Genre: Tactical Shooter
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: April 15, 2008
Those of us growing a little long in the tooth may recall with fondness the original Rainbow Six and its emphasis on tactics and strategy. The latest installment in the series, Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, has done away with most of the tactical elements but replaced them with updated graphics and exciting action. The result is a fun game that seems to have stuck an excellent balance between realism and playability.
You are cast in the role of squad leader of a counter-terrorist SWAT team with vague orders to hunt down terrorists and stop them from trading in chemical weapons. Most of the time, you and your squad proceed through casinos, a monorail station, a convention center, and an assortment of generic buildings (all of which are curiously devoid of life forms) as you hunt down the terrorists or attempt to free hostages. While all of this makes for a good time, I wish the developers could have shown a little more imagination in choosing the locale.
I mean, really. Vegas again? We've been there already. Why not Rainbow Six: Dubai or Rainbow Six: Cairo? Take me somewhere I haven't been. Without a doubt, the original Rainbow Six: Vegas was excellent, but the sequel should have done more than just take us back to the same city for another romp through the same area, albeit in different buildings. Were it not for the substantial multiplayer component, this $50 release could have been an expansion pack.
Vegas 2 resembles its predecessor not just in location but in gameplay and appearance. The graphics have changed very little, if at all. While I was blown away by the visuals when I played the original, I was less impressed this time around, a year later. A positive aspect of the unchanged graphics is the fact the game plays much more smoothly on today's computers. The original Vegas was a little ahead of its time, in the same way that Crysis seems to have been developed for tomorrow's computers. My old Radeon X1900 XTX video card had trouble cranking out smooth frame rates with last year's title, but my current GeForce 8800 GTX plays Vegas 2 smooth as silk at maximum quality settings and at 1920x1200 widescreen resolution.
The graphics are colorful almost to the point of being cartoonish. This works best for the scenes involving casinos and big neon signs, but is less effective with indoor warehouses, convention centers, and the like, where the gritty, unsaturated visuals of Call of Duty 4 would have been more appropriate.
Throughout the game, your character looks fantastic. His fluid movements feel natural and realistic, and his weapons and body armor are rendered with gorgeous textures and detail. Such attention to detail has not been afforded to the non-playable characters, particularly the assortment of hostages who must be rescued from time to time, some of whom are unintentionally zombie-like in appearance, with unnatural lighting effects and stick-figure movements. The enemy AI tends to fall somewhere between the two extremes in terms of visual detail and realism.
The real reason to buy and play Vegas 2 (or the original Vegas, if you haven't already) is the amazing control scheme and use of cover. You can duck behind just about everything. When you do, the camera switches seamlessly into a third-person perspective that allows you to more easily view the "battlefield" without putting you in harm's way.
The beauty lies in all the things you can do while crouched behind cover. You can peer around the corner to get a better view, and when you do, the screen doesn't just tilt sideways as it does in so many other games that allow the player to "lean." Instead, the camera transitions back to a first-person view (again, seamlessly and intuitively) in a manner that feels realistic and natural. If the enemy is close, you can opt to fire your weapon from an outstretched arm, keeping your head and body safely behind cover. You can even rise, turn, and fire a round over the top of whatever it is you're hiding behind, and then duck back behind cover. Throughout the game, the player retains incredible freedom of movement, resulting in an intense, wholly immersive experience.
Battles in Vegas 2 can be brutal. Even on normal difficulty settings, it's usually a one-shot, one-kill affair. You can outfit your character with upgraded armor and body protection, but that only buys you a couple of more hits before you're toast. Most of the time, this is for the best. It teaches you to use the game's excellent cover mechanic, using objects in the environment for protection, and peeking around them only when necessary to take a quick shot and return to cover. Sometimes, however, it can be infuriating.
