Version tested: Xbox 360
I'll bring this up again since everyone seems to have forgotten: Ubisoft used to call these games "standalone expansion packs". Everyone knew where they stood. What you were getting was more of the same; new levels built on the same tech with the exact same gameplay, and, as a result, a price tag of less than twenty quid. Take Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow, and Ghost Recon 2: Summit Strike - great examples of fan service, and we gave both 8/10. Had they been full-price, we might have been grumpier about what were blatant retreads, albeit quality ones. It's all about context.
But since the so-called next generation rolled into town, that approach has been replaced with near-annual updates dressed up as full sequels. GRAW 2 just about got away with it last year, mainly because it was a far more polished offering than the unfinished original and everything it should have been in the first place. Rainbow Six Vegas, though, got most things right first time. More of the same is just...well, going over old ground.
Lasting just seven 'acts' (over 25 scenes each lasting about 10-15 minutes), the single-player campaign is woefully short-lived. Putting the game on at 10am on a leisurely Sunday morning, I'd finished the whole thing before my belly started rumbling for an evening meal - and that's factoring in numerous breaks for snacks, IM chats and idle net-browsing. Your mileage will vary related to difficulty level and your ability to nail terrorists, but the ongoing trend for shorter single-player experiences in blockbuster releases is blatantly in evidence here, with six hours likely to be the average first run-through for most.
Kicking off in Paris five years before the game's near-future setting, the game quickly moves on to the neon trash of Sin City once again, where those dastardly terrorists are up to no good with chemical weapons. "No good", of course, gives us the excuse to shoot some more funny foreigners. Wacka-wacka. The story's not exactly the game's strong point, with a typically anodyne cast and dialogue that washes over you, but, for once, the scale of the task at hand seems credible. It's a slightly more personal affair, where your best efforts don't always yield the desired results. The entire universe isn't going to perish at the hands of someone with short man syndrome or anything; trying to stop trains from blowing up, people being gassed to death and hotels exploding seems a bit more like the sort of thing Rainbow Six would be tasked with.
For the fourth game in a row (if we include both GRAWs), each mission is book-ended by Ubisoft's trademark chopper ride to your destination, complete with stunning, popup-free views. Admittedly the impressiveness of the effect is somewhat dimmed by its predictability and recent over-use, but it's still one of the best ways to get a mission underway, with your briefings and background details formed from the chatter during the journey. On the ground, it conforms to the Rainbow Six template - train stations, office complexes, underground car parks hotels, rooftops, blah - with alternative routes through levels on offer and, thankfully, very little to do on the casino floor (handy, since we left all our money at the games shop).
As Bishop, the leader of a three-man squad, you have the option of leading the charge and letting your two team-mates fall in behind you, or playing the cautious tactician and allowing them to take all the risks. Using your men as a battering ram serves as an effective tactic, with their ability to soak up damage curiously far greater than yours - especially if you crank the difficulty level up to Realistic. Employing a recharging health mechanic, this is undoubtedly a far more forgiving affair (even on hard difficulty) than the rather evil old-school Rainbow Sixes, with a fair few checkpoints helping to accelerate progress and minimise the incessant replaying of certain sections. So that's one reason it's a shorter game than it used to be, but let's not forget that seven campaign levels is fewer than usual as well.
While we ponder over the fine detail, it's easy to forget how refined the control system is, and how well it serves a once-complex game. The slick system employed allows you to move freely while dictating the position of your men - whether stacking them up against the next door or requesting them to fall in behind you. Using a combination of context-sensitive commands and intuitive d-pad commands, the game second-guesses your intentions correctly. You can make use of cover by holding the left trigger near to where you want to go, moving the left stick to peek out in the required direction, with options to blindfire too. The overall range of commands has been reduced since, say, 2004's disappointing Lockdown, but all the essentials remain, like being able to frag or flash and then clear, and tagging enemies you want your team-mates to take out first with the left bumper. Ill-advised additions like heartbeat sensors and overly convoluted go-codes are firmly in the dustbin of history, it seems.
