What a long, strange trip it's been for the third entry in Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six series. The game began life on the PC in 2002 as Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, a tactical, squad-based first-person shooter in the established slow-paced style of the series, and then transitioned to the Xbox last year under a simpler title: Rainbow Six 3. This reworked console version gave gamers with itchy trigger fingers a more action-oriented experience, allowing the player to jump directly into a mission without slogging through the Byzantine mission-planning portion found in the PC game. Rainbow Six 3 subsequently took off on the Xbox and garnered a respectable following on Xbox Live. And now Ubisoft is revisiting what's proven to be a successful formula with a new quasi-sequel in Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow.
For the record, we should state explicitly that Black Arrow isn't a true sequel to its predecessor, although you probably inferred that from the fact that the title is still Rainbow Six 3. In the parlance of PC gamers, Black Arrow is essentially an expansion pack, which means it shares and builds upon a lot of the visual and mechanical elements found in the original game. That is, Black Arrow basically looks and plays exactly like Rainbow Six 3, which can't be a bad thing considering that game gained considerable praise when it made the reviews circuit late last year.
So what's new about Black Arrow? Plenty. In the single-player campaign mode, you'll once again take control of Rainbow Six head Ding Chavez, and you'll lead your crack international squad--composed of Eddie Price, Louis Loiselle, and Dieter Weber--against terrorist forces as they continue to be up to no good. The new game will see you traveling to regions around the Black Sea in an attempt to stop the bad guys from gaining weapons and political control of the area. As before, the story-driven campaign mode will proceed in a linear fashion, although a custom mission mode will also let you play any of the campaign maps with custom objectives outside the main storyline.
The fundamental mechanics in Black Arrow are exactly the same as in the original Rainbow Six 3. As mentioned, you'll play as Ding, who, along with all the members of Team Rainbow, is equipped with a considerable array of weapons and gear. You'll be able to choose from a large number of guns (including the P90, AK-47, FAMAS G2, and the new Dragunov sniper rifle), as well as sidearms and grenades, before each mission. Of course, the thermal and night vision you've come to know and love will be available as well. You'll also use a streamlined pop-up interface to issue voice commands to your teammates, which lets you tell them to breach closed doors ahead of you, move to a given position and prepare to attack, and so on. This interface is context-sensitive, so it's easy to bring up the command display while looking at a door and directing your team to bust it open so that it can go through as a part of its attack sequence.
The original game's team artificial intelligence was pretty good at its job, which entailed two things: doing what you told it to do and taking out tangos without any intervention on your part. So it's not surprising that your squad is equally capable of getting the job done in Black Arrow, from what we've seen. What is somewhat surprising is the fierceness of the enemy AI in the game, which was able to give us a run for our money even on the recruit (that is, the easiest) difficulty setting. Ubi representatives say that the bad guys will even use human shields or call for backup when the fighting gets especially intense. If you ever get tired of fighting these foes with only computer-controlled backup, take heart: Black Arrow will include a two-player split-screen cooperative-campaign mode similar to that introduced in the PS2 port of Rainbow Six 3 earlier this year.
Of course, much of the meat in an expansion pack-style follow-up like this is in new maps, and thankfully Black Arrow seems to come through nicely in this department. The campaign includes 10 new maps that are spread across a variety of settings. In typical Rainbow Six fashion, the maps are split pretty evenly between modern industrial settings (such as a nuclear reactor and a rocket facility) and more-classical environs (like the streets of Milan and some old ruins). The maps seem to be pretty well designed from what we've played so far, with enemies placed in some devious positions to give you and your squad a hard time. Several times we found ourselves being shot at without having a clear idea of where the bad guys were located, so creeping through Black Arrow's maps with great care will be as necessary as it was in the original game.
One of Rainbow Six 3's biggest draws, and certainly the one that's still keeping it at the fore of many gamers' minds, is its impressive multiplayer offering. Fortunately, Black Arrow will build substantially on its predecessor's online mode, bringing a considerable assortment of new maps, gameplay modes, and other online features to the table. The biggest addition is that of two new gameplay modes. In addition to the standard array of deathmatch and cooperative modes, you'll also have access to retrieval, which is similar to capture the flag and has you trying to steal an important item from your enemies' base, and conquest, which is a capture-and-hold-style game that will have your team fighting to keep various control points in its possession. Black Arrow will also offer 14 multiplayer maps, 10 of which are new to the game (the other four return from the original Rainbow Six 3). Finally, Black Arrow will have support for new Xbox Live 3.0 features such as clan competitions and extended messaging, which should bolster an already sizable online community even further.
Since Black Arrow is using essentially the same technology and art assets as Rainbow Six 3, it looks and sounds pretty much identical. But the first game was no slouch in either department, so that's not a particularly disappointing fact. Of course, the new maps do look entirely new, with a lot of diversity in the settings, and each level has a cohesive theme that's appropriate to its setting. The audio is pretty indistinguishable from the first game--the voices used by your teammates ought to be imminently familiar, for instance--but again, since the original game was impressive in the audio-visual department, this is not a big problem.
Overall, Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow is looking to provide a considerable value to anyone who was a big fan of the first Rainbow Six 3, what with the new maps, multiplayer modes, Xbox Live 3.0 features, and split-screen co-op mode included. Thankfully, the game is set up in such a way that anyone who missed out on the original can simply pick up Black Arrow and jump in without missing anything substantial. Black Arrow is slated for release in early August, and we'll bring you more on the game before then.