Timing is everything. Global upheaval and recent headlines in Spain have granted an unsettling urgency to Ubi Soft's new stealth spy thriller "Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow." People feel a sense of helplessness as they watch the evening news, full of more blood and carnage than an entire season of "The Shield."
But despite the fact it has zero real-world implications, there is a certain sense of satisfaction in turning on your Xbox and zapping the bad guys in "Pandora," even if they are a mass of polygons. The sequel to the runaway Xbox best seller is laden with a plot ripped straight from tomorrow's headlines. It is 2006, and Indonesian terrorists have laid siege to the U.S. Embassy in East Timor. Their impetus? Rage against the American presence in the region.
Sent in to infiltrate the scene is Sam Fisher, a world-weary war hero and lone operative for the Third Echelon, a super-secret division of the National Security Agency. But the action in Indonesia is just the first stage in a sprawling, grisly blood-opera that spills over into France, Israel and America.
As Fisher, you work alone. There is no backup -- as far as the NSA is concerned, in spite of your NSA-sanctioned equipment and training, you do not exist. And if you play smart, your enemies will never know you exist, either. Fisher may have access to an incredible array of guns and gadgets, but his greatest weapon is stealth. Fisher thrives in the darkness, using every shadow to full advantage. Certainly, players can attempt to rush terrorists with both barrels blazing, but they won't live to collect their pensions. "Pandora" is a thinking gamer's action game, where forethought and strategy are rewarded with some of the most thrilling video game moments you'll ever find on the Xbox. The feeling of superiority you experience as you silently creep through a dark rainstorm to deliver a chillingly calculated head shot is palpable.
The original "Splinter Cell" played well, but it suffered slightly from a disjointed story line. You only cared about executing the kill, not the global consequences. Ubi made great strides with emotional involvement in "Pandora." The plot isn't just better integrated with the game play; there are equal reactions for every action. Fisher is still a taut, one-man killing machine, but as he dives deeper into his mission, even he comes to question some of his orders. Without giving away a devastating plot point, there is a heart-stopping moment of insubordination that feels more prescient than anything else in the timely story.
Additional improvements to "Pandora" are both cosmetic and game-play related. Your inventory has been streamlined effectively -- the weapon select is now assigned to the directional pad, rather than forcing the gamer to break from the action via a menu. Fisher also has some new moves, such as being able to whistle to attract the attention of enemy operatives. Lure them to your shadowy hiding place; then deliver the blow.
But the greatest add-on to "Pandora" is the multiplayer, online game -- only possible with Xbox Live. Called Shadow Strike, up to eight players can team up and take each other out using devious counter-op methods. Should you play as a superspy, you view the action via third-person as you lay down traps and take to the shadows. Choose to be a mercenary, laden with firepower, and you see the field through first-person view.
Advertising in video games is hardly a new thing -- was Electronic Arts' "SSX3" a game or an advertisement for Honda? -- but "Pandora" takes it to the next level of product placement. Fisher is equipped with two Sony Ericsson cell phones that are imperative to use to successfully complete some missions. How long before Mario toasts the rescue of Princess Peach with a Pepsi?
"Pandora" is certainly one of the best-looking Xbox games to date. "Ninja Gaiden," this game and the upcoming "Halo 2" firmly cement the fact that no other console has the guts of Microsoft's console. Later this year, after a window of exclusivity, "Pandora" will be available on the PlayStation 2 and GameCube -- but with features of those ports still up in the air, it looks as if the Xbox version is the one to have.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun