[Getting It Right is a monthly series in which I take a look at the elements that make up a classic game. What were the key ingredients that set it apart and make it hold up to this day? Read on to find out.]
Enlisting as a soldier is easy. Surviving is the hard part. Virtual soldiers have it pretty good, these days. Between infinite pistol clips and regenerating health, the modern virtual soldier doesn’t have much down time between firing off rounds. But, in 2003, things were a bit different.
Rainbow Six was a game mostly built around avoiding conflict rather than running headfirst into it. It was as much of a rarity in its genre then as it is now. You only had so many clips and a couple bullets could put you six feet under, but at least these virtual soldiers had time on their side. If the perfect plan wasn’t made the first time, it would all come together 20 or so tries later.
Though the Rainbow Six brand is alive and well with a new entry on its way, the series hasn’t been the same since Rainbow Six 3. Even then, the console version of the game bastardized much of what made the series so great. With that said, we are looking exclusively at the PC version of Rainbow Six 3 which offered a unique blend of first-person shooting and strategy never to be seen again in the series.
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield (PC)
In a nutshell: Based off the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, the Rainbow Six series follows an elite counter-terrorist squad that keeps people from blowing this world to hell. Story is secondary in Rainbow Six. The focus is on planning out waypoints on a tactical map, choosing your squad and equipment, and going into action via first-person where you can make orders and directly attack enemies. You can jump into any member of any squad at any time. The hero of this game isn't a squad member but the plan they all follow -- the one you made minutes before.
Plan out missions with care
Rainbow Six has devolved as a series. I won’t tell you that Vegas 1 & 2 are bad games, though. I love them! However, it is sad to see the tactical shooter fade out as a genre due to market demands and publisher concerns. The problem is that people don’t know what they are missing. Maybe you are one of them.
The first Rainbow Six was a groundbreaking title in many respects but it was the pre-mission tactical planning that blew critics and FPS fans away in 1998. Every decision made in a mission, except goals, is left up to the player. Instead of an NPC barking orders at you or being forced in one direction, the player dictates every waypoint, action, and even approach: do you go for a stealthy recon run or blitz assault a couple Russian terrorists?
That’s a rhetorical question because you’ll end up doing both before you successfully complete a mission. Rainbow Six 3 took great leaps forward in making its planning map more accessible, though it still reeks of 2003-era bad design decisions. One of my favorite features is the ability to observe a test run of your plan. Watching your different teams go their separate ways, wait for their go-codes, and rescue a hostage without losing a member is a unique kind of joy I don’t get out of any other game. It’s rewarding because you’ll spend hours in the planning phase, if you are anything like me. I obsess over making the perfect plan, and then I go on YouTube and am blown away by how much I have yet to learn.
There is an educational aspect of R6 that I love. You learn smart tactical planning and get a sense of what military go through every day. You NEED to check your corners, flashbang before entry, and avoid open areas. This isn’t Call of Duty.
Plan as much as you care to
Though I have fond memories of playing Rainbow Six 1 & 2 in the '90s, I missed out on a major part of the series: planning the mission. Instead of taking the time to understand the planning UI and utilize different strategies, I would jump into the default plans that came with the game. Though I’ve recently found an appreciation for this stage of the game, I think it’s kind of awesome that you don’t have to participate in planning if you don’t want to.
The default plans that come with the game are much better than most plans I initially come up with (and sometimes even than those I end up with after various iterations), but they still leave room for improvement. You can either make your own plan, reiterate on the default, use the default, or go in with no plan at all. I did mostly the last two, back in the day, and I still had a great time with R6 because of the incredible tension and languid pace of the games. Even if you don’t plan out each flashbang toss and hostage escort, you can still make snap judgements on the fly.
If you go in without a plan, you’ll be well prepared for multiplayer and Terrorist Hunt (a cooperative mode where you take down a set number of randomly spawned enemies). If you go in with a plan, you’ll be able to take part in a unique thrill that no other game series gives to players. R6 is the rare strategy game that is as much of a shooter as you want it to be. The game will let you commit to its complex systems as much as you'd like. If you just want it to be a shooter, it will be just that for you and it will be a pretty good one.
A strong attachment to your squad
Rainbow Six is one of those rare shooters where the sound of gun fire doesn’t elicit a sense of excitement but pants-crapping fear. A single bullet can kill a squadmate and once they are down, they are down for good. Unlike last month's feature entry, Valkyria Chronicles, there is no way to heal a squadmate or carry them off the field. The most you can hope for is some basic damage, which will cause your squad member to slowly limp for the rest of the mission.
