Tom Clancy's Rainbow 6 (R6) defined a genre of its own, the tactical-shooter or TS for short, and though I came to the game rather late, I'm glad I didn't miss it. Though the game is not without its problems, it is ambitious in its scope and implementation. Not everybody will "get" its style, so read carefully to see if this is the kind of game for you.
The visuals in R6 are both good and bad. A great deal of time and attention has clearly gone into giving the game a realistic look and feel. The character and weapon modeling is very good, the environments are both detailed and realistic, and the developers clearly tried to put the player right in the action in a very gripping way. Where the graphics fail, I'm afraid, is with the proprietary engine that powers the game. In my view, Red Storm Entertainment would have done much better to license engine technology from Id Software or some other company. It's true that the developers have done much to achieve a realistic look, but graphically the game falls short of its competitors in other genres, and that's a pity.
Still, the visuals have enough high points that this is only a minor complaint. R6 is a classic case of gameplay trumping fancy graphics. The cinematics are wonderfully well done, for example, and what's more they do not have the same jarring inconsistency that obtains in many other games. That's because the cinematics have clearly been rendered using the in-game engine, or some modified version thereof, and thus they stay utterly consistent with what the player sees. That gives a surprising boost to the game's immersion factor. I could say other positive things as well, but the point is presumably established: there are prettier games out there, but R6 looks more than good enough to get the job done.
The audio in R6 is very good. The weapon sounds are quite realistic, the ambient audio is impressive, the bits of dialogue are professionally done, and everything sounds like it should. Better still, the music for R6 is impressive. When a comrade takes a fatal bullet, the music so perfectly and plaintively reminds the player of his failure. I don't think anybody is going to listen to the tracks from R6 on their own, but in terms of adding to the gameplay, they score big. The only complaint I have against the audio, really, is that there isn't enough music. The tracks are good, but they grow old over time. With a few more in the rotation, I don't think my ear would have been quite as disappointed.
The interface for R6 is as interesting as it is unique. The whole mission-planning phase is something no other game I've seen has done, and R6 does it quite well. Overall, I wish it were possible to bump up the resolution for a bit finer control, but it remains servicable as it is. Of course, all the basics work; i.e., key-binding is simple, menu selections work nicely, and so forth. It could be easier, I think, to handle the multi-player features of the game, but R6 does provide a fair amount of flexibility along these lines, so that's a minor complaint at most.
Where the interface of R6 really shines is during the in-game play. With only a few keystrokes, it's possible to command several different squads in real time. Granted, they adhere to whatever plan they've already been given, but with sufficient attention to detail, it's quite possible to get the teams working with a surprising degree of harmony. The ability to jump from team to team to lead them as needed is also a wonderful touch. In short, I think the developers did a very good job with the interface for the game. It definitely has a bit of a learning curve, but while the slope is relatively steep, it makes for a short climb.
The game mechanics are a mixed bag, really. On the one hand, R6 delivers things that no other game even attempts. The ability to give relatively detailed orders to separate teams, including the specification of rules of engagement and go-codes, is truly innovative. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of the AI, about which I'll say more later, the overall game mechanics are somewhat broken. That is, one starts each mission with a certain amount of intelligence data, and one must then lay out a plan based on that data.
Because the available data is never complete, however, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. This is an old adage among soldiers, as I understand it, but this is a video game; it's simply not much fun to take lots of time to develop a plan only to get wasted immediately due to bad or incomplete information. The AI only compounds the problem by making certain situations tougher than they ought to be. To summarize, the game forces the player to develop a detailed plan that can only be adequate after the player has already played and lost the mission at least once, and usually lots of times.
I think the overall game mechanics would have been much improved if it had allowed "practice runs" or something like that. Rather than face the "real" terrorists, for example, one could run through the structure itself with "dummies" placed where the terrorists are thought to be. This wouldn't solve all the problems, of course, and therein would lie the challenge of running the real operation, but it would help one avoid stupid problems with AI pathfinding and so forth. Perhaps the developers could have arrived at some other mechanism. I don't really know. What I do know is that the game, as it was developed, essentially encourages the player not to spend much time planning until he's already failed the mission several times. Only once he has a good feel for where the bad guys are and what they're doing is it possible to develop a truly workable plan.
Alternately, if the player had some way to change the plan on the fly, then this wouldn't be an issue. If the player had the ability to tell teams to stop and issue a warning in case of trouble, then perhaps the player could adapt to the changing circumstances, taking over and leading the team in trouble, or issuing new orders to the other teams. It might also help if greater detail was allowed in the available orders. For example, being able to tell a squad to stop at a specific place is a good thing, but it would be even better if it were possible to tell them precisely which angle to cover while stopped. Maybe the developers will address these kinds of issues in sequels. I sure hope so, because as it stands now, the game mechanics have a pretty fundamental flaw.
