At one time the crown for the greatest tactical shooter experience was firmly on the head of Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield. I've followed the R6 games from day one and I've been a bit of a fan of the series. One of the best Rainbow Six games for me was Raven Shield on the PC and it was a firm favourite, edging out the console versions by a mile.
Then came Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and it put a bullet firmly in the head of Rainbow Six.
That was until the advent of Rainbow Six Vegas for the Xbox 360.
A routine mission to Mexico reveals some truths about the terrorist that the team are hunting, things go bad and Logan Keller (that's you) is pulled out. Ding Chavez, the team leader is now the big boss of Rainbow and this new hotshot has a lot to prove. Las Vegas is under attack and it's up to Rainbow to discover what's going on.
It might not be the deepest plot or the best story but it provides the background for some intense action.
The challenge of making a console shooter has to be keeping it within the bounds of the console's control system. There was a deep strategic planning system in place for Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield where you could spend time planning the best assault plan. You don't have that luxury Vegas; you do have a simple and effective quick orders system that functions perfectly.
You simply point the reticule where you want them to go and a quick button press later, they'll do the action that is associated with that location. It's all context sensitive and based on two forms of engagement.
Assault and Infiltration, the actions vary depending upon the mode your team is set to - switching modes is as easy as hitting the left shoulder button. If there's no action associated with the location then your team will move there and take cover if it's available.
Talking of cover, this is an integral part of gameplay in Vegas and is just as important as layers of armour. You're going to want to learn how to use the tactical cover to the best possible advantage, going into cover is easy (even better than Gears of War) thanks to the way that Vegas implements it. Hold down the left trigger and you'll be able to take cover against various objects, slide across walls and peek out.
The game is an intense one and the long winded briefings have been removed in favour of a more GRAW approach. PiP (Picture in Picture) information is fed into your HUD and you are kept appraised of the story through these sequences as well as interaction with characters using the in-game engine, rather like F.E.A.R and at no point does it bring you crashing down out of the game's rather adrenaline charged atmosphere.
Orders are given via the D-pad and there are numerous tweaks that make it stand head and shoulders above GRAW. Your team can stack up next to doors and depending again on your rules of engagement you'll be able to choose from a number of tactical options, frag and clear for assault and smoke and clear or flash, for infiltration mode.
All of these functions work without a hitch and you can set your team to cover one door whilst you take the other. By using the D-pad at the right time you can maximise the effectiveness of your team's assault. To aid in this as well the developers have provided a tagging system, this lets you assign up to two terrorists to your team and they will make sure those targets go down first.
There is also a snake camera, just like in Splinter Cell that allows you to observe a room before making entry. This OPA (Observe, Plan, and Assault) approach leads to a variety of different tactical decisions and forces you to often think on your feet especially in hostage crises where time is of the essence.
You quickly survey the room, tag two of the terrorists and then realise, if you frag and clear you're going to take down the hostages too. It's this kind of seat of the pants gaming I've been looking for, since Raven Shield where every decision can lead to a different outcome.
With all these tools at your disposal plus various special ops gadgets, silencers, recoil suppression and tactical scopes Vegas is packed with lots of nice toys for the gadget obsessed amongst us. You have the usual night vision and infra-red goggles of course and a quick smoke grenade can turn the tide of battle faster than a frag if you have the drop on your opponents.
Vegas is also loaded with weapons, you can unlock a lot of these for use in split-screen and system link game modes by picking them up and then discarding them. There are some extremely powerful guns, the Desert Eagle and Raging Bull pistols pack an extremely large punch and can blast through most body armour without the need for a second shot - on the downside they're not very suppressed. They don't make the best choice if you're looking to use stealth.
There are numerous new tactical options when it comes to assaulting certain areas, many of the levels have rappel points and fast rope locations where you can smash down into a room or carefully climb down the side and breach one of the windows. You can also flip upside down on the ropes and this affords you an inverted view of the room useful for keeping up a stealth approach.
The game uses an auto-save system and has numerous checkpoints to keep your progress fairly in check. These are mostly scattered throughout and certainly appear before mission critical areas, some of them however do force you to replay particularly tough sections of combat over again.
Vegas is a particularly punishing game if you make a wrong choice or use a bad tactical decision, in this way it's the perfect challenge for those people who try to play as realistically as possible. Thanks to the excellent control method and a very slick design it's easy to set up decent tactical attacks without the need for complex screens.
So you want to play with friends?
The single player story can be nailed in a couple of days and you can play a solo Terrorist Hunt that allows you to use any of the MP maps to hunt down specific numbers of terrorists, the placement of which is totally random and provides a huge amount of fun as well.
You can team up on one console with a friend and play split-screen in both Terrorist Hunt and Story modes. The actual story (but not the arrival cut-scenes and so on) is kind of cut from the coop play which is a bit confusing, but it's yet another way to play the game with a friend on one console. It's a pity you couldn't have up to 4 players on one console, but you can play coop with up to 4 players if you system-link up the 360's.
There's also no way to save in the coop story, so if you die, you've got to go right back to the start again (unless you have respawns on). This really sorts out the men from the boys if you're playing without respawns. It's nice to see that the game puts your character in the seat of the chopper and so on during the approach cut-scenes (which are usually by helicopter) (yes it does put the custom character in from Xbox Live, we'll get to that in a moment though)
So you have some robust MP options for one console that add significantly to the replay value of the game.
So you want to play with the world?
Xbox Live is where R6: Vegas shines. You'll hear a lot of complaints that the game graphics aren't up to par compared to the single player, and they're not. But who really cares when you're surrounded by a smoke grenade, you've got 15 other players trying to kill you and there's gunfire blasting holes in the walls all around you?
There's the usual player and ranked options, setups for various games and the usual deathmatch, team deathmatch, ctf style game-modes. The maps for MP are great and each one has superb strengths and weaknesses, our favourite being Dante's Casino, Calypso Casino and the Border Town for playing coop Terrorist Hunts on.
You can set up games with a variety of options and parameters; you can't stay on the same server for more than one game in a ranked match though which was a bit irksome to say the least. But the game is fun with a capital F in MP and that's what matters, be it fragging strangers or battling alongside your friends.
You can play a coop story mission with up to 3 buddies as well over Live and that is really fun, once again the game replaces the Vegas characters with your own Custom Xbox Live character.
Yes, Custom Xbox Live character. PEC is the byword (persistent elite creation) that the Ubi team have coined for this. You can use the custom character option to outfit your character with a variety of weapons, equipment and even armour. Every aspect of the character can be set up to how you like it and if you have a Live Vision Camera you can map your face onto a custom head for that extra mile.
You'll also unlock content to use over Live as you rank up from playing online, coop and other matches. Each one award you experience which eventually allows you to go to the next rank.
Does it look good?
I will go so far as to say that Vegas in single player is an excellent looking game, it's truly a joy to watch in action as well as play. The eye-candy quotient is right up there with other next-gen games. It only suffers in split-screen and online MP where the graphics have been cut down to preserve frame rate and other features. As I quoted before, you don't really care though because the MP is that intense, you have to be extremely anal about graphics to stop and point out a cut-down texture in the middle of a ranked sharpshooter match.
Please do though, because that'll give us playing the game time to perform some creative 7.62 brain surgery with a sniper rifle.
The light effects and the particle effects in Vegas really bring the gun battles alive. You haven't seen anything until you've thrown a few frags and blown the heck out of a simulated Vegas Casino, watched coins come flying out of the slot machines and bullet holes pockmark the walls as the terrorists return fire.
Does it sound good?
In the audio fields, voice and music - the sound designers of Vegas have done a fine job. The voice work is consistent and well performed; the music is thrilling and a gripping addition to the background of battle. The gun shots and the spot effects (especially bullet ricochets) are excellent and superbly implemented. There were a couple of flaws on the Calypso Casino map that we found where the sound for the helicopter dropped out or wasn't there at the start.
There are some nice auditory touches as well when you get caught by a frag or a flash, the whine of the sound as it distorts in your ears is particularly good at setting your teeth on edge. The same can happen if you're too close to a detonated c4 charge.
One of the highlights of the game however is the backtalk from the terrorists to the team, as well as each other. Whilst being 18+ in places it really does give more life to the game and you don't expect these guys to say, "Oh pardon me you seem to have shot me in the chest, you blighter" when you fill them full of lead.
A small note to mention is that there is a proximity sound feature to the game, if you're close enough to the enemy you can talk to them and even overhear them. This comes in useful if you're playing recon and you overhear the enemy talking about their secret plans to assault your defences via the rappel on the north side of the church.
