Shooting terrorists, rescuing hostages, defusing bombs. It's a well-worn formula, and Red Storm's been peddling it with the Rainbow Six series for many years - with increasing success. Its transition to consoles, in particular, has managed to bring out the best in the series - particularly online, where it ranks as possibly the finest example of how to do team-based gaming. Even offline, it's always been resolutely satisfying; one of those atmospheric slow-burners that demands reserves of patience and no small amount of skill to outwit a foe.
But at the same time the campaign mode's always fallen short of true greatness, blighted by a slightly dog-eared approach to almost everything it does - thanks to dodgy AI path-finding, age-old game and graphics engines, and an inflexible command system. That said, they may be dim, dull to look at and hard to command, but it's always satisfying to point your men to the next corner, let them take out the hostiles, mop up after them, and have to worry about not getting yourself shot due to the lack of health packs (which they simply don't believe in). If you've played one level of Rainbow Six over recent years you've pretty much played them all, but it's a tenser and more credible experience than most even if it is stuck in its ways. We like it. It gets the pulse racing - and even though the formula has hardly moved on, it's one that for the most part just plain works.
A good enough formula then, so naturally it's one that Lockdown immediately goes and tinkers with for no obvious reason. And for everything good that's been added, there are an equal number of things that make it less appealing. It feels like change for the sake of change, and that's the worst kind.
You could just open it
A classic example of this is Red Storm's decision to let you bash open doors in several new ways. In addition to blowing the bloody doors off, you can now ram the door or order team-mates to shoot it off the hinges. Both are utterly superfluous additions that you'll literally never use, other than to try them out a few times.
Another debatable addition is the new motion sensor, effectively allowing you to semi-cheat your way through the game by sensing the heartbeats of anyone in the next room. It takes half of the tension out of the game, even if it does let you know whether you can ignore certain rooms.
A few other odds and ends have also made it in. The most notable is the odd trip-wire, but for much of the game you're warned to look out for them first, so for every new challenge you face the game tries to help out at the same time.
Save our soul
One such contentious helping hand is the ability to save anywhere, as many times as you like. Long-term fans will recall that previous games in the series let you save anywhere too, but only three times per level. This made things more challenging (and frustrating at times if you misused a save too early on) and many will celebrate the facility to save at any point, but at the same time, much like Ubi's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, unlimited saves cut away some of the tension. If you can simply reload after taking big risks, you tend to be less vigilant, and it's evident that Red Storm has used its presence to spike the difficulty without worrying about it. That's lazy design if ever we've seen it.
Which brings us neatly onto another new addition - the Sniper missions. These were invented to be a festival of save-and-load. These Silent Scope-esque interludes pop up roughly every other mission, and they're rarely anything but downright irritating. The main problem isn't so much the idea - we like sniping, as it goes - but often enough the designers give you absolutely no hope of spotting deadly RPG-wielding terrorists whose actions result in Game Over if you don't nail them the instant you're warned about them. Unable to detect them until probably the fifth attempt, you're left diving to the menu, reloading and resaving to make sure you don't have to waste any more time than necessary.
And yet, for a game that relies so incessantly on quick saves and loads, the interface is about as unhelpful as it could possibly be. If you happen to die, the default option is 'restart', which takes you back to the very start of the level - not what most people require. To actually reload from a saved game involves moving the menu option down about four times to 'load', confirming, waiting a few seconds for the load menu to load (no, it's not funny), specifically selecting the load slot, confirming again, then actually loading. It's painful. Soon you resolve to load progress before the Game Over screen appears to ensure one of these processes is skipped. Even then, it's hardly intuitive, and bizarre in this era of slick menu design.
As if all these niggling little issues weren't enough, the overall feeling with Lockdown is that it's not finished. If it wasn't a boxed copy we were playing from, we'd probably phone up Ubisoft and complain. On at least two occasions during the 14-mission campaign it's obvious that the game hasn't been adequately road-tested for nigh on show-stopping bugs. About five missions in there's an absolute howler with a shutter door, which is open maybe three feet - high enough to crawl under, you might imagine, but just too high for lead character Ding Chavez to shuffle under. Hrm.
