Rainbow Six: Lockdown
What'll happen when it gets to the sixth version? We let you ponder that one and get on with telling you what we thought of our first hands-on with Red Storm's latest...
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For ages it seemed like Ubisoft was playing some elaborate practical joke on fans of the Tom Clancy games. On the one hand you had Splinter Cell, a game of such startling visual opulence its initial late 2002 arrival seemed to descend upon us a generation ahead of anything else, and on the other Ubi were busy chucking out Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six games so visually retarded they appeared to belong to the generation before. It probably says everything about how good Red Storm's efforts were in gameplay terms that even our inner graphics whore was forced to pipe down while we hugged them to our imaginary bosoms and cherished them for what they were. Beauty is often only pixel deep.
With the Ghost Recon series finally out of the fugly camp at last with last year's sequel getting the big thumbs up from us, that left only the Rainbow Six series due a butterfly-esque re-emergence. And so it has proved. It's like seeing all your badly dressed bouffant-haired best mates cropped, suited and booted for the first time. You always knew they had it in them, but finally witnessing it fills your heart with pride.
Paint a rainbow
Getting to grips with an almost fully-formed pre-release build was in the main a joy to behold and leaves us in no doubt that Ubisoft has one of spring's more exciting games on its hands. Not because it's doing necessarily anything magically different, you understand, but mainly because it's just a formula that works, that feels so right, and one that simply feels somewhat more satisfying than the typical first-person run and gun.
Unlike previous R6s, there appears to have been some real semblance of storyline attached to it. Even though Tom Clancy's name has been stapled to the series for seven years now (look! This bloke writes books! Buy our game based on his books!), it's hard to really recall there being an especially big effort in the past to engage gamers with anything other than some really quite forgettable pre-mission briefings and virtually no in-game character development. For gawd's sake, the only reason we knew that Ding Chavez was the lead character in any case was because of the timely hilarity of his surname. Undoubtedly conscience of this disparity, Red Storm now regularly reminds us who each character during load pauses, and loads up the game with much more in the way of scripted banter and so on.
The vastly improved game engine helps reinforce this as well, with each character fully recognisable facially and no longer a generic piece of cannon fodder with a name. Each sport their own identifiable uniform, talk to you in their own regional accent and appear to be far better animated than previously. All round it's a world of improvements, and one that extends to the general game world as well, with every element of the environment richly detailed. Crouch behind a car and wince as windows get shot out and individual bullet holes appear in the paintwork. It's hard not to be impressed - and this was the apparently inferior PS2 build.
Add to that a bunch of far superior cut-scenes that deliver a much greater sense of purpose than previously Spartan efforts of old and that's one area already that's a massive improvement. This time there's a sense that we're fighting against an organisation of mighty evil; in this case the Global Liberation Front, an organisation that blames the problems of the Third World on the developed nations. But they're not just pissed off and waving AKs around like bad boys, these bio-terrorists have a 100 per cent fatal and incurable bio chemical weapon at their disposal called Legion that effectively wipes out everyone in the vicinity. Fighting terrorism and rescuing hostages is one thing, but dealing with this lot is another. They want an end to all military occupation by First World nations, and the removal of all Third World debts. No compromises.
So, headed up by the Chavmeister himself, you go into one tense situation after another supported by - as ever - three elite soldiers all capable of looking after themselves. As before, you can tweak the arsenal at their disposal or take the recommended offerings and get going. The controls are modelled precisely on the previous versions with a few minor additions. So, for example, clicking your cursor on a destination will send your squad-mates scurrying forth to take up the best position of cover, or if you want to take the lead you can order them to hold, or hold down the command button and even mete out suppressing fire, with the ability to configure whether you want them to shoot in full auto, single shots or burst.
As ever, you'll be bursting through a lot of doors in Lockdown, and here there's a small tweak to the controls whereby you can order your squad-mates to approach them in a variety of ways. For example, as well as the ability to open doors normally, you can get them to kick them down (termed shotgun), as well as blast them open, not to mention lobbing frag or flash grenades after their grand entrance. But unlike before, whatever you decide has to be confirmed on your 'go code' by default, putting an end to those miscalculated attempts that you'd inevitably hastily command and be unable to backtrack on.
The path to greatness
In terms of the general character behaviour and AI, even at this unfinished stage everything works a treat. Not only do characters actually take care of themselves, never get in your way and can path-find better than probably any comparable game, they don't just sit there getting shot where you haven't given them a command and won't take commands if they're busy fighting for their lives at the time. We can only hope the enemy AI puts up less than a scripted fight than it normally does. Probably the one area R6 could improve is in the area of presenting more of an unpredictable challenge, and from the little we've seen so far this is still an area that hasn't been dealt with; it's still very much a case of learning the appearance of the baddies and working your way around based on that prior knowledge.
With the main single-player campaign shaping up very nicely, it's nice to know there are a bunch of other new modes that shore up the longevity, including a Silent Scope-inspired Sniper mode that has you acting as a sharpshooter tasked with taking out terrorists while protecting your squad-mates, who are busy running the gauntlet on the ground. Add to that a slick co-op mode that lets you play the campaign mode with a buddy, plus the usual online fun and thrills that tip this over the edge from being a might buy to a 'must buy' in our opinion. Even Halo 2, for all the hype of its online mastery, can't compete with the superb teamplay-based mode that allows you to tackle the full game together (the best way to play it if you can get adequately skilled players to enjoy it with you), as well as a plethora of other team-based and all-versus-all multiplayer; much like it was before in fact, with Team Rainbow versus Mercenaries Deathmatch, CTF (a.k.a Retrieval), the Xbox-only Assault (a.k.a. Conquest), Team Sharpshooter, and two platform specific modes: Team Rivalry (PS2 only) and Persistent Elite Creation Xbox-only). But more news on those when we get it.
On the downside, Red Storm seems determined to try and take the shine off the package with some more truly heinous Nu Metal dirge (a la The Warrior Within) making an unwelcome appearance in the soundtrack, not to mention some appalling voice acting that manages to pronounce Edinburgh "Edinbor-oh" like only tedious American tourists can. Someone kindly put these morons straight!
Throw away the key
But we jest (but with serious undertones). From our initial run through of three single-player levels, there's every reason to be excited about Lockdown. It's admittedly no gameplay revolution in terms of new ideas, (save for one new single-player mode) but it solidifies the huge potential of the previous versions, buffs it up and presents it as something far more in keeping with what we expected last time around. We look forward to getting to grips with the finished article in the coming weeks.
Rainbow Six: Lockdown is coming to the PS2 and Xbox on 25th March. Check back for a full review in the days leading up to release.