Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rainbow Six: Vegas

Franchises evolve. This is especially true of venerable franchises like Rainbow Six; while less compelling IPs have come and gone, R6 has remained the standard-bearer for tak-tik-ool shooters since its groundbreaking 1997 debut. The thing is, with R6:Vegas, it's just not Rainbow anymore.

Oh, sure, it's got dudes with a penchant for evil black firearms and magazine pouches raiding buildings and neutralizing tangoes. Sure, you have teammates over whom you exercise some degree of control. But except in name (and occasional trappings) it's not the same Rainbow. Not by a long shot.

See, Rainbow Six was a surgical examination of counter-terrorism ops; in proper vintage Technothriller style, it tried to present the subject matter with as much versimilitude as could be managed. The training was a series of drills executed in shoot-houses, the missions had you shooting it out with thinly-masked versions of, say, the Red Army Faction, and the weapon selection, while sparse compared to modern offerings, was properly representative and convincing in action. Also, since dead assaulters stayed that way between missions, there was a distinct risk of getting attached to Santiago Arnavisca and his homies. The missions were not linear hallways full of tangoes so much as open buildings that you could raid in pretty much whatever way you deemed tahk-ty-cooly prudent.

Cut to nine years later. Two more iterations of the same pre-planned mission structure have come and gone, each with more guns, tack-ti-kull options, and polygons. The franchise has migrated to the console world, which makes financial sense more than it does gameplay sense; console controls and surgical precision rarely come together, and bratty-little-sister franchise Splinter Cell is really more appropriate for the platform, especially given that it's an admittedly very well done Metal Gear Solid knockoff. An unfortunate side-note in the form of R6:Lockdown is likely compellance in the virtual franchise reboot that is R6:Vegas.

The first shock upon loading up a new game is that Red Storm really has it out for Mexico. Wait, no. The first shock upon poking around the opening level is that it's LINEAR. Hell, the GRAW games were still fairly flowing, even if they had a distinct path. The noise that the mosquito-in-our-ear makes about 'multiple paths' breaks immersion in that it points out that, yes, this game is mostly linear. The next thing noticed is that you can loot weapons from your fallen foes. A logical point, of course, in that given the proper impetus, Wouldn't You Do The Same Thing, but given that you're already hauling about multi-thousand-dollar tacctuhkil uberguns, why would a hardened op who probably spends fourteen hours a day training switch to a grimy-looking MAC11? And why does no one complain when you leave your expensive toys behind on a Mexican street corner? On the plus side, it does solve one issue with R6 1-3 - the "I want to try the same thing with different guns" problem; it saves you a restart. So do the conviently located equipment boxes, which the proprietors of an abandoned mining complex have thoughtfully stocked with all your favorite firearms and no less than fifteen magazines for each. Did I mention that this game's verisimilitude is a bit thin?

I probably sound like a Fallout fanboy right now, so let me point out that, yes, I really love this game. Blasting the crap out of painfully generic evil people with various and sundry wundercannons is still one of the most engaging things one can do with a personal computer. The fact that you can fiddle with said guns (or at least their sighting systems and suppressors) until you get the preferred results only improves the experience. And the designers have provided just enough guns to give tantalizing variety without resorting to shameful minutae that would just lead to distracting micromanagement of stats; the 60 or so guns in Raven Shield, while incredibly amusing to my inner gun nut, became pointless when I realized that about fifteen had any worth, and the same five or so get any play at all.

Which leads me to my next point: shooting stuff in this game is fun. The gleeful release from the annoying minutae of 'realism' means that the designers went hog-wild with visceral impact. The pumpkin-sized puffs of blood that balloon from pierced flesh, the showers of coins from exploding slot machines, the simply criminal quantity of glass waiting to be shot/jumped through/blown out with grenade; the particle artists obviously had way too much fun with this game. Vegas was indeed a good choice of setting; not only is the palette an arresting golden-red at all times, but the screen is usually awash in bloom effects from the endless neon lights. The screen-filling muzzle flashes are another good indication that the crew has thrown realism to the wind and focused on making a kick-ass hollywood action flick with tahktokul dudes blowing the shit out of an army of terrorists with the same population as St. Petersburg, Florida.

