When publishers are realistic and honest about what their games actually are, you can't help but warm to them. Take Ubisoft - in the last year or so, rather than try and charge full whack for the likes of Ghost Recon: Island Thunder and now Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow, they effectively release a full add-on game that many publishers would call a sequel, but for half the price. On a console.
In every respect, Black Arrow is a worthy successor to last year's console success, but simply uses the same engine, and includes precisely the same maddeningly tense and addictive squad-based counter terrorist action that had us glued to both the single-player and Xbox Live modes in the cold, dark, arse end of 2003. You see, when publishers aren't running around trying to hype more of the same as something special, we don't actually mind more of the same - at a reduced price, of course.
Open Flash Und Klar!
In Black Arrow, everything's exactly the same as it was last time around; only this time you're probably coming to it trained in the exacting ways of how to best shuffle your four man team through 10 deadly environments. In the previous version, we got rather caught up in the novelty of delivering commands via the headset. It turns out that the game is actually miles easier if you forget about such things and simply use the control pads; in terms of versatility and ease of use, it's one of the finest systems ever devised - so as much fun as it is shouting "Open, Flash and Clear on Zulu" for a while (in a slightly German accent, bizarrely), you get quicker and more precise results just using the pad.
The levels themselves are playable both in single and multiplayer, either over Xbox Live, or two-player split screen co-op. As Live games, Black Arrow and its forebear are among the best around. Teaming up with three other mates to do each mission is just outrageously good fun - so long as they're not messing about getting killed in five seconds flat. Yes, dying in Black Arrow is something you'll get used to - especially when the game only allows two saves per level, and offers no checkpoints either. Many times you'll end up saving way too early, or with nowhere near enough health to progress, so one of the key things to enjoying Black Arrow is simply knowing when best to save. Too early, and you'll have no chance, too late and you may end up being killed and having to replay the whole damned thing.
Ubi's storylines for its Tom Clancy games have always left a little to be desired, and Black Arrow is no exception. Ubi does little more than introduce typically generic scenarios and let you get on with it. For the most part, it's hardly relevant anyway once you're underway. The actual mission structure is largely the same anyway - rescue the hostage, kill the perps, defuse the bomb, rinse, repeat. It matters not. Like some of the best games, its charm is in its utter simplicity. The fact that you and your squad can get wiped out in a matter of a few careless seconds is all part of the fun. It feels more real, it feels tense, and that tension and fear around every corner is an excellent formula.
The AI is a little predictable, and occasionally flaky. You always know roughly where the bad guys will show up every single time, and their flexibility is plain to see - they take cover, duck out, shoot, but rarely chase or act as a team. But still, taking on 50-odd bad guys per level is still tough even when you know where they are, and can tell where they're going next. You can't help but admire a game that still feels fun even when everything is scripted to the max. By no means expect gameplay revolution here, but whether playing alone or with friends, it's always willing you to go on, no matter how many times you fail.
Visually it's by far Ubisoft's weakest, with nowhere near the style and grace of any of its recent crop of great games, such as the likes of Splinter Cell or Prince Of Persia; after playing those you can't help but view Black Arrow as more of a black sheep. Textures are as blurry and indistinct as you'll come across these days; walking up to anything even vaguely close up is not advisable.
Everywhere you look it's like a tour through the old school. Character models are stiff and unremarkable in their low polygon state, animation isn't bad but lacks the finesse of more recent efforts, while the levels themselves are constructed in a predictably old fashioned way with incidentals rarely allowing the scene to come to life in any convincing way. It feels like little has progressed since the Counter-Strike days. None of the modern bells and whistles make it in - no destructible terrain, no ragdoll physics. Nothing, in fact, to make it stand out in any way. But yet - somehow - the game itself rises above this mass of jaggies and blurry textures and is better than the sum of its parts (and the Sum Of All Fears, obviously). Not only is it great to play, it's horrendously addictive, with decent squad AI taking up intelligent (for the most part) positions that genuinely help you out in the heat of battle. It's tense, well constructed, balanced, and - once you get the feel for it - excellent fun.
Ding is officially a Chav
Although for the most part you're responsible for a four-man team (of which only Ding Chavez is under your direct control), occasionally the game reduces your squad to two. Worse, the final mission is a brutally hard solo romp through a procession of deadly trained killers. But while it is one of the more challenging games you'll face this year, it's never insurmountable.
Black Arrow does nothing new whatsoever. But don't for one moment assume that that is necessarily a bad thing. Rainbow Six 3 has a great gameplay formula - and we applaud Ubi's decision to kick out a filler release at an excellent price. If last year's edition sated your need for squad based counter-terrorism, then fair enough, move on. But for those who loved it, and fancy some more of the same, then it's not going to disappoint. Sometimes, just delivering more of the same is exactly what's required - so long as we're not expected to pay over the odds for the same experience. For Rainbow Six 3 fans, Black Arrow may be a repeat prescription, but it's just what the doctor ordered.