Okay, so there must be another way round this seemingly impassable obstacle, right? Wrong. At this point we wondered why there wasn't a 'Go Prone' command that would've overcome this ludicrous scenario at a stroke, but it turned out that the only way to progress is to simply walk through solid metal at a specific point halfway along the door. The comedy doesn't end there. One of our four-man counter-terrorist squad sussed the same trick and joined us, but the hapless duo on the other side were left in a state of perpetual confusion, endlessly running up against a door until we got bored and left them behind. But wait, there's more. About ten minutes later the guys obviously worked out how to walk through solid objects as well, caught up, and the party was reunited for the level conclusion. Phew. We're wondering how many other players are going crazy right now trying to figure this out. How the hell did that get past the submission process at Microsoft? [It walked through a wall. - Ed]
Meanwhile on the final sniper mission the game perpetually respawns enemies until you hit a specific target character. In this case it was a shadowy figure obscured in a tower opposite. For fully half an hour, the game spawned terrorists over and over, all taking up the same six positions, and each time every single one was taken down and replaced with another lemming. Any suspension of disbelief is rudely shattered by this shocking aberration, and then it happened again in the latter part of the same level. The fact we got off the level at all was more to do with bloody-minded determination than anything. We were glad when the whole farcical experience was over with, to be honest.
Even on a technical level Lockdown doesn't pull up any trees. Although the ragdoll physics are an admirable improvement, Red Storm still lacks an engine (or the ability to manipulate the engine) to do the game's basic premise justice. Rainbow Six has been crying out for years to feature the same sort of lighting dynamics as Splinter Cell, but yet again the game's lighting is a superfluous, decorative effect that has little bearing on how well an enemy can see you. Likewise, the environments lack believability, with superficial barriers (upturned tables, barrels) regularly acting as impenetrable obstacles that force large detours. What about dynamic levels with walls and floors that can be damaged?
It's true that there's better texturing and a more varied set of environments than in the past, but they make little difference to what's really going on in-game. It's baffling that Ghost Recon has to be the 'outdoor' version of Rainbow Six. Why can't these trained counter-terrorist units do a bit of both? Instead virtually the whole game is limited to tight, enclosed indoor environments, and it feels restricted and restrictive as a result. Claustrophobics beware.
Even the animations don't feel finished. The more time you spend with the game, the clunkier certain actions look, spoiling some generally excellent work in the convincing actions of your squad mates - and it's hard to accept this at this stage in the current generation's life cycle. The hideously jerky way your squad returns fire when leaning around a corner is an abomination. It really is. The AI, too, is inconsistent, both in terms of how your squad reacts to an enemy threat as well as how they react to you. If you play the game properly and creep around, the enemy AI regularly complains about hearing voices when you haven't said a word, will stand gormless when you've capped the man standing next to them, and seems more vulnerable the more aggressively you behave. Lean gently around corners and they'll probably write their name in bullets across your furrowed brow, but charge at them like Tony Montana on Crack and they're more likely to drop like flies.
At sixes and sevens
Both sets of AI, too, are completely inconsistent shots. For the most part they're absolutely useless, and far from being trained killers, both would have trouble shooting fish in a barrel with an RPG. Time and again you can position your men on appropriate corners and watch them fire haplessly at everything but terrorist flesh. Eventually you're forced to take matters into your own hands and do it yourself, yet it takes just one well placed shot to take them down. Elsewhere, though, you're witness to improbable heroics on both sides, where enemies appear to have been instructed to be ludicrously accurate almost for the sake of it. More save/load antics persist, and eventually you mop up, but not before you've cursed the game for being insanely unfair with both its reaction times and levels of accuracy. Can we not have a middle ground between this dumb nonsense and unerring accuracy? Oh, we forgot, that would require a bit more development time. Never mind eh? It's number one in the charts. That's alright then.
