Review: Tactically Brilliant ‘Rainbow Six: Siege’ Could Use More Ammo

(Credit: Ubisoft)

It’s been a busy season for trigger-happy gamers. Halo 5, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, and Star Wars Battlefront all launched within a few weeks of one another. If you like pointing virtual guns at things, you’ve been in kill/death ratio heaven.

That sort of leaves Rainbow Six: Siege out in the cold, but to be fair, Ubisoft’s long-running franchise has always been a different sort of shooter for a different sort of player. Characterized by thoughtful strategizing and methodical planning, it’s never really tried to compete with the charge-ahead-and-blast-everything-with-a-pulse vibe of more popular franchises.

In that sense, Siege is very much a Rainbow Six game. Emphasizing teamwork and tactical, heads-up play over quick-twitch running-and-gunning, it’s a smart alternative to the action-movie multiplayer hijinks in other games. But while Siege does a great job of grabbing your attention, it struggles to hold it.

Related: Review: 'Halo 5: Guardians' saves its so-so story with marvelous multiplayer

Siege is sharply focused on five-on-five, team-based multiplayer: One side attacks, while the other defends a hostage or bomb. If that sounds a little like Counter-Strike, it should. The Rainbow Six games have always been the thinking man’s counterpart to that revered multiplayer shooter, and Siege is no exception.

By “thinking,” I really mean “doing.” Defenders have a wealth of gear at their disposal to lock down their location; the brief warm-up period prior to each match turns defenders into busy bees indeed, barricading windows, laying down barbed wire, and setting up traps to keep out the good guys. Attackers, meanwhile, use drones to scout the location in an attempt to locate the hostage/bomb and get a lay of the land.

Lending complexity is the game’s “Operator” system. Twenty different characters can be unlocked, each with specific offensive or defensive tools. The FBI Swat member Thermite, for example, can quickly melt through reinforced walls, while the SAS agent Smoke can detonate toxic gas grenades. Experimenting with the various characters gives Rainbow Six Siege its initial momentum, and the developers did a good job making each character useful (though I wouldn’t rush to unlock Twitch, the GIGN agent with the lame, underpowered taser drone).

Bringing it together — and giving life to each match — is the environmental destructibility. The maps are tight and compact, mostly taking place in small buildings (or a grounded airplane) with multiple floors. Any substance short of concrete or steel can be blasted to pieces, turning every wall into a potential point of entry for a determined attacker. The result is incredibly tense and can quickly turn to chaos; defenders typically hunker down and wait for the attackers to infiltrate a heavily guarded room, while attackers methodically poke and prod, hoping to find a weak spot to ruin the party. Often that means blowing a hole in the floor directly above a room or hammering through an unguarded wall, debris and noise be damned. The brisk, three-minute rounds encourage risk-taking; the start of a new match works as a fine salve when you invariably screw up.

Moreso than any other shooter this year, this means it’s essential to play Rainbow Six: Siege as a team. When it works — when you find players who actually use their headsets and communicate well by pointing out enemies, creating diversions, and developing on-the-fly strategies — Siege is brilliant. Breaching a door, tossing in a flashbang, and watching your pal charge in behind you to take out two dudes trying to shoot you in the knees is riveting and rewarding.

It’s also daunting and difficult. Get shot and you can’t just hide and magically heal up. Death comes quickly in Siege, and there is no respawning. With your fallen comrades watching your every move, the pressure’s on to perform. This is not a game for the weak of heart.

Nor is it a game for the weak of Internet, because Siege’s offline play is a drag. Ten ‘Situation’ levels run you through the basics, but there’s no story or persistent character to qualify it as a campaign. Despite plunking down substantial coin for the talents of Angela Basset to play Rainbow team’s steely-eyed “M”-like leader, the actress only shows up in the game’s intro sequence and in a handful of voiceovers. She enjoyed more screen time as a stewardess in Kindergarten Cop.

(Credit: Ubisoft)

At first blush, it looks like the game’s third mode, Terrorist Hunt, adds some offline depth, as it lets players take on large groups of AI soldiers in a number of map scenarios. It’s good fun, but despite being playable solo, it inexplicably requires an Internet connection to work. So lose your connection, and it’s Situations or bust.

It’s a real bummer, one made even worse when you consider the somewhat spotty performance of the servers thus far. I’m playing on Xbox One, yet despite the game's lengthy open beta test, I've experienced more dropped matches and lagged out games than in any other shooter this year. It’s not a dealbreaker and it’s still only launch week, but the technical stumbles are notable.

Related: Review: 'Star Wars Battlefront' is gorgeous but you may find its lack of depth disturbing

So is the game’s love of microtransactions. Unlocking all those Operators ain’t free. You’ll need to spend an in-game currency called “Renown”, which accrues slowly as you play. But you can also fork over real-world cash to buy “R6 Credits,” which can be used to speed up the rate you earn Renown or buy fancy weapon skins outright.

While that doesn’t qualify as a pay-to-win thing — the Operators can be unlocked in any order — the fact that weapon mods, which can decrease recoil and improve accuracy, are also purchased with Renown makes it start to reek a little. Honestly, the whole thing kind of reeks since you already spent $60 on the game itself, and now you’re being asked, albeit nicely, to spend a bit more money to access the bulk of its content without grinding for it. And that $60 price already feels a little high considering the package's overall lack of depth.

It’s too bad, because underneath the silly cash grab lies a genuinely fun multiplayer game. Siege took me back to the early days of Counter-Strike, when I would lose weeks at a time to endless late night sessions with friends. Find some buddies and Siege really settles in as thrilling game of calculated chaos. But between the paltry offline offerings and the slow, microtransaction-gated drip of goodies, I wouldn’t advise breaching this door alone.

What’s Hot: Tense team-based multiplayer; destructible environments; tight, explosive matches

What’s Not: Barely-there offline modes; server issues; overemphasis on microtransactions

Platform reviewed: Xbox One

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