development team call it a day. Much remains hidden. Check the corners.

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