Version tested: Xbox 360
After last year's Lockdown debacle, Ubisoft knew it had a lot of work to do to repair the unexpected damage that Red Storm's buggy mess of a game did to the Rainbow Six series. Full of odd new additions, questionable design decisions and idiotic squad AI, it was obvious that they needed to go back to the drawing board and work out what people liked about the game in the first place if it was to keep up with the massive progress made by the other Tom Clancy games.
But it's actually been easier than that to sort the mess out - but perhaps slightly more complicated to explain the sudden improvement in the space of a year.
Although Ubisoft never makes a big deal about this, Vegas is made by an entirely different development studio to Lockdown - the Montreal team behind Rainbow Six 3 and the excellent standalone Black Arrow 'expansion'. Given how well-received those were, perhaps the best thing to do is pretend Lockdown didn't actually happen and think of Vegas as the 'real' follow-up to those two titles.
It's hardly surprising, then, to note that several of the new additions railroaded into last year's Lockdown have been quietly ditched for Vegas - for very sound reasons.
So, out go Ding Chavez (boo!), quicksaves, multiple pointless ways to blast a door down, tension-defeating heartbeat sensors, annoying trip wires and even more annoying sniping missions, and dense squad AI that seemed to have big problems shooting on target. The 'in' column makes for heartening reading: sensible checkpoint saves, Call Of Duty 2-style recharging heath system, superb squad AI, refined controls, duck and cover control system, squad revives, hugely improved visuals, multiple paths within levels, snakecam 'tagging' and, oddly, one fewer man in your squad.
On a basic, fundamental level, Rainbow Six Vegas is an absolutely huge leap up for the series, and easily one of the best tactical shooters ever made - but don't assume that means it's perfect.
Like many of Ubisoft's Tom Clancy games down the years, the storyline is - yet again - a bit pointless and far-fetched. It all starts off innocuously enough, with you in control of elite counter-terrorist operative Team Leader Logan Keller, trying to hook up with your pinned-down squad mates in the Mexican town of San Joshua del Mosquiera. With a look and feel matching the gritty cinematic intensity of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, it's hard not to be instantly impressed. On a mission to hunt down Irena Morales, what seems like a straightforward assignment spirals out of control, with the Latino madwoman hellbent on causing maximum chaos for somewhat hard to fathom reasons - mostly involving Vegas casinos. We still can't work why she focuses most of her energies on terrorising Casinos. Maybe she lost big one time and wants revenge. Absolute loony.
What are you fighting for?
Tenuous-bordering-on-ridiculous premise aside, the game's solid level design and spot-on control system means you spend more time focused on the outstanding combat that worrying about the motives of a highly strung terrorist obsessed with the destruction of gambling dens.
The thing that's improved no end over previous Rainbow Six titles - and, by extension most other squad combat titles - is the control system, and part of this results from the way the game flits seamlessly between first and third person viewpoints. By default, the game operates in the traditional first person view, but whenever you make use of any of the many cover points it pans out to a highly effective third person view. Not only does this instantly frame the action in a more effective manner, it allows the player to see more of what's going on, allowing you to better judge how to respond when you're pinned down by enemy fire. If you're behind a box and want to fire over the top, you can. Likewise, firing around the sides of any sort of cover is as simple as keeping the left trigger held down and edging out, and it's a system that's both effective and intuitive.
Safe from harm
The similarities with Gears of War's duck and cover gameplay are unavoidable - both make it imperative to make good use of cover at all times, both let you peep out from behind cover to fire, both make it easy to blindfire, both let you revive downed squad mates, and both have (usually) decent AI. Both games even subscribe to similar checkpointing and recharging health mechanics, with room clearing always the main objective. But however many element you match up, Rainbow Six is very much its own game, still subscribing to a slower-paced formula where death is always imminent, care must be taken at every step, and wise marshalling of your squad mates is as important as your ability to aim. Play it like a traditional gung-ho shooter and you'll still have your arse handed to you quicker than you can reload, making it feel more aligned with the Call of Duty 2 (and 3) way of approaching firefights than the empty-an-entire-clip-into-his-face requirement of GoW.
But it's important to note just how dramatically the recharging health system impacts the Rainbow Six gameplay dynamic. All the way through the series, you knew that just one slip-up was curtains, and that your declining health was inevitably carried into later parts of a particular level. With that taken away, you're effectively allowed to take many more risks than you ever could before, and, as such, the game now feels a lot less tense, a lot more forgiving, and definitely a lot less frustrating than it ever was in the past. Previously, you'd often have to literally memorise entire chunks of a level in order to squeak through, but the knowledge that you can take a few hits and fully recover makes the gameplay more of a game of cat-and-mouse. You know that with this new system you can afford to peep out, return fire, take a breather, and go back-and-forth until you've taken out all the hostiles.