The major addition since last time out is the character-creation ranking system, whereby every kill (in every game mode, whether in single or multiplayer - previously, this was a multiplayer only feature) awards players with a certain amount of XP, whether carried out by you or your team-mates. A simple, no-frills kill might bag you a single point of XP, but pull off an impressive feat and you'll not only gain more XP but a skill-point bonus which counts towards ranking up one of three categories: Marksman (for headshots, long-range, opponents killed while using a rope, etc), CQS (close-quarters kills, such as using blindfire or short-range attacks) and Assault (for killing turret-gunners, killing through cover, downing shielded opponents, etc). If you've played the previous Vegas, you'll get a bonus portion of 1250 XP and some equipment to get you underway (thanks!), and from there on, how you work your way up the 20 ranks to Elite status is in your hands. The lower the difficulty you play on, the fewer XP and skill-points. The new XP system is an unexpectedly fantastic addition for numerous reasons. Progressing through the ranks unlocks lots of better weapons, armour and visual upgrades (like comedy camouflage), all of which you can take with you into multiplayer sorties, not to mention other supplementary modes like Terrorist Hunt and co-op.
While you might initially feel a sense of "is that it?" when the credits roll on the somewhat brief story mode, Vegas 2 certainly isn't lightweight. There are 12 Terrorist Hunt missions, for a start, which is almost as good as having an entire extra campaign, mainly because it's wonderfully replayable off or online and perfect for a quick session. Crank up the enemy density and skill level and it becomes a fantastic war of attrition - especially if you're attempting to scoop the Achievement points for finishing all 12 on Realistic.
Online, Vegas 2 has the usual impressive array of options and modes to keep series fans and newcomers happy. Story mode and Terrorist Hunt modes can also be played via Xbox Live (publicly or privately), System Link, or split-screen if you prefer, although we're now limited to two players rather than four in story mode (boo!). In terms of the five Versus modes, across the same 12 maps used in Terrorist Hunt, up to 16 players can engage in team-based and free-for-all. Attack & Defend mode is a self-explanatory team-based affair, Team Leader involves defending your leader while also trying to assassinate your opponent's, while Total Conquest involves capturing satellite transmitters and holding them for the duration of a countdown. Elsewhere, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch tick old-school boxes. As usual, you can tinker with settings for each and specify weapon-restrictions, respawn count, round duration (up to 20 minutes), and whether players can join a match in progress. Even your chosen spoken language shows up in the match search, which helps. There's nothing especially revolutionary about any of it, but the maps are intricate and varied and it's a game anyone can jump into and not feel overwhelmed. Just expect a few frame-rate dips here and there if you fancy playing the story mode in co-op.
Regardless of failure, every kill counts towards improving your rank, so there's a lessened sense of despair when you fail. The fact that your investment of time is counting towards something is an excellent payback that other games could learn from. The other positive element of the XP system is that it encourages you to stop relying on your squad-mates so much, with your feats of skill rewarded more than if your team-mates bag the kill. So not only is there an added incentive to play the offline modes on a tougher skill level, the game also rewards positive and skillful play on every game mode.
In short, the inclusion of the XP system has unexpectedly saved Vegas 2 from feeling like a lazy cash-in release. Although it barely offers anything new elsewhere, this single innovation does enough to make you play more than you otherwise might - and in new ways, too.
On the downside, the overall technology hasn't really moved on in two years. GRAW felt like one of the first games to make the generational leap, but Vegas 2 stands still. There's no doubt the game has the capacity, on occasion, to hold its own against the best Unreal Engine 3-powered shooters, but that's all it does. Worse, screen-tearing issues are still rampant, and texturing is often alarmingly bland. For a full-priced product pitched as a full sequel, you'd expect a bit more - especially when you consider you can pick up the original for probably less than half the price if you shop around. Overall, Vegas 2 feels like an incremental expansion, despite the success of the character-creation feature. The annoying thing is that with a bit more investment these quickfire sequels would feel like true follow-ups, which would go a long way with those of us who've been following the series for the past ten years. As it is, we'll still go to Vegas, but we'll be grumpy on the way home.
7 / 10