It's quite something to see an evolution of a game from the grass roots of the first instalment to the latest and most arguably the best instalment yet. I'm talking about Tom Clancy's Raven Shield. I recently received the latest Beta for Preview from Ubi Soft and must admit from what I have seen so far. I am seriously impressed.

I did a small preview of the Multiplayer aspect of this game last time so I'm not going to talk about that in this. Expect a full review when we have a review copy of the game. I'm here to tell you about the Singleplayer aspect in all its glory and semi gory detail. The story is typical Tom Clancy and features a few twists and turns in the tale - as always it's about Global Terrorism and the fight against such actions as hostage taking and bomb placement.

Rainbow 6 are despatched to deal with these problems in a covert and deadly manner and they are usually pretty precise about it. Unless of course you allowed your team in the old games to do anything at all, because they'd often get killed. One of the biggest problems with the Rainbow games was group be honest it wasn't all that good and it frankly did some stupid things. A terrorist shoots your buddy, you don't charge into the room in a line and let the same terrorist blow you and your team away...thankfully in Raven Shield things are much, much better.

Team AI: Most arguably the cornerstone of any decent team-orientated Special Ops Tactical Shooter. Good AI can be the line between victory and a crushing defeat at the hands of a thug armed with a pistol. So it's no real surprise to me that the team behind RS have been constantly improving the AI over the last few games. I can happily say that the AI in RS is some of the best 'buddy' AI I have seen in a game yet. Your team are capable of autonomous actions and takedowns regardless of the situation they are in, they will open fire on targets of opportunity unless told otherwise through the intuitive command system.

A good example of this was while moving through one of the maps on the Terrorist Hunt gamemode. I hadn't checked one of the windows and a terrorist was taking aim at me, there was a soft whisper-report from the Mp5SD of a buddy, a tinkle of glass and the radio crackled 'Tango Down' which left me with an increased heart rate and a sense of comradeship with the team-member that had saved my life. And RS so far is full of moments like this, where the advanced AI of your team can save your hide or each other's in a split second.

Enemy AI: Terrorists in RS react to sight they react to sound and they tend to be capable of some pretty nasty tactics. They will withdraw, attempt to alert comrades and raise the alarm if they spot you. Fortunately they don't seem to possess Ninja-Like senses or the ability to see through walls as in some of the previous incarnations of the game. They also seem to have a morale level and if that drops too low they will surrender rather than die. A quick tap of the new on-the-fly orders system and your buddy will cuff and secure them.

They use available cover and will attempt to set up ambushes and kill zones once alerted. Often it's better to take your time in infiltrating a location, just so you can see how stealthy you can be. If you wade in, guns blazing there's a good chance you'll come under crossfire from alerted enemies and your team will be whittled down like chippings from a wooden pole. Death comes swift and fast when you make a mistake. Oh and watch out for grenades - Terrorists are not shy when lobbing those things around.

Level Design: One word, outstanding. The team really have pulled it together on this one and each level is chock full of atmosphere. The games have never really been about the levels, but this one is...there are multiple routes of entry and all the maps I have seen so far have been of truly excellent quality. Ladders and catwalks provide ample opportunity to get up high and do some sniping, or just infiltrate a location from a new vantage point. Each map is gorgeously textured and lit with an eye to providing a realistic location, while not as visually stunning as say Unreal 2's eye-candy...this provides a different kind of eye-candy, realism.

And let's face it; in the murky world of Counter Terrorism this is what you want. You want the Oil Refinery to look and feel like one, with dingy shadows to hide in and plan stealthy assaults...and they have done a marvellous job of using the game engine to recreate all of these locations. It's obvious that the developers have spent a lot of time studying the details of real locations; right down to the control panels and various set dressing...and it all serves to drag you in and create a sense of immersion.

Graphics: Brand new textures cover every surface and every polygon, created with an eye for detail and loving care. These really are some nice and smooth graphics, on the Beta I did notice a couple of glitches that were solved by updating to the latest 41.90 drivers from Nvidia and then it was smooth sailing all the way. The uniforms on Rainbow and the details are not sub-par at all; you can see every bit of equipment has been hung onto the correct places on the webbing. Grenades, flashbangs and weapons all placed onto the models. The shadows are also gorgeous, not to mention very useful for locating terrorists around corners etc.

The same goes for the enemy, they are superbly modelled and carry/use their equipment with just as much detail as the Rainbow operatives. Which leads me onto the next point quite nicely.

Animation: It's top notch at last, the team moves and looks as though they are a working Spec Ops unit. They cover and they change position as if it were drawn from an SAS or SWAT manual. Just sitting back and watching them perform a takedown on a room is a joy to behold...switching weapons fluidly and opening doors...leaving you even more drawn into the scenario than before. And the same amount of detail has been applied to the adversaries as well. At this point it's probably best to mention that when you apply lethal force to an enemy in the game, or you get shot yourself the gorgeous kinetic rag-doll physics system kicks in and they crumple...