Shooting shit is enhanced by a very smooth cover mechanic. Essentially, you hold down right mouse to enter cover and the arrow keys to pop out and shoot people. If you don't want to pop out, you can burn ammo with 'blindfire;' the utility of this is of course questionable, but it's a nice touch nonetheless. What makes it so worthwhile is that it transitions are seamless; if you want to hit cover, hold down rightmouse, move up to said wall, move pretty much as you normally would, release rightmouse to leave cover. There are no awkward snaps anywhere in the procedure. As I said, butter smooth. No wonder everyone's ripping it off; this is the example to beat.

A sore point in an otherwise blissful bacchanal of death and destruction is the collection of boneheaded gun-modelling errors. Not from an art standpoint, but functionally-speaking. The good folks at Red Storm seem to have forgotten all their real-world research. In R6:Vegas, shotguns recoil like elephant rifles and take about three times as long as necessary to pump. The XM-26 LSS is depicted as a semi-auto rather than a straight-pull bolt action; if a real gun manufacturer could make a self-loading shotgun that small and still be useful, they'd pee their pants in glee and/or government contracts. Oddly, the guns that actually *are* semis (Benelli M3, SPAS-12) are depicted in pump-action mode, which strikes me as pointless, as the pump is meant to be more of an emergency measure for low-powered cartridges, and all Rainbow throws through these things is good ol' 00 Buck. After the fantastic modelling in Raven Shield, the shotguns here are a letdown. The G3KA4 and SCAR-H are modelled with standard 20-round magazines, but are designed as 30-rounders (them 7.62s have gotten awfully skinny since I left them). And the stat choices are decidedly mixed-up (A G36c with an 8" barrel has better accuracy potential than a 16" M8 Carbine?). Incidentally, the same M8 Carbine seems to be canon in Red Storm world, perhaps because of GRAW. On the plus side, the AR-15 variants are conspicuously absent, so we're left with a collection of mostly rarified European designs, which fits the larger-than-life persona of R6 quite nicely. It does seem odd that there was no conspicuous asset-sharing between GRAW and R6; while the setting is different, the Mexico props and firearms could carry over just fine, or are they really the same ones with uglier skins?

As is in vogue these days, getting shot is no big deal, as long as you have some nice cover to cower behind while you revive yourself with a few manly grunts. Needless to say, the perma-death elements of R6 1-3 are completely gone; you die, you restart, and if your buddies go down you stick them with the magic adrenaline needle from The Rock and they get up like nothing happened. As fitting the Hollywood feel of the game, it's a good choice; first aid kits would be painfully out of place, and permanent injury would be endlessly frustating (I'll admit it certainly was in previous iterations...limp limp limp).

The few taktikil elements that remain are certainly fast enough. Spacebar is a combination use key and order key. Pointing at ground or cover will send your two buddies there; point it at something usable, like a ladder or fast-rope point, will make them use it. When there are options (say, do I breach the door with C4 or frag-and-clear), three icons appear at the bottom of the screen, which correlate to three keys. It's all very fast and furious, and while you'll probably spend 65% or more of the game simply having your buddies follow you, there are times when you actually want to use strategy, and it works well. The sudden-death hostage zones of R6 1-3 are still in, but feature multiple entry points; since the 'playbook' icons also function as a go-code, you can coordinate running in one door while your team flashes and clears through another door. These scenes are not nearly as brutally hair-trigger as in the previous games (and the game mercifully checkpoints right before each time), but do provide a different sort of challenge from the endless blasting of bad guys.

We've come a long way baby. From a clinical dissection of a fictional SAS-style CT unit to an interactive movie about superheroes with shiny gats blowing up Las Vegas, it's hard to believe it's the same franchise. But it's not unwelcome.

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