Blackbird killing in the dead of night...
Considering the flood of real-world first-person shooters over the past few years, one can easily become jaded and doubtful that not much new can be done with the genre as a whole. I am one of those people. No matter how many fancy guns you throw at us, there are really only so many ways you can shoot a virtual Tango.
Front and center steps Tom Clancy's third installment in the acclaimed Rainbow Six series of squad-based tactical FPS shooters. Yep, Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield has finally been deployed and your resident trigger-happy officer has pulled himself away just long enough to debrief the uninitiated.
Aside from a graphics engine sweet enough to eat, Raven Shield doesn't bring much new to the table, yet that does not stop it from being one of the top tactical squad-based frag-fests on the market. A few extra bells and whistles will help lure in a new, less anal-retentive crowd without sacrificing what Rainbow Six fans have grown to love.
The plot definitely falls under the "not much new" category. A power-hungry fanatical terrorist faction is doing what terrorists do best; namely, scaring the hell out of the innocent masses. In steps the Raven Shield, a collection of hard-boiled operatives representing the highest order of elite American military op training - or so says Uncle Sam. They are the final resort when all other options have failed.
Your job is to equip and command up to 8 of these nail-biting bad-asses (spanning 3 squads) through 15 missions over various urban environments, ranging from London to the Cayman Islands. Sounds simple enough, eh? Well, one-shot kills and ill-equipped squad members can really water down your rations.
After you've been debriefed and have equipped your squad members with the appropriate camo, armor and munitions, you are charged with the arduous task of mission planning and assigning a series of waypoints and tactical actions (blowing doors, tossing flash bangs, etc.) for your computer-controlled team members to follow. You can only control 1 of your 8 possible squad members at a time, so you will greatly rely on the computer to do its job. But ultimately, it's up to you to instruct the CPU controlled members effectively. This is where many potential Rainbow Six fans rolled their eyes and went back to playing Counter-Strike. It can be incredibly rewarding when planning pays off, but the task itself can easily make or break the experience for some gamers.
The planning screen is confusing at first and again all those maps don't help much. But effectively having one team cover the posterior of another with suppression fire and/or smoke grenades, for instance, can be great fun. You may also pick from a bunch of prescribed plans that work just fine, but are significantly less rewarding than sitting with a glass of near-beer (nearer than you think) and meticulously studying the landscape and insertion points for appropriate waypoint assigning.
Thankfully, your squad AI and pathfinding is up to snuff. Computer-controlled squad members navigate through the world and negotiate objects adequately. I occasionally found myself looking back or just watching as they moved through the game world like a well-oiled tactical unit. Still, the underrated Hidden & Dangerous made the whole waypoint and planning feature much easier, albeit with fewer options and after several patches for bug fixes.
For the uninitiated, this is a tough game. The enemy A.I. is no slouch and far from ill equipped, toting all sorts of high velocity firearms in order to shred your ego like Parmesan over a pizza. The maps, icons and waypoints can seem daunting to a newbie. I suggest you hit up that beefy Training session and take notes if necessary.
However, with your "superior" training (which also comes in the form of enemy attrition) you must root out the nefarious, and move your squad(s) safely and effectively through the given waypoints. If you lay waste to all enemy assailants, by some unseen act of osmosis you will have completed all kinds of minor objectives, which pretty much makes sense. Just don't shoot any innocents and don't follow that last sentence on the few recon missions that require stealth over biblical "judgment."
Nearly 60 exquisitely modeled real world weapons do a great deal of assisting in the above. Rainbow Six vets will remember that in the past (Ghost Recon included), all you saw on screen in first-person was a targeting reticule - no forearm, hand or gun. Phooey! Now bask in the glory of actual weapon models.
Some of the pretty munitions include fourteen sub-machine guns, sixteen assault rifles, three shotties, twelve sniper rifles and twelve machine pistols. You can also upgrade and customize everything with silencers, high-capacity magazines and thermal scopes. This adds a nice variety and depth, although some weapons are far more effective in single player than others.
But the nicely modeled artillery isn't the only shiny bullet in the clip. Raven Shield gracefully utilizes the new Unreal Warfare engine to bring the series up to speed. The level of detail for the urban environments is jaw dropping. Colors are sharp and crisp and the textures are terrific. A ragdoll physics engine serves up some impressive death animations. Though Rainbow Six has never been known for its graphics, Raven Shield should change that.
The single-player campaign is a bit short and relatively linear, with the missions resembling each other more than they should. Of course, you can always forgo this and hop into some multiplayer, which is really the meat and potatoes of Raven Shield. It's pretty easy to find a game. Types include Survival/Deathmatch, Team Survival, Bomb, Hostage Rescue, Pilot/VIP escort and the ever-welcomed Cooperative. The endless tactical strategies and healthy camaraderie carry the multiplayer over long distances with plenty of replay value.
There really isn't much wind resistance preventing this Raven from taking off. No doubt Rainbow Six fans have already hit their retailer of choice, but the new players should consider this a great time to jump into the series. But make sure you can play online; it's obvious the somewhat thin single-player campaign is simply a long Training session for multiplayer. Raven Shield might not rewrite the genre, but it does stand tall and firm against the competition.