Genre: Tactical FPS
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: November 20, 2006
The roots of FPS lie in the fantastic, mostly fighting demons and aliens. Once the prospect of fighting other humans in the form of network multiplayer emerged, the genre grew into the unstoppable juggernaut it is today. From there, development of more realistic takes on the genre were inevitable. There will inarguably be debates about how realistic an FPS can be or should be before it ceases being fun, and the debates will probably go on for as long as people play video games. What cannot be argued is that some of the finest refinements and advancements of the FPS genre have come at the hands of "realistic" genres that removed the monsters and put a big emphasis on realistic elements like stealth, squad tactics, and varied multiplayer.
The various Tom Clancy-themed shooters have played no small part in this evolution of the genre toward true realism, and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas is definitely one of the finest additions to the line. It incorporates all the classic elements of a realistic FPS while still retaining a strong sense of identity. It even manages to tell a clear and involving story without falling back on the melodramatic clichés upon which most titles rely. A fan of realistic FPS, or a fan primarily interested in FPS multiplayer, would have a hard time finding a finer game for their Xbox 360.
The plot of Rainbow Six: Vegas is simple. Terrorists (of largely unknown political affiliation) have seized control of a casino in Las Vegas. You play the leader of a new Rainbow Six team that's called in to deal with the situation as it evolves, and evolve it does. New objectives are constantly being delivered to you by operatives outside the combat zone, often via suitably grainy bits of footage that flash up in the upper left corner of the screen. The upshot of this is that there are no cut scenes in the game. Storyline is delivered entirely via the mission updates and dialogue you overhear while exploring your surroundings. This means that you're never taken out of the gameplay and never have to put your controller down.
This is an amazingly good idea for storytelling on a next-gen system, and I can only hope it becomes a standard feature with action games in the future. Cut scenes developed as a game fixture as a way of creating enhanced immersion, but as graphics and sound improved, they became less and less necessary to simply communicate an idea of a game's intended narrative. When technology outgrows a feature, it should be dispensed with, and Rainbow Six: Vegas deserves great praise for having the courage and intelligence to do just that.
Rainbow Six: Vegas simply doesn't need to take breaks for cut scenes, because the in-game graphics are so realistic and beautiful. At any point in the game (except for a firefight, of course), you can simply pause to inspect the details of the environment and even do some exploring. When you're flying in to the city by chopper, you can inspect the other characters or take in the breathtaking recreation of the Vegas skyline. When you're approaching the casino, you can pause to examine magazines in stands or advertisements along the sidewalk. Inside the casinos, of course, you can examine promotional posters, slot machines, and very authentic details on the hotel portions of the buildings.
You begin the game in the incredibly expansive Calypso casino setting, but move through other casinos with different visual personalities in the course of the game. The environments reflect no real-life location in Vegas, but do an excellent job of evoking the design sensibility of a real-life trip to Vegas. Hotel interiors are suitably gaudy and overdone, and exterior areas are saturated with neon and advertisements. Ubisoft takes advantage of this to work in some obvious product placement for Axe deodorant, and the in-game ads are thickly clustered enough to be irritating despite the fact they shouldn't "feel" out of place. This is the only significant break in the title's recreation of the Vegas environment, though.
Basic controls are fairly standard for a 360 FPS title: firing with the right trigger, left analog stick to move, right analog for camera control. The right button activates your infrared goggles, B throws grenades, Y lets you shuffle through armaments, X reloads, and A is frequently used to interact with the environment (such as opening doors or grabbing dropped weapons). Left trigger is the "cover" button; holding it shifts the camera into a third-person view as your character puts their back to the nearest wall and crouches, if appropriate. Holding down left trigger allows you to maintain cover, and you have to release it to shift back to normal movement. While holding down the cover, your ability to aim is restricted somewhat. Carefully tapping combinations of the left and right analog sticks can allow you to view more of your environment. You have to move the left analog stick hard, effectively darting out from cover, if you want to aim with the usual crosshairs. If you're willing to fire blind, you can roughly take aim and fire your weapon one-handed. This has the advantage of not making you break cover, but it's very imprecise and alerts enemies to your presence.
