The race to topple Electronic Arts' SEAL Team from the top of the special forces genre has heated up tremendously. First was Zombie Interactive's Spec Ops, released earlier this year. Both Novalogic and Interactive Magic have their own games coming out later this year. Now, Red Storm Entertainment weighs in with its own game, buoyed by the marketable name of Tom Clancy and his story-telling capability. Players take control of the international Rainbow team of super-secret operatives, doing the dirty work other modern nations wouldn't publicly touch. While generally better than Spec Ops, Rainbow Six carries its own baggage, especially where the conflict of realism versus gameplay rears its ugly head.
Rainbow Six offers several modes of play, including a large variety of training missions (different shooting ranges, obstacle courses, single-team hostage rescue, multiteam hostage rescue, and so on), the main campaign, and various multiplayer scenarios (like cooperative mission, deathmatch, and team deathmatch). The campaign can be played in one of three difficulty levels, with more objectives and less team casualty tolerance as the difficulty level increases. The campaigns resemble a tree trunk rather than a branching tree, so to get to the next mission, you must successfully complete the previous one.
Rainbow Six contains two main parts: mission planning and mission execution. For the first four missions in the campaign, Red Storm has provided a prescripted mission plan, but the next 12, you must do all the work. First comes the mission storyline and notes from various characters, of which most is not required reading to finish the mission. After picking which agents to use on the mission, what team they'll be on, and what equipment they'll use, it's time to hit the mission planning interface. The player is supplied with a complete floor plan of the area in question, possible and known locations of terrorists, where the mission objectives are, and so on. The player lays out where the teams will go, which "go" codes to use, the rules of engagement, and speed options. While a 3D rendering of the map is available, the only downside is that you can no longer see the movement paths of your teams; they're covered up.
After making sure you've got the mission planned (and make sure it's been saved), it's time to play out the mission. The interface is fairly similar to any number of modern first-person games like Quake II and Unreal, and graphically, the game is on par or slightly better than Spec Ops. The game models human motions and movement extremely well, including many different unique actions. Rainbow Six's audio cues, background sounds, and other various noises are also represented very well; the immersive feeling of Rainbow Six is perhaps one of the best seen in a game. The only downside is that, for some, the mouse interface can be a bit sensitive for those that are not used to it and can only be tuned from Windows.
A mission plays out as you take control of one of the teams, the others follow scripted layouts already devised in the mission planner. You can switch between the teams easily, but not team members. Teams follow waypoints, engaging enemies that come within range with ruthless efficiency (or mindless stupidity, as you'll learn) or waiting for a go code to move on to the next waypoint. With some decent planning and a bit (or lots) of human guidance, you can complete the missions and the game.
Well, it seems a bit simple, but in reality, Rainbow Six is pretty hard. The game skirts the magical barrier between realism and gameplay, hedging a bit on realism on some features and going straight overboard on the gameplay front. While combat is fast and furious, with one or two bullets almost guaranteeing a kill, the AI is schizophrenic at best and can kill your members at a moment's notice without them having the slightest clue as to how they can react to an adverse situation.
For example, suppose you had a team of four members moving down a corridor with rooms on either side. Let's say the team is moving to the other end of the corridor, and a terrorist is in one of the side rooms. As each member goes by the room, the terrorist guns him down. He doesn't react to the fire except by rushing toward the next waypoint like an eager lemming. Terrorists seem to react the same way; one particular encounter saw a terrorist calmly smoking a cigarette standing around the bodies of two dead buddies. Grenades seem to have an explosion range of about two feet.
Obviously, lots can go wrong in a mission. You will spend lots of time refining your mission layout, which really gives the impression that the missions are puzzle-oriented, which, in a way, they are. Typically, you'll be doing lots of the work (killing) personally, since the AI handles tight room environments very badly. Expect to replay missions 20, 30, or 40 times to complete them without high casualty counts. At times, it can get very annoying and frustrating. Then again, if you treat the entire game as things would happen in real life, Rainbow Six would be insanely difficult - with all its faults, it's fairly hard enough already.
Multiplayer saves the game though and allows basically unlimited replay of the missions with multiple teams (making coordination and reaction times much better, despite the typical lag), and deathmatches are sweaty do-or-die affairs where one good bullet to the head puts you out for the rest of the game. Replayability is also helped by the fact that there are a lot of different ways to complete a mission, and they get much harder as the difficulty level goes up.
So, just what is Rainbow Six? It's actually a pretty good game, albeit very hard and extremely frustrating. Some of the gameplay mechanics simply go straight against common sense, but some concessions had to be made to accommodate computer gameplay. Other elements are very realistic, and some of the gameplay elements are right on the money. Players who thought Spec Ops had lots of potential but didn't execute well should check out Rainbow Six because, despite the faults, the game does work better and does have that immersive, realistic feel. Players can even experiment with the game mechanics by looking at some of the definition files in the Rainbow Six directory. Rainbow Six is a pretty good game that over time - and perhaps with official and unofficial support - may become a great game.