As successful as Rainbow Six was in establishing the genre of serious tactical squad games, it's somewhat surprising that next month's Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield is the first new game in the series since 1999. Certainly, there've been many expansion packs for Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear over the years, and Red Storm was also busy with Ghost Recon, which takes the Rainbow Six formula for tactical realism outdoors. In any case, it's immediately clear that Raven Shield has benefited from the interlude, as the new game takes a huge graphical leap forward and packs in more realism than ever. A couple of weeks ago, Ubi Soft announced that Raven Shield is complete, and we've had some time to play a nearly final version of the game.
The series was initially inspired by Tom Clancy's novel Rainbow Six, and as in previous games, you command an elite multinational special operations unit that responds to crises in a wide variety of locations. Things start out with ordinary-seeming missions against terrorists that have taken over a refinery in Venezuela and then a group that takes some IMF officials hostage in Switzerland. But there's a larger plot that's revealed over the course of 15 single-player missions.
There's a campaign mode that tracks the careers of the operatives in your unit, which means they can get bonuses in various skill areas for successful missions or can be put permanently out of commission if they fall in the line of duty. Generic recruits will appear to replace fallen named characters, but it's in your interest to keep the best commandos alive for later missions. There's also a custom mission mode, which allows you to play the campaign missions you've successfully completed or play the multiplayer maps filled with AI terrorists. The custom missions can be played just as in the campaign, in a lone wolf mode that just requires you to go it alone and reach an extraction point, in a terrorist hunt mode that lets you take a team to wipe out a custom number of enemies, and in a hostage-rescue mode that has you take a team to find and recover civilians.
The Rainbow Six games are somewhat unusual in not providing you with any in-mission objectives or waypoints to navigate the sprawling levels--mission planning is left in your hands. First off, there's a quick situational briefing, and then you configure up to three commando teams, each with four operatives with weapons and secondary equipment like heartbeat sensors and specific types of grenades. The most serious step is the actual planning, which is much as it's been in previous games and allows you to set waypoints for the teams. Presumably you'll take control of one team yourself, but unless you prefer to switch between teams manually, you'll have to set a mission path out for AI-controlled teams to follow. While the planning interface isn't terribly complicated, it can be a time-consuming process to create a full set of paths and go-codes for two teams, and naturally, things don't often go according to plan.
It's when you get into the actual missions that Raven Shield's differences from previous games become most apparent. The visual improvement is impressive. Ubi Soft licensed the current generation of the Unreal engine, and the environments and character models are quite detailed. As you can see in the screenshots, the player's weapon model is rendered at an unusual angle, which is intended to better represent what you'd see if you were running around holding a weapon at the ready. It might look odd at first, but it's easy to get used to. A gameplay side effect is that the miniscopes that you can add to many submachine guns and assault rifles really do have a small adverse effect when not in use, by obscuring slightly more of the screen. You might not notice this at first, since auto-aim is turned on by default, so the aiming reticle will snap to enemies' heads and help you spot distant or partly hidden targets.
There are three difficulty settings for the missions--recruit, veteran, and elite--and the names are a literal guide to the challenge they present. The enemy AI has been enhanced so that terrorists will sometimes call for help and may flank you or be on patrol so that they appear through doors behind you. Fortunately, the team AI also seems to have improved, and AI teammates often seem fairly capable of handling threats on their own--something you might reasonably expect of elite operatives.
There's a fairly simple interface for giving your team orders: Hit R to tell it to hold position or regroup with you, and press the spacebar to give contextual orders. You can walk right up to a door and hit the spacebar to open it yourself, but further away the door icon at the bottom of the screen dims to tell you it's available as a contextual team order, so by default the closest teammate will simply open it, and the team will file through. Press and hold the spacebar and a circular menu comes up with more options: open; open and clear; open, grenade, and clear; and open and grenade. With the clear order, the team will charge through the door, cover multiple firing arcs, and do a quick search of the immediate vicinity before calling "clear" on the radio. You can also order the AI to move to a nearby position, which can be useful if you want the team to cover another direction or even do the dirty work for you. And teammates also usually make themselves useful by setting up to cover the rear.
But the team AI does have its weaknesses--we've seen a whole team fall from the top of tall ladders or stay huddled up in an open position and die at the hands of a single enemy. As good as the AI is generally, such instances can be quite frustrating--particularly because there's no option to save the progress of a mission. You can save your pre-mission planning, but a Ubi Soft representative noted that the lack of a mission save feature was a conscious decision to keep the game "totally realistic."
If you want to play with real people, Raven Shield offers a range of cooperative and adversarial multiplayer modes. There are five adversarial modes, and the cooperative option lets you play through any of the modes available in the custom mission menu on the campaign mission maps and multiplayer maps. We weren't able to try out the multiplayer in the version we received, but the game's frame rate has markedly improved since the multiplayer demo released in January, and there's reason to expect that the solid performance we saw will carry over to the final game's online mode.
Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield packs in a lot of realism, including a big arsenal of weapons, and the close-quarters combat is a rush, since you never know if terrorists might be lurking unseen. And while the series has never been known for its visuals, this time the graphics are competitive with the best-looking first-person shooters. Still, there are a few areas where the presentation could use some extra polish. We noticed that the talking heads presenting the intelligence briefings are animated but don't move their lips as they talk. Also, the new rag-doll death animations look fluid and are infinitely varied but often have enemies end up in improbable contortionist lumps. These are minor details that could even have been addressed in the version that was approved for retail distribution. In any case, Raven Shield has the sort of close-quarters gameplay that should please tactical action fans when the game is released in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, check out these