But it's not alright. As long-term fans of the series, we feel short-changed and immensely disappointed that Ubisoft is prepared to let its remarkably high standard slip so devastatingly.
So we hate the single-player campaign then? Weeell, not completely. Long-term fans will still find plenty of things to enjoy. The solid foundation that the game's built on may be shaken, but it's still in place. The addition of a few other throwaway bonus modes helps out too, including Lone Rush (a one-man all-action score-based against-the-clock version), Terrorist Hunt (a basic clean-up exercise with your full squad played on the mission levels - minus the mission objectives), while the Sniper Game lets you replay these irritating interludes at your leisure.
No remarks here
All round, for the offline player, Lockdown is a solid but unremarkable package that doesn't live up to expectations of improvement. We expected a proper fourth generation Rainbow Six, but instead we got a game that introduces more problems than it fixes, and ends up neither appeasing the hardcore fans or dragging in new ones. Dismay all round, really.
There's always the multiplayer mode, though, right? Yes, and thank heavens for that, otherwise Ubisoft might have been counting the cost of an unprecedented slaughtering. If anything, Lockdown's slip-ridden development cycle has likely been focused on building the popularity of its Live modes, and much of the game's appeal will come from this aspect of the game.
Obviously, co-op-based antics take care of the problematic squad AI, and therefore it's the best way to play the mission (and Terrorist Hunt) side of the game, so that's one plus point. You're still left to cope with the enemy AI, so it's not perfect, but it's still thoroughly enjoyable when you play it with some mates who know what they're doing (playing it with rank amateurs in your team is pretty stressful, so try and give that a miss).
The key new feature, though, is the inclusion of a Persistent Elite Creation mode, which ought to give players a good idea of how good their opponents are. Essentially it allows you to customise your character, build up experience, buy upgrades and store your achievements.
First off you have to choose one of four character classes: Commando (heavy weapons/armour), Spec-Op (knife wielding, hard to detect), Engineer (computer/electronic specialist) and Medic (erm). Each one has numerous strengths and weaknesses. By using them in adversarial games (Team Survival = last man standing wins, Total Conquest = control all satellite points, Retrieval = CTF with biohazards, Team Sharpshooter = Team Deathmatch) you can earn points from each match whether you win or lose and spend them in the game's Locker Room in order to buy/sell/repair equipment, upgrade skills, as well as vary your appearance.
It's a fantastic idea on paper. The thing we haven't quite sussed out is what the long-term effect will be. As a level one newbie, it's pretty obvious that you're going to get your arse kicked repeatedly. Our forays (just after release) saw us up against level 20 brutes who clearly had far better equipment and skills. You can guess the rest. Sure, you get rewards no matter the result, but we imagine many will want to stick to what they know and not have to suffer being splattered by brutes that spend their whole lives playing the same game non-stop. For the real hardcore, though, there's no question that the addition of a persistent mode will go down a storm, and it's a feature we can imagine becoming a standard across all shooters in time. In the right circumstances, it's a great addition, but just approach the game forewarned.
(Side note: Naturally, the PS2 version's online offerings suffer slightly by comparison, swapping out the PEC mode for the Rivalry mode; a team-based, objective-focused affair that we've not seen, but is reportedly solid.)
For better or worse
So then, with two fairly distinct audiences to please, Ubi's seemingly kept the online gamers happy, but it's clearly taking its eye off the offline ball, and with that in mind a score for two distinctly differing offerings is fairly meaningless. We'd happily slap a glowing score on the online bit, but the single-player offering is burdened by so many problems that you'd be generous to claim it's slightly above average. If you're not much of an online gamer then pick up the older, cheaper, better Rainbow Six III or Black Arrow, but otherwise, online gamers can't really go wrong with Lockdown. Next time though, Red Storm, we won't tolerate such a lopsided offering; we know you can do so much better than this.
(add extra marks if you're playing online)