Also, the role of your squad mates has been improved no end, despite the slightly mystifying reduction in numbers from four to three. In the past, you almost always knew that you'd have to take the lead, because their aim could be so damned shoddy, or they'd flounder when ambushed. But in Vegas, they're not only a much better shot, but react intelligently to situations, finding cover when it's obvious that your orders to stray into the line of fire were rubbish. As such, your role is much more as commander, providing fire support when you can. Trying to take the lead in Vegas just gets you into trouble, as your squad mates simply react a lot quicker than you do. They can still get into trouble, of course - but the penalties for them getting shot are nowhere near as strict as previously. Of course, in the past, if they were incapacitated, that was it for the rest of the level - but not any more, thanks to the infinite ability to revive them via yourself or another squad member within a limited time period.
Fun over realism
With that in mind, progress through each level is much less of a headache than it ever was. Does that mean Ubisoft has dumbed it down a touch? A little. Is sacrificing realism for fun less satisfying as a result? Possibly. Will you enjoy it more without having to face such stiff penalties for failure? Almost certainly.
That's not to say the game is easy, because even the default Normal difficulty provides plenty of challenge when Ubisoft dictates it. As with every R6 game down the years, there's still plenty of tight, confined indoor room-clearing that requires a thoughtful approach, but perhaps the main difference is the reaction time from your squaddies and from the enemy is more in your favour for once. Long-term fans will be pleased to know that at its core, though, the old-style gameplay is still very much intact - it's just been refined and made slightly more accessible, presumably to tap into the mainstream shooter audience. The whole process of clearing rooms seems to have been pared down for the good, though, with a simple context-sensitive approach where you order your men to 'stack' next to a door by pointing your cursor at it. Once they're in formation, all it takes is to select one of three options with the corresponding dpad direction - open and clear, frag and clear or breach and clear (we'd argue that 'flash and clear' should be in there too - an extra command on the dpad would have made no difference to its simplicity). With just a further prompt required to send them into action, it's a system which is both easy to set up and extremely effective.
Added to that - although not essential if you're playing on normal difficulty - is the ability to use the new 'snake cam' under any door and 'tag' up to two priority targets that you see by aiming at the required terrorist and pressing the right shoulder button. Using this allows you to target a room via a different entrance in the knowledge that your squad mates will take care of specific enemies - a very important factor during hostage rescue scenarios, and a hugely welcome new addition.
Added to all this general slick AI intelligence and control refinements is a more open-ended approach to the level design, where alternative routes allowing you greater scope to flank enemies or take a more daring approach. A typical example is later on in the game where you're able to 'fast rope' down through a glass roof and storm a room - or, you can just take the stairs and battle it out in a more considered, traditional sense. Also added to Vegas is the ability to rappel down the sides of buildings (or lift shafts) - no big deal on its own, except that you can click the stick and turn yourself upside down to spring a surprise attack. Being able to command men to breach through plate glass windows adds an extra touch of drama to an already furious game.
Talking of drama, Vegas does a fine job of tying together all the strands of the storyline in a far better way than previous Rainbow Sixes ever managed. Taking its cue from GRAW, you're given plenty of picture-in-picture video feeds throughout, and at the end of each of the chapters you hook up with laptop-fan Joanna Torres and briefed as you fly to your next port of call. GRAW players will recall how impressive these flythrough sequences were there, and they're an even more glorious demonstration of the tech - partly because the Neon-flecked skyline lends itself so well to this show-off treatment, and partly because the glitzy architecture is so instantly identifiable. Tied together, you're given a much more visually enticing incentive to pay attention, whereas before the presentation was, frankly, awful. Even little touches like being able to fiddle with your equipment loadout for the next mission just feels a lot more natural. It's abundantly clear that Ubisoft has been listening to previous criticisms and tackling them head-on.
Casino Royale with cheese
Still, it's by no means the definite article, and there's still tangible room for improvement for the inevitable follow-up next year. The chief 'problem' is the fact that it's just not that interesting to have to fight through numerous casinos. One is fine, two is stretching it, but three? In what is a fairly short-ish campaign (set over six acts, lasting 8-10 hours), the game really needed a better premise than having to duke it out among fruit machines, neon lights, golden statues and roulette tables. There's enough variety elsewhere for it to not be a real deal-breaker, but Ubisoft stretches the whole Casino locale beyond novelty. Was it really that essential to the premise?