Another alternative still would be to make one's AI-powered colleagues "smarter". Too often, I found my highly-trained operatives getting gunned down by a terrorist simply because they were too focused on their own feet. That is, they would walk into a room and largely ignore the fact that terrorists were clearly visible on the upper balcony. This makes for a lot of dead counter-terrorist operatives. It might arguably be realistic, but I guess I expect a little faster (and smarter) reactions from my troops.
A more minor flaw involves the getting through doors. Doors open in such a way that moving through them is a death sentence far too frequently. Maybe it's because movement in the game just seems a bit odd, but I found myself getting nailed in the head all the time when going through doors. Flashbangs helped, but I could rarely get my teammates to do it right. The game mechanics are not hopelessly flawed here, but they need some work.
A final, more fundamental problem with the game mechanics is that the game allows no in-game save. That's right; if you screw up at all, you basically have to play the mission over again. This can be very frustrating given the difficulty level of some of the missions. Developers who do not supply an in-game save feature really need to wake up to reality: it isn't fun to have to play the same thing over and over and over. R6 punishes mistakes too severely to elide such a necessary feature. I sure hope this isn't a trend in game development circles.
The story is as good as one might expect coming from Tom Clancy, with one exception. It's obvious early on that the radical increase in terrorist activity simply can't be a coincidence. Too many of the events seem linked, and as the R6 team proceeds through the campaign, it becomes clear that somebody is up to something very ugly. Without giving away the story, I thought it a very well done thing all the way up to the end. I realize that the book's ending probably couldn't be done easily within a video game, but I thought the in-game ending as it was done was just too ambiguous. Perhaps that was done to pave the way for a sequel; I guess I'll just have to wait and see. Suffice it to say that most players should find the story pretty compelling, save for the ending.
R6 features a fair amount of content, though one really doesn't get to make much use of some of it. There are a total of 16 missions, which provide a good amount of variety. The detail to each mission is quite impressive, really, in terms of the differences in the tactical environments and objectives. The problem I ran into was that while I wanted to make use of some of the various weapons, I found myself stuck in too many situations with only the silenced weapons. I know that's realistic, but breaking out the big firepower is part of the fun. It's a shame that the developers didn't include more scenarios in which they could be used. In too many of the missions, though, giving up stealth just isn't reasonable.
The most substantive complaint I can leverage against the game is that its AI, while quite a step forward, just isn't up to the task. Too often, teams would get trapped in narrow spaces, would screw up the breaching of a door so that the team would be blinded (or killed) by its own grenades, and so forth. Further, for supposed experts in counter-terrorist operations, many of the R6 lineup are just too slow on the draw not to get wasted by the terrorists. Plenty of times, I watched as my AI colleagues walked into a room and stupidly got wasted one after the other because they were too slow to fire back on the terrorist sticking out like a sore thumb. You know, guys, he's the one pumping all the bullets in your direction! Sheesh.
The enemy AI is similarly flawed, though, so maybe the developers were assuming they would cancel each other out. I nailed plenty of terrorists with shots to the head, only to find that the guy standing right next to him didn't notice. That's a bit much, don't you think? On the other side of the coin, though, the terrorists are incredible marksmen once they know you're out there. It's an odd model, but it seems to me as if the terrorists somehow can't hit you until some built-in delay has passed, but once that delay is over, they're 100% accurate. It makes for an odd set of game mechanics, according to which one must try very hard to get the drop on them.
The multi-player aspect of R6 is relatively well done. The scenarios are a blast to play with friends on-line, and the various game modes work well both for individual and team play. Nevertheless, I have two complaints with the R6 multi-player aspect. First, the network code needs work. When I get a ping of less than, say, one-hundred milliseconds to a server running Quake III Arena, Unreal Tournament or some other such game, I have a smooth experience. In contrast, R6 manages to be jerky even under the best of circumstances, and I don't know why. It gets so annoying after a while, that I have to quit and do something else.
Second, there just aren't enough people playing! I know R6 isn't exactly as popular as Half-Life or other games, but it's such a crying shame that there are so few R6 servers out there. The game is so good that I can't believe more people aren't playing it. I guess maybe a large and thriving multi-player community will have to wait until the newly-born tactical shooter genre matures a bit, but it's frustrating to have to wait.
Overall, R6 is a game not to be missed if you're at all inclined toward a thinking-man's shooter. A large part of the fun of R6 involves the relatively tedious process of refining a plan until it's perfect, and since there are so many different ways to approach the scenarios, the game can be played lots of times before it finally grows dull. If you're the type of gamer, however, who simply can't stand planning, the kind who is bored silly without constant action, then avoid R6 like the plague. If you're less shallow, however, and enjoy the prospect of pitting your skills against the entrenched terrorist factions, buy a copy of R6 before it's too late.
Reviewed by Phileosophos