With the recent announcements of Splinter Cell and The Sum of All Fears, it seems that Ubi Soft and Red Storm are changing the direction of their Tom Clancy games by giving them a healthy dose of mass appeal. The Sum of All Fears will be the first such game to actually let you interact with Jack Ryan, everyone's favorite Clancy protagonist. But the roots of Tom Clancy games have always lied in realistic squad-based tactical combat. Red Storm practically invented this once niche genre in 1998 with the surprisingly popular Rainbow Six, and subsequent games like Rogue Spear and Ghost Recon have continued to please this series' growing number of fans. Later this year, this series will expand yet again with the addition of Raven Shield, a game that, among other things, aims to give the Rainbow Six franchise a much-needed face-lift.
Face-lift or not, however, Raven Shield will remain true to everything that Rainbow Six fans have come to enjoy in the last four years. The majority of the game takes place in close quarters, much like the original Rainbow Six did, though there are a few open areas as well. As usual, you control Rainbow, an elite group of UN-sponsored counterterrorists who perform high-profile hostage rescue operations around the world, and you'll be tasked with the takedown of evildoers in areas that vary from posh London banks to abandoned maximum-security prisons. To help you achieve this goal, you'll have the choice of a number of highly skilled operatives, many of whom are characters from Clancy's Rainbow Six novel, as well as a sizable arsenal of weapons to equip them with. Ubi Soft says that you can expect every single weapon from the previous Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear games to be available in Raven Shield, as well as a few others that include the Tavor TAR-21, the MTAR-21, the Chinese Type 95, and the Russian SR2. The core mechanic of previous Rainbow Six games hasn't been altered, so you'll still have to plan out your team's method of entry into each level before you actually start that mission. What has changed, however, is the planning and briefing interface. While it was incomplete in the early build of Raven Shield that we saw, Ubi Soft says that the final interface will be a lot more user-friendly than the admittedly intimidating menus in previous Rainbow Six games. The game's developers are also quick to point that while this new interface will be easy to access, it won't lose any of the functionality that the hard-core fans of Rainbow Six demand.
As soon as you jump into a mission, you'll quickly notice a number of other changes from previous Rainbow Six games. Your Rainbow squad, for instance, will behave in the same precise and calculated manner so eloquently described in the pages of Clancy's books. These guys are tough, self-sufficient warriors who don't know the meaning of failure, and they'll act like it too. Their new behavior is the result of AI that has been completely revamped for Raven Shield. This means that as your team moves, they'll constantly be sweeping back and forth for enemies, or "tangos", and they'll never move in a single file line, eliminating the chance of getting shot by a lucky gunman. The last guy in your team will always cover the rear as well, to minimize an attack from behind. And when your team stands still, they'll train their guns outward to cover a specific area and collectively drop to one knee to make themselves a smaller target for enemies. Your squad mates will even know never to point a gun at one of their own--they'll always drop the barrel of their weapons to the ground when sweeping past other friendlies. It may seem trivial, but it's a subtle touch that fans of Rainbow Six will appreciate.
The range of movement for your individual squad mates has also been greatly expanded in Raven Shield. They now have the ability to go prone, which makes their aim more accurate. The game will also let you control the degree that they lean around corners using your mouse, and it will be the first Rainbow Six game to let you shoot and move while in a leaning posture. Additionally, you'll be able to open doors a little bit at a time in order to expose only as much or as little of the room as you want, and you can now slide down ladders quickly to limit the amount of time that you're left vulnerable. New items like the thermal goggles will also change the way that snipers behave in Raven Shield. In Rainbow Six, snipers took down one or two enemies who were foolish enough to cross a window or an open door at the start of a mission, before rushing in with their sidearm. Raven Shield's thermal detector will let snipers see the heat signatures of enemies that are standing within three feet of wood or plaster walls. This means that they can man their posts while providing intelligence on the location of hostiles to the rest of their squad in real-time.
The most obvious changes to Raven Shield will be apparent during combat. When you breach a doorway, the rest of your squad will automatically cover sectors of a room not in your direct line of sight, and they'll know better than to cover walls and other immobile objects. Red Storm admits that your teammates were somewhat of liability in previous Rainbow Six games, and ensuring that they became a valuable asset in Raven Shield was a top priority for the designers. And that's a good thing, because Rainbow isn't the only group of people to receive a boost in AI--the terrorists that you'll be facing are now a much smarter bunch than they ever were. The enemies in Raven Shield will often work together as a team, they'll call for help if they spot you, they'll try to flank you, and if they can't, they'll try to buy time for their comrades to do so by trading arms fire with your squad. Some enemies might simply lose the will to fight and give up, and in cases like that, you'll have the ability to handcuff enemies to make sure they don't change their minds and come after you again.
And interestingly enough, you'll also have to contend with hostages, since they too will behave in a realistic manner. While they won't attack your squad, they might lunge towards their perceived saviors in an act of desperation, and if you're in the middle of a firefight with a group of enemies, the results could be messy. In general, the hostages in Raven Shield will behave erratically--you can never predict what hours of captivity and stress will do to someone--so some might try to run away at your arrival, some might rush you, and others might sit perfectly still. Thankfully, you will be able to issue a variety of commands to these hostages in order to make sure that they stay out of your way.
Like Splinter Cell, this game is being developed using Epic Games' latest Unreal technology, and it's the first stand-alone Rainbow Six game to use a non-proprietary 3D engine, so as you'd expect, this leap to a new platform affords the developers a lot of options that weren't available during the development of the earlier games. Take one look at the screenshot to the right, for example, and you can tell that all the character models in the game are skinned with textures so crisp that you can make out the individual pupils of their eyes through their protective goggles and easily spot all the straps, hooks, and zippers that adorn their uniforms. Likewise, the environments all look true to life, with realistic weather effects, alpha-blended vegetation, and expansive outdoor areas. One of the levels in Raven Shield is modeled after Alcatraz, and its layers of peeling paint, rusted metal bars, and exercise yard overrun by weeds give the entire place a decidedly decrepit atmosphere. But screenshots don't tell the whole story--you have to see Raven Shield in motion to truly appreciate it. Members of Rainbow will look around and fidget nervously when standing still. And when they sling their rifles over their shoulders or holster their pistols, you'll actually be able to see those weapon models on their person. The same is true for grenades and some other items as well, and it isn't just a visual nicety. It will have a huge impact on multiplayer games, since you'll be able to discern the capabilities of your enemies simply by noting how they're strapped, so to speak.
Rainbow Six: Raven Shield is still a long way off--it's currently scheduled to ship at the end of this year, with an Xbox version following a few months later--so a lot of the game's details are still being worked out. The total number of missions and types of multiplayer modes are still up in the air, and issues like whether or not to include a first-person gun model are still being decided on. Ubi Soft plans to show the game at E3, so hopefully we'll have some definitive information on these and other unanswered questions. Until then, enjoy this latest batch of screenshots.