Even without having any familiarity with the characters that appear in Tom Clancy’s novels, it was easy for me to become attached to my squad. There’s the blonde Swedish sniper. Oh, that guy? That’s the U.S. recon soldier with the creepy mustache. When your team members die, they become replaced with generic soldiers with bad stats and no name. Players can blaze through the campaign, filling their ranks with these unknown soldiers, but I imagine most players won’t be able to stomach it any better than I could.
It’s very easy to become obsessed with the perfect plan in R6. Even when you make a successful plan, there are too many factors to guarantee safety to all squad members. Even when you play to the best of your ability, there will be casualties and each one will take its mental/emotional toll on you. By the end of a mission, I felt like a police captain from a corny action flick. “No! Goddammit! No! Not the goofy looking blonde Swedish sniper! He was too young! I remember when we saved those hostages that one time in Venezuela. This can’t be happening! AGGRGGHHH!” and then I take a swig of whiskey and hurt my back trying to flip my desk.
An immersive and realistic setting
Before Call of Duty brought G.I. Joe sensibilities to the modern shooter, R6 was your best bet if you wanted to be immersed in a contemporary setting. Oil refineries, nondescript villages, and airplane hangers aren’t exactly vacation destinations but R6 makes them interesting by grounding them in reality. In contrast to modern games that builds realistic-looking locations around impractical, exaggerated architecture, R6’s locations feel completely sensible, even if they are a bit dull at times.
All of this works toward the game’s aesthetic and fiction. There isn’t much story to become attached to, but the mission briefings always hook me. I love feeling immersed in this role as leader and commander of the unit. I want to know about my enemy and their mission, so I listen to the different intel sources' speeches. I want to know the vantage points of a location, so I study the map and briefing video. In a lot of games, I just skim over this kind of stuff, but I find it to be very rewarding in the R6 series.
In general, I prefer over-the-top, abstract level design (think Doom or Thief), but R6 is one of those rare games where a realistic setting makes sense and the developer really pulled it off with an attention to detail. Though SWAT 3 & 4 and Rogue Spear had more interesting locations and scenarios, I still found a lot to enjoy about Raven Shield’s humdrum levels.
Making full use of the mouse and keyboard
In the age of console-first games, the all-mighty keyboard and mouse combo rarely gets the love it deserves. Hell, I couldn’t even navigate the menus of Binary Domain on PC without a controller in hand. While an Xbox 360 controller might be overwhelming for those new to games, the input possibilities it offers pale in comparison to PC controls. Yet, games rarely take advantage of all the keys. Rainbow Six 3 isn’t one of them.
I won’t lie: This game has a steep learning curve and the controls are partly to blame, but I ended up loving them after a couple missions. A lot of inputs could be refined to radial menus -- you don’t need individual keys for four separate go-codes -- but there are some brilliant design touches that still impress. I’m a big fan of leaning in games. Latching onto cover is cool, but nothing beats nervously peeking around a corner in R6. In a game where death comes quickly, being cautious and slowly approaching is a must.
My favorite action is the ability to slowly open and close doors with the mouse wheel. Having the mouse wheel dedicated to such an obscure action seemed crazy to me at first until I started to use it. I found it to be completely brilliant. Not to repeat the above, but I can’t state enough how important it is to be out of the line of fire in this game. You don’t want to run into a room and throw a grenade. As you would in real life, you want to slowly crack open a door and bounce a grenade off a wall. Being able to carefully open a door lets you do this. It also lets you take a couple sneaky potshots at terrorists from a safe spot. A lot of R6’s controls seems insane at first, but they all serve a purpose -- one that couldn’t be achieved with a controller.
If you have a hard time wrapping your head around the tactical dynamics in the Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter series, I’m not sure I can recommend the much more complex Raven Shield to you. However, if you have an open mind, a soft spot for tactical shooters, and are okay with a steep learning curve, you may just find a new favorite.
For a medium with so many reboots and indie games worshiping classics of the past, I don’t understand why the tactical shooter has completely died out. I can’t think of a another game like Raven Shield that came after it, outside SWAT 4. There have been a couple Kickstarters (Takedown, Ground Branch) that have listed Rainbow Six as an influence, but they don’t mention anything about tactical maps and planning in their pitches.
I understand that Ubisoft is going to go where the money is but even a smaller-scale Rainbow Six reboot would be a godsend. Though Raven Shield refined many aspects of the series, there is so much that can be improved through modern design sensibilities and hardware. Can you imagine being able to share your plans with friends online? Being able to play the game co-op without getting rid of the planning stage? Having more freedom to direct squads during a mission?
There is so much potential for this series that will sadly never be realized, because people just don’t care about a good tactical shooter anymore. Well, besides me and all the crazy people that still populate the Raven Shield servers online. Why not download the game on Steam and join us? I have a feeling you won't regret it.