There's a twisted little corner, somewhere in our tarnished souls, that harbours a smouldering and undying bitterness about the fact that Tom Clancy has his name splashed over so many fine games. For a man whose talent is the ability to recite mind-blowingly dull technical information about military equipment with all the narrative skill of a drunken Dan Brown telling bedtime stories to a sedated chimpanzee, having his name on Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six really isn't bad going. After all, when we try going off on ten-minute monologues about attack helicopters, our mates tell us to shut up. Perhaps Tom Clancy doesn't have very many mates.
Still, he can always console himself with the fact that rather a lot of people - Kristan included - really liked the last instalment in the Rainbow Six series, Rainbow Six: Vegas. It was a fantastic return to form after 2005's Rainbow Six: Lockdown, and a fine start on next-gen consoles. It's no surprise that Ubisoft decided that Rainbow Six was going to stay put for a little while after Vegas - with the Ubisoft Montreal team that created the original game now putting the finishing touches on Vegas 2.
Whoa, hold on - finishing touches? The original Rainbow Six: Vegas only poked its head above the parapet at the end of 2006, and they're already polishing off a sequel. What is this, Ubi Sports Covert Ops 2008?
Go Go Go
"No, it really wasn't rushed," designer Philippe Therien chuckles when we query the 15-month development cycle. "We looked at what we wanted to do and we budgeted the time according to it. We're on time, and happy with the result. The really key thing here is that the engine was solid and working - there's no point in spending more time developing new things that we don't need.
"We did put new features in - we've got sprinting, team orders for grenades, bullet penetration, the new ACES system... There's tons of new things in there, but we didn't really need anything fancy. We didn't, say, need to drive vehicles or stuff like that. That really wasn't necessary. That's why the entire development was spent just making new features, tweaking our graphics."
So, let's take a closer look at the new features that Ubisoft Montreal has added to Vegas, then. Sprinting, which gives you short bursts of speed, where you can't fire but are hard to hit, is certainly in there - a familiar concept, but a new addition to Rainbow Six. Bullets now penetrate different types of object differently, which introduces the idea of "visual cover" - thin screens that hide you from the enemy's view, but won't stop bullets from killing you stone dead.
AI has been tweaked significantly, too - not just for your enemies, but also for your team-mates. Send your squad off down a corridor and they won't stroll down like a bunch of pensioners out for a constitutional; they'll run from cover point to cover point, leapfrogging one another as they go so that one squad member is always ready to provide covering fire. They're also keenly aware of the bullet penetration we just mentioned, and won't hide behind cardboard except as a last resort.
Perhaps the most interesting of the new features - for players new to the series, especially - is the ACES system. At its simplest, this is Vegas' progression system. It's designed to track your achievements in various fields of gameplay, and reward you for them, keeping tabs on various feats related to Close-Quarters Battle (CQB), Assault, Marksmanship and other fields, and giving you access to new weapons and equipment related to those fields as you progress.
For instance, achieving good results in close-combat shooting might unlock a new shotgun for you; doing better in marksmanship will unlock a new sniper rifle. Things you unlock will be relevant to how you play the game - so not everyone will unlock the game's features in the same order.
It's all, says Therien, down to a basic desire to make Rainbow Six more accessible - not by cutting out the tactical element of the game, but by making it easier for new players to understand how the tactical aspects actually work.
"We like the fact that the Clancy games are more tactical," he tells Eurogamer. "We like the fact that Rainbow is a smart shooter. We like the pace, we like the fact that it sets itself apart. Now, it's a bit less accessible than other games, like Call of Duty for example, so what we're aiming to do with stuff like the ACES system is to show people that tactical gameplay doesn't mean hardcore, and it doesn't mean complicated. It doesn't mean that it has to be a very daunting system.
"We're hoping that people will be able to familiarise themselves a little bit more with what 'tactical' is, and actually come to learn what the whole Rainbow Six thing is all about - like what CQB means, what being a marksman is, the difference between assault and infiltration. We're hoping that that will help people figure that out."
Wrapping all of these gameplay tweaks up into a neat package are some overhauled multiplayer modes (there's an adversarial multiplayer vid on EGTV) and a fresh single-player campaign - with the single-player experience in particular being a focus for the team. The first Vegas had a rather good story mode, and, as Therien readily admits, "it really surprised people that Rainbow Six was shipping with a solid single-player."
The bar was set. "We knew that we had to do the same, if not better, on the single-player for Vegas 2." The team was also clear on where it wanted to go next - right back to Las Vegas, where it had unfinished business.
