In 2002, Splinter Cell was unleashed on the Xbox and received a high level of popularity. However it didn't have multiplayer and many people saw that as a flaw with the game. With Xbox Live only just launched in one region of the world at the time, Ubisoft may have thought it best to keep their plans for a future edition (if one was to be made) which is exactly what they have done. Pandora Tomorrow is only weeks from arriving on retail store shelves now and will include a unique multiplayer component. Recently we got a crack with the final version of the game on multiplayer LAN and this unique and innovative feature for the game should definitely appeal to fans of the franchise.
In Pandora Tomorrow multiplayer you can choose from two opposing teams; Argus Mercenaries and Shadownet. You don't play as Sam Fisher or any of his cohorts at any time during the multiplayer missions but rather take command of spies who have exactly the same training as Sam, and they will need every bit of it if they plan to get in and get out without being detected. The other team is the Argus Mercenaries, hired to protect the substance the spies are after. These guys are buff, but unlike the spies, they rely on their brawn rather than their agility and stealth.
Depending on which team you choose, you will get a completely unique experience. If you play as the Argus team, you're viewpoint is in first person and is comparable to the recently released Rainbow Six 3 for the Xbox. If you play as the Shadownet spies, you will be in the third person view which gives a sense of familiarity and is probably the best team to start off with when you first fire up the multiplayer mode. We had a chance to play as both sides during our playtest (however more as the mercenaries then the spies) and all indications about the game being completely unbalanced have been thrown out the window. Numerous games were played and no team had a significant advantage over the other. The other great indication from our time with the game is the fact that when playing on the Argus team, camping does not seem to work and it is better to move around the level trying to detect the spies - finally a multiplayer game for the skilled?
Each team features different technologies which is designed to help balance the game and not give any side a major advantage. The Shadownet spies have both night vision and thermal vision like in the original game and Pandora's single player element, but the Argus Mercenaries have motion detection and a second blue filter for their heads up display. This means that if a spy is in the dark and not moving it is almost impossible for the Argus team to find them, encouraging the players to use the spies in a stealth fashion. Once a spy is detected an alert is placed on the Argus hud and the exact location of the detection is given. As you can tell, being a spy won't be easy at first.
When the filters on the HUD are enabled for the mercenary it is much harder to see where you are going because, unlike the thermal and night vision hud, everything either turns a strong red or blue colour. You can move about quite easily in the modes (in fact you pretty much have to if you want any chance of detecting the spies) but it still will take some time to become accustomed to this fact. When the motion detection filter picks up on a spy or friendly, it will zoom in on this character. If you have your laser enabled on the gun, it can tell you whether it is a spy or a friendly mercenary unit. The two teams also have differing weapons. The Argus units have machine guns which can cut down a spy quite easily whilst the spies have an electric shock gun which momentarily freezes the enemy, giving them time to escape. The main advantage the spies have over the Argus units is the fact they can get into vents and other hidden areas. However this isn't always the case. Once during our playtest we dropped down into a vent as a spy thinking we had escaped, only to have the Argus unit follow us. This did surprise us due to the fact one of the key elements of a spies success will probably be using hidden vents and other hidden spots to their advantage.
We played on two maps which will feature in the final game, a warehouse level and a level set in a cinema. One thing to note is that given the game can only support up to four players at a time (which again reinforces the stealth element of the title), the maps are quite large. You can play as two vs two, or three vs one which can offer a large challenge to someone who is a crack spy and knows a level like the back of their hand. The warehouse map was large and divided into numerous sections. If you think that a spy will be able to get around the entire map without having to show themselves at least once in a light, from a quick play it looks like that is a wrong assumption. In one area we had to run across a bridge to another linked building, all the way sprinting through vast beams of light with no cover at all. Even after that, we had to stand around hacking a keypad before finally getting in, which would no doubt give the Argus team enough time to find the spy if they happened to already be in the vicinity.
In the game mode we played the spies objective was to infiltrate the level and disarm a few computers which contained canisters of a deadly virus. The canisters took around twenty seconds or so to hack, but should the spy be incapacitated before the hack is completed, the time does not reset. This makes it easier to hack it once you find it again. Obviously with the spies having to reach a certain part of the level it may be tempting for the Argus units to camp, but from a quick test it appears this does not work for a few reasons. Spies seem to be able to get around without being detected near the canisters, even if you're only metres away. There is also more canisters to protect then there is mercenaries so the spies know that at least one will be left alone if the Argus units are camping.
There is no doubt that Pandora Tomorrow's multiplayer component is going to be one of the most unique game modes for a stealth game in quite some time. They have taken the popular single player game and crafted together a multiplayer game which will take both time and skill to master. With the differing viewpoints for each team, you're almost guaranteed to have a unique experience on each level when on opposing sides and this should keep the game from becoming repetitive. Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow ships within two weeks and supports Xbox Live out of the box.