It's pretty easy to imagine that plenty of eyes rolled when Ubisoft revealed that the next game in the Rainbow Six franchise was going to be set in Las Vegas. It sounded like a move that only the creatively bankrupt would undertake, and the Rainbow franchise is certainly getting up there in terms of years. It also seemed kind of fitting, since Vegas is where all the washed up entertainers eventually wind up. Well, any such notions are a big mistake, because this new Rainbow Six is like the new Las Vegas. It's refreshed, reinvented, and ready to take on the world, and it's also one of the best tactical shooters on the Xbox 360 to date.
In Rainbow Six Vegas, you play as Logan Keller, the leader of one of Rainbow's elite three-man counterterrorist assault teams who is called into action after an operation in Mexico goes bad and, for some reason, the terrorists strike the casinos and high-rise hotels of Las Vegas. Your job is to stop them and ascertain their intentions, which involves the standard McGuffin device that will kill millions and a secret military base hidden inside a massive hydroelectric dam. The story borrows a few too many plot twists seen in other Ubisoft games, namely Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, and the lack of a satisfying resolution also makes the plot feel like a paper-thin reason to battle an army of terrorists in Las Vegas of all places, but it's easy to overlook because the combat in Rainbow Six Vegas is simply excellent.
What elevates this chapter of Rainbow Six is the cutthroat tactical combat, which is far above anything seen in the series. The combat elevates the action for shooters in general, but Rainbow Six Vegas happens to arrive on the heels of the superb Gears of War, and it's eerie just how similar the combat systems in both games are. It's hard to say that one cribbed from the other, since both games were in development at the same time, but it's easy to get the feeling that the maturation of tactical combat is an idea whose time has finally come, and the result is a lot of intense action as you scramble for cover from all the bullets headed your way.
In Rainbow Six Vegas, just like in Gears of War, slabs of concrete are your best friend, along with the edges of doorways, slot machines, the side of an SUV, and pretty much anything else solid that you can put between yourself and the enemy. By moving up to those objects and holding down the left trigger, you can "hug" the cover and then poke your body out from the sides or the top to shoot at the enemy before ducking down again. Or, if you're under heavy fire, you can poke your rifle around the corner and fire blindly to keep the bad guys at bay. The game seamlessly transitions from first-person to third-person perspective when you do get behind cover, so you get a very cinematic effect of watching yourself huddle while bullets impact around you.
You don't fight alone in Rainbow Six Vegas, either; you're usually accompanied by your two teammates. The artificial intelligence does a great job of controlling these agents as they follow you. Pathfinding, for instance, is very rarely a problem, as they can navigate the cluttered environment effectively, and they use cover just as well as you do. Controlling your teammates is simple, too. By simply pointing at a spot on the ground and tapping the A button, you can tell them to move to that position. Point at a door and hit A, and they'll "stack up" to it, or get into position to clear the room. Hitting down on the D pad tells them to either hold place or fall in behind you. In fact, the controls for the game in general are pretty intuitive and simple, and we found it effortless to do complex tasks, such as snaking a flexible camera under a door, calling out the targets inside to our team, and then executing a simultaneous takedown from two different angles.
What also promotes Rainbow Six Vegas over its predecessors is the sensation that you're really playing as an elite commando. For instance, these new Rainbow agents borrow a page or two from Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher, and you can play in a highly mobile and agile manner. You can quickly rope out of a helicopter onto the top floor of a skyscraper, run over to the side, and leap over the edge on a rappel line, all in a few seconds. While on the rappel line you can hang upside down, lower yourself far enough to see into the target room, then call out the location of the terrorists inside. Then, on your command, your team will burst through the window and clear the room. This isn't just a mere gimmick, either, as the levels are designed so that most rooms have multiple points of entry, so you can determine your takedown strategy for each one. Admittedly, one of the contrivances in the game is that bad guys in a neighboring room seem unaware of all the gunfire and explosions going on down the hall, but at least this lets you execute textbook takedown after takedown throughout a level.
On the normal difficulty level, Rainbow Six Vegas is a moderately challenging game, though it's fairly forgiving thanks to the fact that you can absorb a fair amount of damage before you die. Rainbow Six Vegas uses the same kind of health system found in Gears of War and other shooters, so there are no health packs or health meters to worry about. Instead, when you take damage your vision begins to blur, and if you take too much damage you die. However, if you manage to find cover and avoid getting shot for a few seconds, your vision begins to clear and you'll be back at full health. This lowers the frustration level considerably, as you don't have to worry about rationing the health meter like you did in this year's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter.
However, if you ratchet up the difficulty setting to "realistic," Rainbow Six Vegas becomes an incredibly tense and difficult experience--in a good way. In realistic mode, the amount of damage you can absorb before you die is much lower than in normal mode, and this makes you really rely on using real-world tactics and playing a lot more conservatively (and, well, realistically). For instance, instead of charging across an open area like you might on normal difficulty, you'll probably want to pop a smoke grenade to provide concealment; otherwise, you'll get cut down before you get halfway to your destination. Realistic mode will result in you dying a lot, but when you do, you'll realize more often than not that it's because you did something stupid, which means you get to learn from your mistakes and be smarter for it.