Can it outthink me?
AI in these kinds of games is very important and Vegas doesn't shirk there, it provides some of the most active and clever AI yet to grace a shooter. These AI terrorists will use cover and team based tactics, but they'll also take advantage of interactive objects and these don't just include ladders, they'll use rappel points and fast ropes just as well as the player - and they know how to flank you.
We lost count of how many times we died in Kill House against the terrorists until we figured out they were using the fast ropes and the rappel points. At one point on Calypso Casino we caught one smashing a window and climbing out to try and flank the second player.
I was actually on the rope at the time about to breach into the room; this terrorist didn't make it up the rope as the silenced 9mm sent him packing.
It's not just the terrorists that have spot on AI, your team isn't dumb (as in previous R6 outings) they will follow orders and usually prove most effective at taking down tangos. If they do go down you can often bring them up with a heal command, or even order them to heal each other. They make short work of room clearance if the correct tactical option is used and will soon let you know if they don't think it's a good idea.
Your team will use ladders, fast ropes, rappel points and follow the set commands based on their engagement mode. They'll inform you when set to infiltrate, if they spot a tango but will only engage if fired upon.
What kind of animations are there?
In a word, there are a lot of animations in Vegas, the game is packed to the brim with them and they're done perfectly. One of the best things we've seen so far is if you're playing with a custom character (not one with your own face) over Live and you have a headset, the lips are synched to move with your voice, now that's somewhat of a cool feature and adds to the atmosphere of the game.
The animations for the weapon reloads, changing equipment and switching vision modes are done flawlessly along with every other animation in the game. It would take a whole page just to detail them; our very favourite so far has to be when the whole team breaches into a window.
Boom? It has physics right?
The explosions and destruction of certain environmental features in Vegas are excellent, there is a good level of physical interaction with the environment but there could have been more. Whilst wooden doors shatter and metal doors buckle, we'd have liked to see a lot more in the way of destruction for the actual interior environments themselves.
It takes away from the atmosphere a little when you shoot a glass fish tank and its bullet-proof. Or when you throw a grenade at the car in the middle of the Calypso MP map and it sits there with hardly a scratch on it. Walls need to crack and things need to shatter far more in an intense gun battle - so apart from the excellent rag-doll and explosive physics the game needs far more in terms of destructive interactions.
Is it worth it?
The final summary down here is what you're really looking for right, chances are that you've skipped the review and you're already reading down here to see what the pros and cons are?
Vegas is a good game, it's certainly the best console iteration of the Rainbow series to date and it sets a bench mark for tactical cover that even Gears of War failed to do. This is (pay attention Gears fanboys - ME included) how cover should have been done in the game. The control system is tight and the AI is top notch, you can blast the story apart in a couple of days of good play and it's not particularly great storytelling.
It rapidly dips into the go there, blow these guys up, rescue these people and save the day scenario. But frankly, when you're having as much fun as this you don't care. The same can be said again about the cut-down MP graphics for split and online play, you don't really pay attention to those things when there are smoke grenades, c4 and frags as well as 15 other players attempting to outflank you and out shoot you at every turn.
The bottom line is Vegas is packed with playability and replay value, the un-lockable content from the Live game allows you to build your own character and online identity. The story-lite coop campaign lets you relive with friends the glorious battles and nerve wracking rescues of the single player, experiment with tactics and equipment as well as see yourself in the game.
It is a title that deserves to be on any hardcore or casual shooter enthusiast's shelf and the game is heaps of fun to boot. It is one that is worthy of the score it's been given and would have gained a higher score if there were such things as, 4 player split screen play ala GRAW as well as allowing a buddy to play with you over live from the same console.
You can't use more than one custom character offline and there's no way to edit that character, so you have to have Xbox Live to get the full game. Otherwise you're stuck with the default models that the game offers (which are all very good and showcase the way the PEC works beautifully) - it's nice to see there's a mix of male and female characters beyond the core Vegas story ones.
I have a feeling that the next game in the series will take to heart all the comments levelled at this one. Regardless of what many may think, Rainbow Six Vegas is a cracking game and tonnes of fun, it will keep you occupied for quite a while and may even eventually knock Call of Duty 3 and Gears of War off the top Xbox Live playlists.