Editor's note: This piece is based upon an event in London, where we played through Rainbow Six Siege's modes on PC over a couple of days. Our full review will be up later this week once we've been able to get adequate experience of the game running on live servers.
Origin stories don't come much stranger: around this time last year there was a wonderful, all-too-convincing piece on the sadly departed Grantland positing that Kevin from Home Alone, that cherubic icon of sadistic childhood, grew up to be the Saw series' own, slightly less loveable lead, Jigsaw. It all makes so much sense: the parental neglect, the nasty traps and the love for a very stagey kind of pain - of course it's all true.
Spending a couple of days playing Rainbow Six Siege, Ubisoft's multiplayer-focussed reboot of one of its longest running series, I came to think there could well have been a different branch taken in young Kevin's life, and an alternative timeline; one where he channels all that fiendishness in other ways, enrolling in the military before his penchant for deathly devices sees him shuffled up to one of those strange, secretive government offshoots that are the mainstay of the Tom Clancy universe.
Rainbow Six Siege, with its love of high-tech toys and deeply tactical play, manages to distill a fair amount of what was good about Ubisoft's series into a thrilling multiplayer game. With a newfound emphasis on holing up your team, turning a domestic space deadly with electrocuted barbed wire and trip-mines, Siege does more than that, though: it becomes an unexpected and frequently brilliant Home Alone simulator.
Who knew that Siege, in its subtle riffing off the 1990 Christmas classic, would be one of this year's more fitting festive releases? Probably Ubisoft, actually, given how it has presented players with a handful of appropriately themed playgrounds: a wintry villa complex where you can feel the snow crunching under the delicate footsteps of you and your squad mates, or a Russian department store decked out in gaudy gold leaf. It would all be perfectly seasonal and lovely if you weren't checking every corner for a possible entry point from the attacking team. Best check that grand old fireplace over there: you'll never know who'll come bounding in through the chimney with their list of who's been naughty and who's been nice.
Rainbow Six Siege is a game of two halves, and they're equally fun. As the defending team, you and your four team-mates must protect an objective - it could be securing a single room, keeping a hostage out of enemy hands or looking after a couple of bombs that have been planted across the map - with a small window of time granted in order for you to prepare your defences. That's when it gets tricky, and more interesting: there are doors to secure, windows to board up, and even then you'll want to think about whether the ceiling's a possible point of entry for a team that's packing some explosives.
In the attacking team, the options are just as rich - there's a neat verticality thanks to your ability to rappel down all walls, plus it's hard to tire of pulling off a headshot when hanging upside down. With all those beautiful toys at your disposal and a destructible world that's willing to be torn apart by them, there's the feeling, when rushing in, that anything's possible. You just have to temper that with an awareness that most of these possibilities also end with an armful of barbed wire and explosive mines lying in wait for you.
When Rainbow Six Siege clicks into place - and with four friends by your side in its core mode, it's hard for it not to - it's great, and I'd go as far as saying that it's one of the best multiplayer experiences I've had all year. There's no doubt, though, that it's limited in scope. For the solo player, there are 10 situations that run you through the starter maps (there's another map that brings the total count to 11), and while they're perfectly fun, it's hard to pretend they're anything other than an extended tutorial.
Terrorist Hunt, a co-operative mode against hordes of enemies that can also be played solo, is another entertaining diversion, though after a short while it can feel like something of a hollow sideshow. Not for the first time this year, a multiplayer-focussed game feels like there's something missing, or that a vital part has been torn out. How strange - and perhaps telling - that the brilliant Angela Bassett's appearance is effectively limited to a pre-game intro that's all too easily missable. This Rainbow Six is completely devoid of story or context - not necessarily a bad thing, given the messy politics of past Tom Clancy games, but a notable one nevertheless.
It's especially notable in a full-priced game, and a full-priced game with a prominent shop-front to boot. Rainbow Six Siege's attempt to add crinkles to its well developed yet slim core comes through a selection of unlockable 'operators' with unique traits: a MOBA-ish play to introduce distinguishable characters into the fray.
They're real characters, too, and I already have a couple of favourites: Twitch, the French offensive unit who comes complete with a remote-controlled Shock Drone that can buzz enemies, and Thatcher, the gruff-voiced SAS operative whom, I admit, I'm only playing because I'm convinced he's voiced by Zombi U's Prepper, and who I hope will one day meet his downfall in the shape of his nemesis Scargill.
They're characters that can, if you so desire, be kitted out for a cost, with micro-transactions complementing Rainbow Six Siege's in-game economy. It'll be interesting to see how progression and unlocks balance out - though, in fairness to Ubisoft, it has made a commitment to providing free maps post-release.
Whether it can sort out the server issues out that have plagued the open beta is another issue, and it's worrying to have gone away enthused from a couple of days of secure network play only to struggle to find a single match on the PS4 test servers mere days before launch. The next few days will be interesting, and I hope the stars align so I can see Rainbow Six Siege at its best again. Because when all the parts are ticking over correctly, it can be an absolute joy.