Can an action game be released these days without using some kind of 'cover' system? Just as bullet-time appeared in every other action game for a while, it seems that your game is nothing these days without the ability to put your character's back to a wall. Rainbow Six Vegas is the latest game to use such a system, but unlike GRAW for the PC which was more or less a version created specifically for the PC audience, Vegas sticks very much to its console roots, for better or worse.
I'll get the boring stuff out of the way first. Ubisoft has once again attempted to build a story into the action, and some effort has gone into creating team-mates that you care about. As with previous games, it doesn't really work as well as Ubisoft would have hoped, but you'll easily follow the basic terrorist attack storyline, complete with kidnapping, bluffing, a load of casinos and plenty of news coverage. It's typical Tom Clancy stuff, and the lack of great storytelling doesn't really hurt the game as a whole.
A key part of all Rainbow Six games is squad control, and it plays a large part in Vegas, although perhaps not to the degree that hardcore fans of the PC series would have liked. While you only take direct control over your character, you generally have two squad mates alongside you, who can be given numerous orders. The most basic is a simple 'Move to' command, issued by pointing and hitting the spacebar. A more advanced command can instruct your team to stack up at a door, in preparation to enter and clear, and further instructions can be issued to make them enter the room in the way you see fit, be it following a frag grenade, an explosive on the door, or nothing at all.
Had your options been limited to this then the game would have still provided plenty of thrilling action, but you'll frequently get a number of additional options on how to enter a room. There might be the option to use a rope to quickly enter a room from above, and you'll often be able to rappel off the side of a building and enter via a side window. You can even flip upside down and whip out a pistol to stealthily take out unsuspecting enemies while hanging outside a window. Alternatively, you could orchestrate a simultaneous whole-team entry through a glass window, surprising the enemy and taking them out in what seems like a fraction of a second.
What's more, you needn't enter the same way that your team-mates do. It's possible to slide a snake camera under a door and point out who you want your team-mates to take out first, then take up a position elsewhere. When ready, you give them the command to "frag and clear" and they'll storm the room and take out their targets while you pick off any other terrorists. It's not as easy as it sounds, and you'll often find that your first attempt at clearing a room wasn't the best option, but roaming enemies aren't always in the same location, so dying and repeating a section is rarely a chore.
The environments in Vegas have been created with the cover system in mind, making for some great set-pieces. Each large room is essentially an action-based puzzle, with your task being to move from cover to cover and to direct your team-mates to appropriate cover, in order to take out the terrorists before they kill you or either of your team-mates. By holding right-mouse button (by default) you will take cover behind whatever you're stood next to, switching the camera to a third-person perspective. From here you can shuffle from side to side, peek out and shoot from either side or over the top, or blind fire while remaining well covered.
There's no way to quickly move from cover to cover, so exiting cover and moving to a new location puts you in danger unless you're careful. This is countered slightly by the ability to order team-mates ahead, taking the heat off you for a short period, but a dead team-mate is Game Over, so you still have to be very careful. Downed team-mates can be saved, but this puts you, or the team-mate you've ordered to help, in danger.
Vegas doesn't include a huge number of missions, but those included are lengthy, full of tense shoot-outs, and pretty tough. In fact, other than a slightly odd opening level, it's good enough to wipe away the memory of Lockdown completely. Enemy AI isn't cutting edge, but the terrorists will put up a good fight for most players on default difficulty, whilst the 'Realistic' mode offers a sterner challenge for experienced players. There are times when you won't be able to take cover, for reasons unknown, but on the whole everything works as it should and death only occurs when you rush into battle or don't cover all angles.
Team-mates generally do a good job, but playing with real players elevates the game to a new level, and this is made possible thanks to some great online support for four-player co-op. Aside from being able to play through the story with friends, you also get a four-player co-op terrorist hunt mode and a very nice selection of versus game types for up to sixteen players. The online front-end is nigh on identical to that seen in the Xbox 360 version, including the standard Xbox Live Quick Match and Custom Match options.
Xbox 360 owners were able to take pictures of their faces and map them onto character models in the game, and this made multiplayer games with friends all the more enjoyable, but for some reason it's not an option in the PC version. Considering how easy it is to transfer digital camera photos onto the PC and the abundance of webcams available it's a big disappointment that this feature got lost in the port over from the Xbox 360.
Something else that's missing is the ability to save anywhere. PC players are forced to use the checkpoint system found in the Xbox 360 game, and although it's by no means a bad system, regular PC gamers will find it hard to adjust to what is a very console-specific saving system. On the other side of the coin, there's full support for the Xbox 360 wired controller, and it actually performs remarkably well when put up against the traditional keyboard and mouse combo. Mouse aiming is still far superior, but the controls seem more intuitive on the pad and less of a headache than the numerous buttons on the keyboard.
This is Ubisoft's first game to make use of Epic Games' Unreal Engine 3, and it's been used to make a mightily impressive looking game. The detail in the casinos is really quite remarkable, and each room is full of objects that can be destroyed, making fire-fights feel alive. Objects will be blown apart, windows will smash, and slot machines will spew coins, all while you're trying to focus on shooting enemies. Detail in character models is suitably next-gen and animations also look great. You'll need a rather special system to get the most out of it though, with even my more than capable 7900 GTX struggling to run the game at a frame rate equal to that seen in the Xbox 360 version, and at a lower resolution.
If there's a single game worth buying to test out your 5.1 sound system, this is it. Ubisoft has created some of the best audio I've ever heard in a video game, with everything from the gun sounds to background music being spot-on. It's the background music that really shines though, with the music playing in the casino and the noise of the slot machines being heard to varying degrees depending on your relative location to the source. It creates a superb atmosphere, and is backed up by some aptly tense music that accompanies more action-packed sections of gameplay.
While long-time PC gamers will no doubt bemoan Ubisoft's decision to simply port Rainbow Six Vegas over to the PC, it's still a fine shooter that PC gamers should enjoy. The number of options you have on how to tackle each situation makes for some great unscripted moments, and the visuals and sound help create an atmosphere that wouldn't be possible on older hardware. Some slightly awkward controls and the missing face mapping in multiplayer make the PC version slightly less appealing than the original 360 game, but assuming you've got a beefy PC Vegas is well worth adding to your collection.