Those AI terrorists like to camp. Typing "n00b! Stop camping!!" into the chat window does not appear to have any effect. So sometimes, even the best laid plans go to waste when an enemy terrorist lying in wait easily takes you out with a single shot, when you least expect it. In one level, I ordered my two squadmates to clear a large room while I watched through a skylight on the roof. Eventually, my guys eliminated the enemies and announced that the room was clear, so I descended into the room using my "fast rope" and crashed through the skylight glass. The room was supposed to be empty, but I was taken out by a hiding enemy the moment my feet touched the ground, before I could even draw a weapon.
The semi-realistic SWAT battles wouldn't be so frustrating if there was a quick-save function. Instead, we're given the outdated, annoying checkpoint system that automatically saves the game but only when you reach certain levels, rooms, corridors, etc. You can't just save the game whenever you want to. The result is that you'll often have to replay the more difficult levels again and again, going through the motions solely for the purpose of surviving the firefight at the end. Should you be eliminated by one of those pesky, camping terrorists hiding around a corner, you will have to replay the entire level (as far back as the previous checkpoint).
Tactics in Vegas 2 may not have the same level of depth as the older Rainbow Six titles, but they are fun nonetheless. As with the original Vegas, you have a snake cam to scan a room for terrorists before you enter. You can "tag" enemies to label them as priorities to your squad. While your squad stacks up at a door awaiting further orders, you can prepare to enter from another angle, often with dramatic flair. (Why just open another door when you can rappel down a rope in an upside-down position and enter by smashing through a window?) Your squad can then toss in a flashbang or frag grenade, and all of you can enter the room at once, taking the enemy by surprise. Granted, there aren't a lot of strategic options beyond "flash and clear," "smoke and clear," and entering a room from different angles, but the successful execution of a well-laid plan is always gratifying.
There are other fun toys, too, like night-vision and thermal goggles and smoke grenades, but frankly, they're not that necessary due to the nerfing of the franchise to make it more accessible to a wider audience. For example, your squad is so powerful that it can usually clear a room of enemies without the use of high-tech gadgetry or any help from you. If one of them falls, you can simply direct the other to juice him up with a magical health serum that will restore him to 100 percent health in a matter of seconds.
The multiplayer component adds enough value to make this title worth the $50 price tag. There are several gameplay modes and a variety of interesting maps, and as of this writing, there appear to be plenty of people playing it, so finding a match is seldom difficult. The server browser, however, left much to be desired. It's a clunky setup that makes you join an online lobby and wait for others to join and click on a "Ready" button before you can play. It won't just list all of the available servers according to criteria you specify and allow you to jump right in, as most FPS titles do.
In multiplayer mode, the graphics take a very noticeable turn for the worse. The environments are much less detailed, and textures of some surfaces are almost entirely absent. Walls in some buildings look like they're made of smooth plastic rather than plaster and sheetrock. Of course, the reason for this is to enable a greater number of players to enjoy the multiplayer mayhem, a noble cause that benefits everyone, as those of us with the faster computers aren't going to have any fun online if there aren't any servers populated with opponents. The more, the merrier.
In addition to standard multiplayer, there is also a "terrorist hunt" mode that puts you in a map of your choosing, and you're tasked with eliminating all terrorists. You can play this format by yourself in "lone wolf" mode (suicide, for those of us lacking a chipmunk's reflexes), with a computer-controlled squadmate that you can direct in single-player, or in co-op mode over the Internet or over a LAN. Co-op mode also exists for the single-player campaign, allowing you to play through the game with a friend.
There is a reward system that unlocks various items such as new camouflage patterns, upgraded outfitting, fancier helmets and the like. They're given in recognition of various achievements, but most of the rewards are merely cosmetic and have little effect on the gameplay. (Note: balaclava, an early unlock, is apparently not a Greek dessert, so do not expect a burst of suger-induced speed as a result of equipping it.) I also questioned the propriety of awarding points for killing "visually impaired" opponents. One would hope the reference is to enemies temporarily dazed by a flashbang.
While Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 has departed from its hardcore roots and offers little beyond a second helping of the previous title, it is nevertheless a worthwhile, entertaining venture with just enough squad-based tactics to keep things interesting. The multiplayer segment alone makes the title worth its price tag, but be prepared for a single-player experience that feel more like an expansion pack than a full game.
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