As Rogue Spear expansion packs go, Black Thorn isn't quite as good as last year's Urban Operations. It offers neither as many new features nor as many maps. On the other hand--and ignoring for a second the clear measuring implications of GameSpot's ten-point rating system--it's immeasurably better than last year's other Rogue Spear expansion pack/civil service test simulator, the utterly misguided Covert Operations. If you've been waiting for that one extra element to finally draw you in to the Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear experience, Black Thorn isn't it. It's a solid but unremarkable addition to the aging tactical shooter.
Like Covert Operations, Black Thorn is a stand-alone product priced as an expansion. It can be played either by itself or as an Urban Operations mod. The best feature of Urban Operations, its custom mission generator, has been included in Black Thorn. Though it offers no new game types, the six standards--assault, lone wolf, terrorist hunt, hostage rescue, recon, and the very tense and fun defend--are all there. And unlike in Urban Ops, each of the 15 maps in Black Thorn supports all six gameplay modes.
Unless you were paying a lot of attention to the manual and the opening movie, the previous installments of Rogue Spear all shared the same story: something about you rescuing hostages from various exotic locations such as, say, Belize. Black Thorn continues the tradition of having an irrelevant plot that's buried deep in the mission-briefing subscreens. The story is completely optional, and you can successfully navigate the single-player campaign without having any real idea what exactly is motivating your squad at any given moment.
Ten missions were originally planned for Black Thorn, but one that took place on a hijacked jet was cut at the last minute in deference to the September 11 attacks. At this point, Rogue Spear levels have settled into a pleasant groove, and the nine included in Black Thorn are all professional but generally unsurprising. Here's a list of the environments, in case one setting really strikes your fancy: Japanese embassy, cruise ship, African village, jungle camp, hospital, train station, bus station, convention center, hotel.
In the campaign mode, eight of the nine missions are pretty straightforward hostage rescues. The African village mission breaks form a little and involves your having to reach an elevated position to destroy a bus before it leaves the city. The entire campaign can be finished in a few hours, especially if you don't try a lot of different plans. The custom mission generator, however, gives the single-player game a lot of longevity.
Ten new real-world weapons have been added to the Rogue Spear arsenal, but, seriously, who cares? That was a test: If you're mad about the "who cares" part and appreciate the differences between the 9mm MP5 PDW SMG, the 9mm TMP SMG, and the 9mm M12 SMG, you should probably get your car keys right now and just go buy Black Thorn. No other series models weapons as accurately as Rogue Spear, but it's often at the cost of making the weapons virtually indistinguishable from one another to anyone but hard-core enthusiasts.
Six multiplayer-only maps are packaged with Black Thorn: an Alaskan depot, a junkyard, a city street, a terrorist camp, an office complex, and a Japanese pagoda. As usual, the single-player maps can be used in multiplayer as well. A new multiplayer version of lone wolf has also been implemented. In it, one player is "it," and the rest of the players must hunt him. The player who kills the lone wolf then takes his place. Even though it's a gameplay mode that's been available for a while as a mod, it's a lot of fun, and formalizing it means there'll be more people playing it online. Playing over Microsoft's Zone is still an option, though the default server browser is now Ubi Soft's own free player-matching service, Ubi.com. The new service is slick and appears to work well, and there are already a lot of people playing Black Thorn, which means you shouldn't have a hard time finding a game.
There isn't much to say about the graphics. The flat look of the outdoor environments and the very obvious, very square skyboxes tend to give the impression that you're rescuing hostages from a museum diorama. Like the methods of team Rainbow Six itself, the graphics may not be pretty, but they get the job done. In fact, the same can be said of Black Thorn in general. It's a well-made but entirely prosaic map pack.