Let me give you a mouth-watering example.

I was on the same terrorist hunt and my buddies were just behind me, I'd breached one of the doors and was about to enter the corridor. Peering to the left while leaning I spotted a terrorist standing by a plant pot. Into the corridor with my Mp5SD I move and shoot him before he can move to raise his weapon...he jiggled a little and the blood sprayed the wall behind him. He sagged like a sack of potatoes down the wall and hit the pot, conforming as a real person would until he landed on the floor with his back to it - dead.

I've seen people fall down stairs in this game, side down walls, pitch over backwards and all of it is done with an eye for a more 'realistic' death than the over-the-top animation of Unreal 2 and UT2003.

Weapons: Lots, I'm not even going to go into how many there are and stuff like that here. I'll wait until I have the full game for that. Let's just say there's enough to keep even the most jaded gun-bunny like me happy. At least 6 or so Sniper Rifles and a slew of rifles and automatics...

Attachments & Equipment: I love gadgets, and RS has lots of gadgets and for the first time you'll see the heartbeat sensor at work in firstperson. It appears as a set of goggles through which a circular reticule beats to the sound a person's heart...showing up on the active portion of the device. This tool is invaluable and can really save your life when applied in conjunction with say a breaching charge.

RS has a nice selection of equipment from the usual grenades to bugs and demo-kits. Along with breaching charges (Set one up and trigger it to kill or wound anyone on the other side of the door) and electronic gadgets galore, enough to keep the Bond fans happy...again based on realism.

Weapons also can now have an attachment, from a silencer to a thermal scope that allows you to look through walls when attached to a high-powered sniper rifle. And it works, just the trick for dealing with hard to reach terrorists who seem to like to hide inside rooms to ambush you. Night vision also acts pretty realistically - whiting out when exposed to a sudden burst of light and fuzzing as the light level rises.

Planning: RS has a thorough and intuitive planning system that allows you to time events in the assault, with a pretty fine-toothed comb. It allows you to set up go codes and even play the route through while a 3d window shows what the world around looks like. More about this in the full review when I have access to a complete control list and new features have been added (If at all)

On the fly orders: Sometimes things just don't go to plan and you need to give out orders in the heat of the moment to account for an unexpected problem or occurrence. RS copes with this by including a radial-dial/wheel system that allows you to set up an action for the team to perform. There are various actions depending on the equipment and personnel in your squad. To give you a good example, the action of open, grenade & clear.

Hold down the action (space) until the wheel comes up, make sure you are pointing at the object (An icon shows up to tell you what action can be performed on the object in question - from opening to climbing a ladder and instructing your team to interact with the object) In this case, a door.

Move the mouse until it highlights open, grenade & clear then select frag from the second wheel. Tap the left mouse to engage the order or tap the right mouse to set up the go-code of Zulu onto the order. This way you can time your assaults with the rest of your team so they go in one door and a few moments later, you come at the enemy from the other side.

Learn to master this system and you will have a much higher success rate in missions.

Along with the usual Hold and Go commands that you can issue using the keyboard this makes for an even more controllable squad and allows you to perform some devastating clearance tactics on a particularly dangerous room or location. You must also remember that if you order your squad to do something, you also need to get them to reform on you (R key) if you want them to follow you for the rest of the mission.

Movement Controls: There are some new movement controls in RS and one of the most interesting features added to the game is the 'fluid' posture system. Hold down Ctrl and move the mouse, you will lower and lean depending on what you do with the mouse at the time. Added to this are the standard Spec Ops positions, crouched and prone. Your team will adopt these positions depending on what you are doing at the time. And don't forget the mouse-wheel controlled opening of doors and windows, allowing you to inch open a door or window just slightly to peek...woo yeah!

A small note here is that the Sniper will also flick out the rifle's tripod when prone and use it to steady their aim. This illustrates another classic example of the RS team's attention to detail in this game already.

For those of you who like a little more meat to your FPS and a lot more in the way of tactics...I can highly recommend Raven Shield as the game to provide just that, the new controls...tweaks and enhancements have propelled a good game into the ranks of a classic and highly enjoyable title. The missions are tough and there is a MP mode with stacks of gameplay value already.

And for the first time in a Rainbow game you can also see the gun in firstperson, this can be toggled off to appease the Rainbow purists out there. And these weapons are all highly detailed and pretty accurately modelled. With the addition of Lone Wolf, Terrorist Hunt and other game modes both in Custom and MP the way is open for many long hours of total enjoyment and perhaps frustration as your team are wiped out by the terrorists for the umpteenth time. But stick with it, learn to use the environment for your advantage and you'll start to see that it's not that hard once you master the important rules.

Stay silent...

Keep watching your six...

Keep watching the environment...

Keep your team...alive...

And always...expect the unexpected...

This is WoLf signing off for now, but trust me...I'll be back with a full review of the whole game closer to release.