Tom Clancy’s imagination is a scary place. As Angela Bassett’s Six coldly explains in the introduction to Rainbow Six Siege, there’s a terrorist around every corner, a hostage situation in every building, a bomb under every leaf. In Tom Clancy’s dream world, only force - special forces - can protect the innocent. Accountability? Unimportant. Counter-terrorists: they get the job done.
But enough with the politics, I hear gamer bros bleating. This is a tactical shooter, not a political statement! Well, the gamer bros are right; it is a tactical shooter, and an extremely good one at that. But they’re also wrong, in that it still is an explicitly political game, dancing around a bizarre notion of omni-terrorism.
Unlike prior Rainbow Sixes, Siege is multiplayer only. That’s both its greatest strength and its worst downfall. Obviously, a lack of single-player campaign (aside from perfunctory tutorial scenarios) will reduce interest greatly for many, but the upshot is that the multiplayer is a balanced, well paced, team-focused experience the likes of which probably haven’t been seen since Left 4 Dead.
A match in Rainbow Six Siege pits two teams of five operatives against each other. In Counter-Strike, they’d be “terrorists” and “counter-terrorists”; here, they’re generically labeled “attackers” and “defenders.” In the planning phase, defenders set up traps, blockades, and other defenses, while attackers use radio-controlled drones to scout the map. There’s typically an objective, like hostage extraction or bomb defusal, but that tends to come second to the infiltration itself. Planning is crucial for both teams, but it’s in the action phase that things really heat up.
Rainbow Six Siege is all about getting from point A to point B, or preventing your opponents from doing so. Matches take place in intricate maps mostly from industrial or urban settings, with many potential ways in and through buildings. Players can even create new paths, with breaching charges and other weaponry, or block them off, with barricades, razor wire, and other defenses. Windows, doors, walls, floors - they’re all fair game. Area traversal and denial are significant parts of gameplay, and the dynamic, destructible levels play towards them in a major way.
More central even than that are team tactics. Each team is made up of up to five operatives, each with unique equipment, and the ability to coordinate those skills is important. Some characters are good at recon; some come laden with electronic gadgets; some are better at applying brute force. Every attacker can be balanced or negated by the right defender, making a team's specific choice of characters key to success. If the defenders throw up steel barricades, the attckers will need an operative who can burn through them. If they use electronic defenses, they'll want someone to detect or disable them. Many matches still ultimately come down to who shoots the best, but getting into a position to do that shooting is all about using characters right and coordinating with your team.
Ubisoft can list the features of Rainbow Six Siege, but the most satisfying element of the game is also one of the hardest to convey: the atmosphere of playing it. Rainbow Six Siege is as tense an online shooter as I've played. The psychological game is as powerful as the shooty one, which is appropriate for a game about terror. It’s possible to fake the opposing team out, either by placing decoy defenses, or by breaching rooms in multiple places. Pacing, too, is different to most shooters, in that matches tend to be made up of long periods of unnerving silence as teams get into position, followed by bursts of intense action, as plans get carried out. The sound design helps - if your team is holed up in a room, it’s incredibly anxiety-inducing to hear footsteps and voices outside it, not knowing when or how the opposition will strike. It's all too easy to reveal your position because your trigger finger gets itchy.
Sadly, despite its innovations, Rainbow Six Siege falls prey to some of modern-day gaming’s most irritating conventions. In-game abilities are all centred around “operators” - more or less equipment loadouts with the bare minimum of personality applied - which must be unlocked in order to play them. That’s not an issue in and of itself - unlockable characters are both a mainstay of video games and an incentive to improve your play - but Ubisoft also offers the option to outright buy those characters for a few bucks a pop. To give an option to pay for items that other people might work their asses off for is insulting - especially in a full-priced game. At least Siege’s DLC map packs will be free; the base game ships with even fewer maps than Star Wars: Battlefront does.
Though it would be nice to see more maps and modes with more complex objectives, the most important mode for me is present and accounted for. I have fond memories of descending upon a local internet cafe and playing Terrorist Hunt in Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 with my friends. Many a tense, hilarious night was spent in that mode, enjoying the camaraderie and crying “Rambuuuu!” whenever the last survivor struck out against fifteen remaining enemies. Terrorist Hunt is back, and it can be played either as an offensive or defensive game, with you and your team eliminating stupid AI-controlled enemies. The new operator abilities add to this mode, too. The only thing I miss is the huge maps of the earlier game - and the internet cafe we used to play in, which shut down after its inexperienced owners failed to run it as an actual business.
Those halcyon memories bring me to the biggest issue with Rainbow Six Siege, one that was obvious from its very announcement. Unlike many multiplayer shooters, where it’s easy to just jump into the middle of a match, Siege raises communication to the highest importance. Without communicative teamwork, you’re done, which means you’ll have to take your chances with the unwashed gamer masses - who actually exceeded my expectations of congeniality in this instance, but with whom it's hard to build a rapport. The other, vastly superior option is to assemble a team of five friends who are on your wavelength, but convincing four other people to buy a full-priced game - on the same platform, no less - can be a tough ask. If Ubisoft offered a multi-pack of Siege licenses, it’d be much easier to reach the game’s true potential.
There’s also the fact that despite the exceptionally crafted gameplay, there’s just something ugly about staging hostage rescues or bomb threats in everyday environments where you'd normally find people. Only in Tom Clancy’s ultra right-wing view of the world are ordinary suburban homes prime terrorist targets. They certainly make for interesting multiplayer maps, but it’s hard to believe that “professional” terrorists would make such moves. A more believable scenario might involve lone white males engaging in domestic terrorism - or the Rainbow team being called out on fake SWAT calls. Sadly, that wouldn’t make for particularly memorable gameplay (or would it?).
Additionally, unless the whole game is just a frighteningly realistic training simulation, Rainbow Six Siege takes place in a world where The Terrorists have managed to recruit American, British, German, Russian, and French agents in volumes great enough to form entire teams out of them. Terrorist Hunt puts players up against anonymous, masked enemies, but team-v-team matches are all multinational crews of operators from the SAS, Spetznaz, FBI, and so on. What’s so wrong with "our" paramilitary that it would push agents to join the enemy? Should we maybe start treating armed servicepeople better?
To Ubisoft’s credit, though, it’s fitting that surveillance plays such a huge role in gameplay, whether it be the attackers’ drones or the defenders’ security cameras. Terrorism has created a world where we’re always being watched - if not by the bad guys, then definitely by the (ostensibly) good guys. I don’t know whether Ubisoft leaned so heavily on surveillance as a political statement or just as a gameplay mechanic, but the way it’s been delivered kinda works as both. Viewed in the right way, Rainbow Six Siege could actually be a cutting observation on our surveillance-obsessed world. But it probably isn't.
Mixed political messages and microtransactions aside, Rainbow Six Siege is a terrific, well-tuned multiplayer game. It’s just hard to get the most out of it without friends. Given its emphasis on communication and teamwork, I’d go so far as to say it’s not even worth playing without them. If - unlike me - you can get four other players together, on the same platform, Siege is a damned slick multiplayer experience. If not, Rainbow Six Siege will slip quietly into the sad list of terrific multiplayer games that just couldn’t maintain their player bases. Here's lookin' at you, Titanfall.