Speaking of dying, the game uses a checkpoint save system, so when you do die, you'll get a chance to start back at the latest checkpoint. While you can quickly heal fallen teammates in single-player by injecting them with the magic medical serum if you get to them in time, if you fall your teammates won't be able to save you in the similar manner, so it's back to the checkpoint. At least the checkpoints are reasonably spaced, and there's usually one before ever major set-piece battle, which is helpful. Most of these larger battles are fairly scripted, but they're pretty intense nonetheless. Bad guys come rappelling down from above, and the AI in general is good about using cover and grenades as effectively as you do. There's nothing quite as eye-opening as seeing a frag grenade land right next to your character, or as frantic as trying to get away and behind cover before it explodes.
The single-player campaign in Rainbow Six Vegas isn't quite as lengthy as in many other realistic shooters, but the game compensates for this by having such interesting and repayable tactical battles. You can go back again and tackle the game in realistic mode, or you can experiment with different approaches. And there's plenty of replay value to be found in the extensive multiplayer suite. The single-player campaign can be played cooperatively on Xbox Live, both in story mode and in terrorist hunt, which pits you and your buddies against a bunch of randomly placed terrorists. You can also play with up to four players cooperatively, which is an interesting number since the single-player campaign features only three Rainbow agents at a time. Still, realistic difficulty is tough enough that you can really use effective team tactics to tackle some of the harder missions, and there's something very cool about being able to strategize with your buddies while in the middle of a fight. The only setback to co-op mode is that instead of automatically loading the next level in the chain when playing in story mode, the game recycles the existing map. You have to set up the server ahead of time to advance to the next level in the story, or load it manually.
In addition to co-op, Rainbow Six Vegas features a number of fun competitive modes with support for up to 16 players. Retrieval is a particularly good one, modeling itself after the typical capture the flag-style game, and featuring respawns so you don't have to sit out if you get killed. There are a number of modes that feature no respawns, if you want the "authentic" Rainbow Six experience of no second chances. The levels themselves are adapted either from the single-player campaign or created specifically for multiplayer, such as a university library that's alluded to in the story. The action in multiplayer is just as intense as in the single-player game, especially since you can use the same cover tactics that you used in the campaign.
What's also interesting about multiplayer is the persistent character that you can customize over time by unlocking new weapons, armor, and accessories. For instance, you can unlock tougher body armor, though the downside is that it lowers your mobility. Body armor comes in various pieces, such as the torso, shoulder pads, and legs. The weapons in multiplayer are all taken from single-player, and there's a healthy assortment of real-world and prototypical military gear in here, divided into shotguns, submachine guns, light machine guns, assault rifles, and sniper rifles. Each weapon can be customized individually with various scopes or sights, and there are various grenade types that you'd expect, like fragmentation, smoke, and flashbang. Rainbow Six Vegas also supports face mapping. If you have the Xbox Live Vision camera, you can scan your face onto the model, creating a unique, if slightly creepy, version of yourself in the game. Finally, many of the achievement points in Rainbow Six Vegas are tied in multiplayer, which is further incentive to get down and dirty online. You get points for racking up kills with various weapons, accomplishing multiplayer missions within a certain amount of time, and even mapping your face into the game.
Rainbow Six Vegas sports some excellent graphics, and they're on par with this year's superb Ghost Recon. In fact, these are a bit better, because instead of run-down slums and industrial areas, you finally get to fight it out in a first-world setting. The amount of detail on everything is impressive, but it's almost photo-realistic when it comes to your Rainbow troopers, as you can admire all the high-tech gear these commandos bring into a fight. The beautiful visuals, which still look good on a standard definition display, certainly bring the diverse Vegas casinos to life. They're all fictional, of course, as no real-world casino would want to have its virtual counterpart shot up in a game such as this. However, if we do have one lament, it's that that the game doesn't really make the most of its Las Vegas setting. Sure, you're fighting it out inside casinos full of slot machines and card tables, but you get the feeling that the game could have been set anywhere else and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. But if you're going to set a game in Las Vegas, then set a game in Las Vegas with an Elvis song or two, or at the very least a Wayne Newton tune. Las Vegas is an over-the-top and surreal experience, which is something that Rainbow Six Vegas doesn't quite capture.
The voice acting in the game varies, with the lead character sounding a lot like an angry version of the executive officer from Star Trek: Enterprise, but for the most part it's all about the evil terrorists making evil threats and the good guys spouting all sorts of hoo-ha. There are helpful voice cues, such as when your teammates yell out that they're swapping magazines, which means you need to provide cover while they're otherwise unable to fire. And the bad guys are pretty helpful about yelling out their tactics to one another, though the game's premise has many of them being ex-Special Forces, which is an awfully rookie mistake. The sound of guns firing is pretty authentic, though at this point every realistic shooter has the same level of effects. Still, the game sounds as good as you'd expect.
Rainbow Six Vegas breaks the rules for the series and rewrites them for a new age, which is fitting, as this is the first Rainbow Six game for the Xbox 360. And thankfully, Rainbow Six Vegas ignores the city's official motto; if everything that happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas, then we might have been deprived of this excellent, immersive tactical shooter.