Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow emerges from its stealthy shadow on March 26th on Xbox and PC, and while it will continue to polarise opinions among those who either find the whole hide-and-seek mechanic tedious, or - like me - incredibly atmospheric and absorbing, from what we've seen of it so far also it looks likely to become one of Ubisoft's biggest ever hits.
But with expectation over its multiplayer mode causing (literally) ripples of excitement among our colleagues in the press, we were keen to chat to the game's producer, and erstwhile producer of the PS2 Splinter Cell, a 31 year-old French lady by the name of Domitelle Doat, who apparently hates games "when you have to stupidly kill everybody to finish them." Just as well she's working on a game where the only person you have to kill is the henchman right at the end!
Foremost in our minds was Ubi's plans for Xbox Live, and asked if there will be any downloadable content planned for the game, Doat told Eurogamer: "There will be quite a lot of content for users to download - over double that of Splinter Cell. We're planning eight maps for download over Xbox Live." For free as well - a nice touch that Microsoft's marketing men will surely appreciate as they try to encourage people to renew their annual subscriptions.
Regarding the plan for PS2 online, she said "I don't know," but it seems almost certain that Sony fans will miss out on any downloadable extras, given the obvious lack of a hard disk to store them on. However, there remains the possibility that the game will ship with the multiplayer maps included already.
PS2 gets the hard Cell
On the plus side, Doat told us "There will be exclusive features for the PS2 version" to compensate for the extra three month wait. "We'll be adding statistics to the gameplay," she said, confirming that this will give players the chance to analyse their performance, such as shots fired, and which body parts you managed to hit along the way. Useless trivia, obviously, but a nice touch for some.
But differences between the two versions will be kept to a minimum, she insisted, adding that apart from some minor visual changes, the loading time on the PS2 would be the major compromise. "If you look at the two side by side, visually the difference is not that big," she said.
Interestingly, she revealed that two separate studios worked on the project: the Shanghai studio worked on the single-player side of the game while Ubi's specialist online team based in Annesy in the north of France took care of the multiplayer aspect. "We had to produce Pandora Tomorrow this way because we the single-player and multiplayer are two very distinct elements. The online required so much R&D and we had our best engineers working for two years purely on the multiplayer."
She was at pains to point out that the multiplayer element will be "an integral part of the Pandora Tomorrow experience". "We know there won't be another online multiplayer title like it out there - I promise you will have completely different gameplay experience when you play it online," she enthused.
Is this Splinter Cell 2?
So what of Ubisoft's jewel in the crown - its Montreal studio? Are they working on a bona-fide sequel? "Pandora Tomorrow is the sequel," she replied. "If there is something there it won't be Splinter Cell 2."
Okay, assuming, in that case, she was toying with us over naming semantics, we asked if any all-new Splinter Cell product would be shown off at E3, as has been rumoured, Doat said rather evasively "there are many concepts in development at once - some of them get cancelled" and that plans for the show hadn't been confirmed as yet. Whispers from the US suggest that there is a Montreal-developed Splinter Cell in production, and that not only will it be shown off at E3, but will debut at Christmas. Idle gossip? Maybe, but it would make sense, given that Montreal effectively had nothing to do with Pandora Tomorrow.
Regarding the enhancements to Pandora Tomorrow over the original, Doat said: "It was extremely important that we had the best level design for this game. It is a massive improvement and translates very quickly as a player. You now have total freedom, and this makes the tension extremely high."
On the topic of the game's new features, she talked about expanding the level of incidental detail and more crowded environments. "The online is obviously the key original feature - it's a revolution in itself. Offline, we wanted to open the levels up and make the stealth experience much more natural. Most of the time you don't want to kill, as there are civilians all around you - such as in middle of an airport, and many naturalistic environments. You must be a master of the shadow," she said, adding that a day/night cycle also played a big part in the proceedings, and that the graphics engine had made major advancements since the original.
But it still sounds essentially the same hide-and-seek game as before - will this appeal to those who thought that the original was "boring"? "Well if they found it boring, then they might not change their mind. It's a pure stealth game. If they want to kill loads of people then there are plenty of games out there where they can do that. I'm not trying to appeal to the whole planet - that would be the wrong thing to do."
As with the original, gamers can get right the way to the end without actually having to kill anyone - except the main man, of course. "There's a trio of bad guys -Indonesian terrorists - but the last one you have to kill him as no one knows he exists." She added that normally killing the heads of terrorist organisations can be tricky as they end up becoming martyrs. That's okay then! On with the killing... But, she added, playing the game stealthily was "much easier than being a shooter".
Tom Clancy's paycheque
Wrapping up, we asked how much involvement Tom Clancy actually had in the project, if any, to which she replied: "Script validation - we had the same script writer as the first game, and he was really happy with the first so it was no problem." You have to ask, though, does Splinter Cell really need the Tom Clancy endorsement? Surely it wouldn't sell any less? "No I do think there is something completely fascinating from this licence," Doat argued, "I'm not sure what difference it makes on a marketing level, but it's great from a development perspective."
Meanwhile, anyone who wants to see the multiplayer side of Pandora Tomorrow in action, Ubisoft has posted a couple of new multiplayer trailers for your viewing pleasure. The first clip, called 'Mercenaries' is 15.4MB and can be grabbed here, while the 'Spies' clip weighs in at 14.2MB and can be downloaded here. Barring an 11th hour delay, the Xbox and PC versions of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow should be on store shelves in Europe from March 26th.