"Vegas wasn't done," Therien says, bluntly. "When you finished Rainbow Six: Vegas, that wasn't over - everybody knew that. There was a big, giant To Be Continued. We put confusion there on purpose, because we knew we wanted to keep going.
"This time, since we had more time to work on content, we made a beginning for the story. Then there's the parallel section with Vegas 1, and then more happens after the ending of Vegas 1. The story is better explained, and it's finished in a very satisfying way."
The storytelling itself is better, too. The Montreal team has learned from the tricks being employed by other shooters in recent years, and has dropped its old approach of doing all the storytelling in-between levels in favour of more in-level, interactive storytelling. Little story vignettes will reveal themselves through the design of the levels you play through, and the levels themselves will feel more connected to one another - and to the story.
Multiplayer, too, has had a facelift (of which more in a dev-diary on Eurogamer TV). The team was largely happy with the multiplayer modes in the first Vegas, says Therien, "but at the same time, we didn't just want to sit on it and say, here are some new maps, now go and enjoy the same game you've already been playing." As such, the wheel hasn't been reinvented - but along with the new basic gameplay features and the ACES system, multiplayer is also being reinvigorated with a few new modes.
Team Leader is a particularly tense variation on the VIP modes in many other shooters - each team has a designated leader, whom they have to escort to the extraction point on the other side of the map while trying to kill the enemy's leader. In Vegas 2's take on the mode, though, your team-mates can respawn while your leader is alive - and even once he's dead, you don't lose the match until the enemy leader is extracted, or all your team-mates are eliminated. The mode depends heavily on communication, too, because the team leaders can actually see one another on their mini-maps.
The other new mode, Demolition (see it on Eurogamer TV), will also be familiar to any fans of online shooters - it's essentially Counter-Strike's bombing mission. The attacking team picks up the bomb, and must choose whether to plant it at Site A or Site B; the defending team, of course, needs either to prevent the plant or defuse the bomb once it's planted. It's a straightforward mode, enhanced greatly by the addition of some nice, clear indicators for the position of the bomb and the bomb-planting sites on each player's HUD.
The final tweak to the multiplayer is the match-making system. The lobby has been tidied up a little bit, fitting in more information without getting too cluttered, while under the bonnet the match-making engine is now better at returning sensible results.
"We just made it a little less intolerant," says Therien. "It's going to look for features you change first, when hunting for a game, instead of coming up with an entire list of results that don't make much sense to start with. It's also internally going to look for opponents who make more sense for you, and it gives a little more flexibility to the search engine to come up with better results."
The big question for Vegas 2 isn't whether fans of the original will like it - that's almost a given. The game is a quintessential sequel - a new storyline, some obvious tweaking and some cool new features, but leaving unfixed all the things which were unbroken. "It's just more of the same good stuff," says Therien.
No, the big question here is whether Vegas 2 can bring new players into the fold. Therien certainly hopes so. "If you have never played Vegas before, you can start with Vegas 2 - it's got a beginning, and a very good ending," he says. "If you've never heard of Vegas before, you can still very much enjoy the game." However, there's still a question mark over whether Rainbow Six will ever be able to win over players from the likes of Counter-Strike or Call of Duty 4 - for whom Rainbow Six's slightly dated graphics are off-putting, and its realism and attention to detail are somewhat intimidating.
"We're hoping that we can communicate better that it is accessible to everybody," says Therien; "that you don't need to be an army officer to understand how the game works. That's a bit of the stigma that's been surrounding Rainbow Six for a long time. Vegas reached a lot of new people, but we're hoping that with Vegas 2 we can reach even more people, so that people can really enjoy a very good shooter."
Interestingly, though, this is also likely to be the series' last outing to Vegas. Despite the success of the game, there'll be no more "research" trips to Nevada's gambling dens for Ubisoft Montreal's Rainbow Six team.
"We will never go back to Vegas - at least, not in the foreseeable future," says Therien. "We really feel that the story of Vegas is done. We've explored as much of Vegas as we wanted. For now, we're pretty much covered with Vegas."
As to what the team will do next, Therien is cagier. "We haven't really thought about what we're going to do next," he claims. "We're just trying to finish this one right now, take a nice vacation and then we'll start thinking about it. The concept of being around one location was really good for Vegas, it really works - whether we'll do that again, I don't know right now."
So, Rainbow Six: Manhattan, perhaps? Rainbow Six: Los Angeles? Rainbow Six: Didcot? Who can say - all we know for now is that "it won't be in Vegas, that's for sure". Looks like the second helping may also be the last. Just as well that it's shaping up to be pretty tasty.
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 is due out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in Europe from 21st March.