As it demonstrated with the brilliant-but-flawed GRAW single player campaign, Ubisoft still hasn't quite worked out what constitutes an acceptable distance between checkpoints. Most of the time Vegas gets it absolutely spot-on, but on a few notable teeth-grinding occasions it will suddenly demand the player stays alive for an unexpectedly long time through numerous blistering, unpredictable sections. With the new recharging health system, such instances are mercifully rare, but when you've repeated the same section 10, 15 times and have to repeat 10 or more minutes of painstaking progress, it's on the cusp of pad-bouncingly annoying. On a related note, playing the game on a standard definition TV instantly made the game about 50 per cent harder, due to not being able to see your enemies very clearly. But that's another story altogether.
One note solo
You could also argue that Rainbow Six Vegas sticks rather too rigidly to one specific gameplay style throughout. Ok, so the extra emphasis on outdoor gameplay makes for a refreshing change to clearing out office complexes, but there are no memorable gameplay curveballs of note to break up the action. Even Lockdown with its Sniper sections tried to change the gameplay emphasis, so it's slightly disappointing to see the game's focus stay the same for almost the entire game.
If you want to get really nitpicky over what is a generally lovely looking game, you might well notice that it's officially the reddest game ever. Whether it's the neon, or just an artistic decision, it's the sort of game that makes you wonder if there might be something wrong with your TV. But do not adjust your set! Equally odd - and equally unimportant - is the realisation that Ubisoft still can't seem to make a Rainbow Six game with even vaguely realistic looking NPCs. Given how great the main character and his squaddies look, you'd expect better. We're not expecting spot-on human likenesses, but there's something slightly freakish-looking about all of the hostages you meet in the game - not just in terms of their weird expressionless faces, but their odd, simplistic animations. One day we'll stop having to reference silly things like this, and it'll be a glorious occasion.
As for the multiplayer - it's once again a great way to while away some uncomplicated online hours in all the usual competitive and collaborative ways. New this year is the ability to create your own online avatar using the new Xbox Live Vision camera add-on and the long-established but painfully under utilised Digimask technology. By simply tweaking the lighting conditions and posing for one face-on and one side-on mugshot, the game spits out a remarkably accurate representation of your mush in a matter of a few minutes. From there you can apply a few 'modifications' to your appearance, adding face paint, scars and all manner of scary additions that would frighten Gene Simmons himself. The main drawback is that Digimask's tech still can't really 'do' hair as such, so you end up getting a fair idea of what you'd look like with a short crop, which is interesting in itself. Still, it's a damned fine effort, and means that whenever you go online, people can actually see that it's you - especially useful if you're playing co-op or fancy being able to fully identify the person you're shooting between the eyes in adversarial matches.
Playable, as ever, over split screen (up to four players), system link and online (for up to 16 players), you get a full complement of modes to cater for just about every kill-based whim you might have, along with ten maps for most modes (seven for Attack & Defend). Sharpshooter provides ye olde deathmatch thrills in a free-for-all most-kills-wins spree, Survival is Last Man Standing by another name, while the remaining four adversarial modes put the emphasis on teamwork. First up is the objective-based Attack & Defend, where, literally one team defends an objective point while other attacks it, then there's Retrieval, a CTF variant where each team must race to nab biohazard cannisters and take them back to their base, while Team Sharpshooter and Team Survival are pretty self-explanatory. All modes are available in ranked or unranked 'player' matches, with points earned contributing to your overall rank. As you rank up, you can unlock new weapons and equipment to help give you the edge in combat.
Where Rainbow Six Vegas inevitably comes alive online is when you play it in co-op. If you fancy playing through the story mode, you can choose one of the 20 maps in any part of the campaign and enjoy it with up to three other friends - with the ability to reserve private slots (which also applies to all the other modes, helpfully). The less connected Co-op Terrorist Hunt mode (also available in single player, remember) lends itself better to online play, with players tasked with clearing any given map of all the terrorists within a specific time limit. Simply put, the game is an absolute joy to play online, with a simple set up procedure, sensible non-retarded players, no lag in evidence (and a connection meter to alert you to everyone's status) and a real sense of genuine co-operation and teamwork, which is exactly how it should be. The only drawback is when you find yourself eliminated early on and forced to spectate while the (potentially long) match plays out. Typically, though, patience and care removes any real likelihood of that. Although there's nothing especially revolutionary about this year's online portion of Rainbow Six, it still ranks as one of the most enjoyable online games console gaming has to offer, with a great selection of modes, some excellent maps and even the opportunity to earn some achievement points without having to be some sort of online gaming junkie.
Rainbow Six Vegas is unquestionably an excellent - and very welcome - return to form for the series. It's a crafted, well-rounded package that nails all the fundamentals of what a squad-based shooter should be about, with fantastic controls and great AI making it a consistent pleasure to chip through the campaign. Online - with the right players - it has the potential to be even better, especially in the collaborative modes. To really catapult it into the very highest bracket, Ubisoft still needs to work on a more compelling premise and improve on some of the production values, but otherwise Vegas represents one of the best shooters on the market and deserves to succeed.
8 / 10