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 Gears of War and GRAW before it, the primary viewpoint is first-person. Fans of the console Rainbow Six series have been longing for a proper follow-up to Rainbow Six 3, and Vegas is just that game.
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. 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 clicking at a point on the ground. A more advanced command can instruct your team to stack up at a door, in preparation to enter and clear. A press on the d-pad will then 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.
Just as in Gears of War, the environments in Vegas have been created with the cover system in mind. 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 in the left trigger you will take cover behind whatever you're stood next to, switching the camera to a Gears-like 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.
The key difference between this and Gears of War is that you only remain in cover while the left trigger is held down and there's no way to quickly move from cover to cover. In Gears of War you could perform some pretty slick moves from cover to cover, but in Vegas exiting cover and moving to a new location puts you at more risk. 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 Xbox Live support for four-player co-op (only two-player split-screen offline on a single system). 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 big omission here is a matchmaking system for ranked matches. As is the case in Gears of War, playing ranked matches with friends on your team is a huge hassle as you can't stay together as a group.
Owners of the Xbox Live Vision camera will also be pleased to hear that you can take pictures of your face and map them onto a character model in the game. It doesn't like hair very much and is a little picky about the pictures it will accept, but other than that it works a treat, and makes multiplayer games with friends all the more enjoyable. Disappointingly, the faces of other players often won't load straight away, so you'll see a standard game face in their place for a short period. It's a minor problem, but something that's very noticeable.
This is Ubisoft's first game to make use of Epic Games' Unreal Engine 3, and while it's not quite up to the standard of Epic's own Gears of War, it's 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. There's the odd bout of slowdown, particularly when numerous smoke grenades go off, but it rarely has an effect on gameplay.
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.
All the Tom Clancy games have now made successful jumps to the Xbox 360, and Rainbow Six Vegas is the best of the bunch. The number of options you have 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. The online modes simply add to the package, making Vegas a game that's well worthy of a place on your shelf.