The single-player campaign is probably the weakest part of the game. The main problem with it is that it's phrased a tactical game, so you play as a squad leader with two subordinates you can direct via the d-pad. A reliable AI directs your allies, and you can count on them to be genuinely helpful in taking out enemies. In some ways, they are much smarter than the AI that directs the enemies, which has excellent aim but occasionally fails to react to loud noises in adjacent rooms or obvious sounds that aren't gunfire or explosions. Rainbow Six: Vegas handles health in two different ways: Normal, which allows the player to regenerate health after being shot in the manner that's become standard since Halo 2; and Realistic, where there's no regeneration and the game is much harder. In Normal, you can get peppered with gunfire through a level, and you'll be fine as long as you can pause and rest until your vision clears.
More than that, though, is the simple fact that you can resurrect your squadmates after being shot so much that their health is fully depleted. Your squadmates, however, can't resurrect you. So, the game gives you no real incentive to ever take risks as a player. You're best off always sending your squadmates ahead to soak up the bulk of the enemy fire and take most of the damage. Your role is primarily relegated to thinking up group tactics, but Vegas is no Ghost Recon: Advance Warfighter, and it's relatively easy to bamboozle the enemy terrorists.
While you can amp up the difficulty by going to Realistic and not using your squadmates the way you're clearly meant to, it will make your game far more tedious. Checkpoints are scattered fairly far apart in Rainbow Six: Vegas, and you can find yourself being forced to repeat fights that consume 10 to 20 minutes just to regain lost ground after making a mistake. Essentially, the single-player campaign in Rainbow Six: Vegas is inevitably either too easy and too repetitive to be enjoyed.
This is fine, though, because Rainbow Six: Vegas more than makes up for the weak single-player design with the multiplayer modes. In fact, Vegas is very obviously meant as a multiplayer game first and foremost, and as a result, the multiplayer is incredibly impressive. Even players who don't usually enjoy FPS or don't enjoy online multiplayer will probably find themselves being sucked in by this game's huge feature list, multiple play modes, and deeply enjoyable Persistent Elite Creation mode for tracking online characters. PEC works much the way it did when it appeared in previous Rainbow Six games: whether you win or lose, your online persona gains "experience" for every match played that allows you to gain improved parameters, more customization options, and a wider range of equipment. You can use the Live Camera to map your face to your avatar, but in practice this feature is little more than a novelty. Lasting appeal lies in using your PEC-created avatar to participate in the tremendous variety of online play modes.
The limp squad-based gameplay of the single-player campaign becomes fantastic co-op play when taken online. Up to four simultaneous players can opt to play a version of the main game campaign or engage in a "Terrorist Hunt" challenge to kill so many terrorists before time runs out. Everything about the main campaign is better with a squad of actual players, and the Terrorist Hunt challenges are stiff enough to be engaging. For competitive multiplayer, there's a variety of games that are essentially takes on the traditional FPS games: Assault & Defend and Retrieval are Capture the Flag variants, Survival and Sharpshooter are Deathmatch variants, and Team Survival and Team Sharpshooter are Team Deathmatch variants.
While the multiplayer games are themselves very simple, this is how it should be. The games are easy to pick up, and even squads of strangers quickly begin to band together to work as a unit. The impressively detailed level maps come with enough variety and complexity to allow players to make good use of all of Vegas's combat options. It is almost the best possible multiplayer FPS you could ask for.
In short, if you love online multiplayer and FPS without the slobbering monsters, then Rainbow Six: Vegas is a must-buy. It is an exceptionally well-made title from combat engine to graphics, and even the weak offline single-player is excusable in light of the stellar co-op options online. This is the kind of game that can make you a deathmatch addict even if you've never liked multiplayer previously, and can make you crave online competition if you've previously preferred your gaming solo. If you own an Xbox 360, this is one of the games that needs to be in your system library.