Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas
All the best games lie to us. We play them because we want to feel as cool and capable as James Bond, Lara Croft, or Tony Vercetti. Clearly dominating an entire city in a wave of crime is not anywhere near as easy as it is in Grand Theft Auto, but we want to get a little thrilling feeling of having done that. The game should convey this sensation without the tedium, danger, and actual hard work involved. This is what Rainbow 6: Vegas delivers in spades.
The concept, in a shotgun shell, is that Rainbow Six is an international Special Forces unit that goes in and does the jobs too tough or too politically sensitive for any one nation to handle. Just like the books, this then involves much wearing of black, technical gun porn, macho throwing about of acronyms, and pissing about rappelling through windows. But here is a key element of the novels - they are not particularly cerebral. Yes, you will get quite a lot of technical specifications thrown in about who gets shot with what, and the tactics used are no doubt perfectly modelled on real-life ninjas, but they will never tax your intellect. That's why the vast majority of them get read on buses and beaches across the world. It is this impression of faux-expertise that sells the books and really makes this game.
Non-denominational terrorists (alas for the glory days when plots could just say 'Russians' or 'Arabs') have taken root in Sin City and are proceeding to blow stuff up and shoot perfectly innocent giant American tourists. In comes Rainbow 6 Super-SWAT and significantly more stuff blows up, but the terrorists get shot instead. Again, there is a similarity to the books - there is a plot strand, but so undernourished, it really is little more than a trail of breadcrumbs to lead the game from one location to the next.
The game's introductory level is actually set in Mexico, full of terra cotta colours, ruined haciendas, and streaming sunlight. This is all very pretty, but not really anything different from what you would expect from a next-gen console. The visuals come into their own when the player hits The Strip, where locations are lovingly recreated in violent neon's and the primary end of the colour chart. Perhaps it is simply because so many hours have been spent in the jungles of Far Cry and the war zones of Wolfenstien that this location works so well. Gun fights border on the surreal as you dodge in and out of slot machines that rain out coins when perforated by stray fire, slice-pie around a burger stand, or evaluate the relative merits of using the roulette or poker table for cover.
Serious Sam and Black reminded us all what FPS was all about - shooting things. All a FPS needs at its heart is a sense of satisfaction when you pull the trigger and grease the bad man de jour. R6V, despite its pretensions of tactical control, is fun because it gives good Gun. Pulling the trigger on even the most humble of SMG's will let loose a roar of fire and destruction, and the larger machine guns and assault shotguns unleash hell. The health system follows the Halo model of a constantly recharging bar, but the more wounded the player gets, the worse your vision becomes. Taking a series of hits will smudge the colours, and then drain the screen of them entirely - leaving muzzle flashes like huge spectral blooms and the edges of objects breaking apart. This has the effect of a badly thought through firefight to rapidly degenerate into thunderous, blind firing chaos and very likely death. This forces the player to either freeze like a rabbit caught in headlights, run away in a blind panic, or start perforating the scenery, which seem like a likely reaction to actually being shot at.
There are essentially three elements that represent the game's tactical aspects: your squad mates, door breaches, and hostage situations. The rest is about as tactical as Die Hard. The first element is your squad mates. Computer controlled, these two sidekicks are not decorative, and will often be more useful in a firefight than you are. If they soak up too much lead, they will fall over and need to be resuscitated in about a minute or so. This can be done by the player, or by a simple directional pad command to make the other stooge do it. They can themselves be directed to go places simply by aiming at something and pressing one button. They will then go clamber into the relevant cover and fire upon nearby 'tangos'. At first this concept seems very involved and technical, encouraging the player to set up all manner of distractions, cover, and enfilading fire. Then when it becomes apparent that you only live once, Mr Bond, whilst Thing 1 and Thing 2 can die and be resuscitated as much as you like, usually just by each other, you start walking them ahead of you like a mine detector. See which side of them the bullets start thudding into: If they don't deal with it themselves, lean out casually and plug the scallywag. Repeat. But this game is so much more fun if you get into it - a bit like paintball. Yes, you can follow all the rules and play nice and keep in mind its all a team building exercise. Or, on the other hand, you can paint your face green, start quoting Apocalypse Now a lot, and scream things like 'Cover Me!' I know which one is more fun. If you start messing about with cover and formations, it is involving and makes you feel very ninja indeed.
This same principle applies to tactical element number two: door breaches. Upon commanding your goons to stand next to a door, they will 'stack up', which means to take up a position next to it. With a press of the relevant directional, you can then decide to blow it right off its hinges, throw in a grenade first, or make the showman's entrance with the flashbang. Your decision is based upon having a peek under the door first with your handy little snake cam, giving you the ability to get a fish-eye lens look at the room's inhabitants. Of course, you can just kick it in and make like Chow Yun Fat, but the same principle of getting into the spirit of the game applies.
The third and final major tactical element is the occasion of the hostage situations. By tagging up to two enemy targets with the snake cam, you set them as priorities for your two goons. When you breach, they will go straight for these unfortunates, leaving you to take care of any others. Thusly, you can clean a room very quickly, and leave the civilians intact. Most hostage situations are well crafted, giving the player multiple options. You could rappel through the glass as your goons explosively breach the door. You could abseil upside down from the ceiling, silenced pistol coughing politely as they snipe from a distant balcony. Or, yes, you could come through the front door like Chuck Norris and cut everything higher than waist height in half, since all the hostages are on their knees already - but see my previous comments about getting into the spirit.
Rainbow Six: Vegas seems to be a game that you will get more out of if you put more in. You can play it as a pretty straightforward shooter, but there are ample facilities for you to play at being SWAT. And you will be playing at it: the tactical involvement is not complicated enough to actually demand tactical decisions. The terrorists come by the dozen, the firefights are protracted, you can absorb effectively infinite amounts of gunfire, and whilst you can only carry two guns all are powerful enough to make it largely a personal choice. You can simply grab the biggest gun going and meathead your way through the levels, but where's the fun in that?
The controls are simple, the graphics pretty, and the game fluffy enough to forgive its essential repetitiveness. The pretences of tactical play break down in the available online multiplayer modes, where running around becomes the order of the day once again, but single player is where the heart of the game lies.