I was beginning to think I'd never like a Tom Clancy game. After failing to find much excitement in the Splinter Cell series on the first Xbox or Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (GRAW) for the Xbox 360 (see the SuperSite review), I had pretty much given up on Ubisoft's various Clancy-inspired games. But after seeing a trailer for Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas (which we'll refer to simply as Rainbow Six Vegas from here on out), I knew I had to try it out. So I rented the title from my local video rental store, played with it over a weekend, and got hooked. I bought the title online that day and proceeded to spend my free time over the past few months exploring this excellent game.

That it took two months is more a reflection of my busy travel schedule than anything else: Left to my own devices, I would have torn through the single player game in a weekend-long orgy of death and destruction, and then moved quickly along to what has proven to be a surprisingly rich selection of single player, co-op, and multiplayer game variants. Besides, January is generally a dead time for video games anyway, and with the possible exception of Lost Planet, no major Xbox 360 titles were delivered that entire month. February is a different story, but we'll get there eventually. For now, I'd like to focus on what might be the last great Xbox 360 title of 2006 (Rainbow Six Vegas was released in November). It's incredible.

Rainbow Six Vegas is the fifth and latest game in the Rainbow Six series (and not, as you might expect, the sixth game in the Rainbow series). The original Rainbow Six title shipped for the PC way back in 1998, and it was ported to various video game consoles. It spawned a number of sequels, on various platforms, including such titles as Rainbow Six Lockdown and the awkwardly titled Rainbow Six 3. On the Xbox 360, Rainbow Six Vegas continues in the tactical shooter vein of the other entries in the series, albeit it with much better graphics and sound. But make no mistake: The game is an action-fest that should appeal to any fan of first person shooters. And unlike its GRAW stable mate, which is also a tactical shooter with many similarities, Rainbow Six Vegas just feels right. It's got that indefinable something that I found so lacking in GRAW.

Let's jump right in.

Plot

In Rainbow Six Vegas, you play Logan Keller, the leader of a team of Rainbow operatives, who are charged with antiterrorist activities. There was apparently some effort to develop the personalities of the non-player characters that surround you, but these virtual people don't exude any sort of realism as do the NPCs in, say, the single player version of Gears of War (see the SuperSite review), and you certainly don't feel like you're developing any relationships as the game progresses. Fortunately, none of that matters: The game does deliver where it most counts, providing a believable storyline, excellent action and stealth sequences, and a surprisingly giddy number of game types.

As Rainbow Six opens, Logan and his two teammates are descending on a decrepit and dangerous Mexico border town. There, you capture a Mexican terrorist named Irena Morales, and after an explosion, your teammates are captured and Irena escapes. Pledging revenge, you're sidetracked when the primary plot point of Rainbow Six Vegas arrives: Irena's terrorists have attacked Las Vegas and it's up to you and your team to rescue hostages, kill bad guys, and generally shoot up the place. Most of the game takes place in realistic Las Vegas locations, including casinos, Fremont Street, and other locations. As the game winds down, you make your way to a Hoover Dam-like location (most of the locations are based on real places but given fictitious names), where your final shootout with Irena occurs and you learn of a surprising double-cross. Yep, there's going to be a sequel. And that's just fine with me.

Game play

Like GRAW, Rainbow Six Vegas presents an overloaded control system in which you must master a wide variety of controller actions. Naturally, some are oriented around the fighting aspects of the game, and shooting, zooming, changing weapons, and other similar tasks are accomplished in familiar ways. But Rainbow Six improves on similar titles, and offers up a refreshing usable control scheme that is easily memorized. For example, where Gears of War offers a complex "take cover" scheme, Rainbow Six does so much more simply: Just head over to an object you'd like to hide behind, press and hold the Left Trigger. To come out of cover, release it. There's none of the stupidity in Gears, where you inadvertently roll in a random direction or find yourself stuck to an object you're hiding behind.

The sheer variety of controller actions is astonishing, with lots of button overloading. You can use gadgets (typically explosives), toggle between two vision modes (night vision and thermal, both very useful), choose weapons using an on-screen grid, and tag enemies so that your teammates focus on them, leaving you to work over other baddies. You will rappel down walls (and in one particularly memorable scene, a spire-like Vegas casino) and set bombs on doors. There are numerous team-oriented commands, so that you can direct your squad to stack up at specific locations, follow you around, hold at a specific area, and behave in certain ways. For example, sometimes it makes sense to rush in, guns blazing, but in other cases, you want to sneak by enemies and flank them at a later time. There's a wonderful snake camera, which you can use to spy on enemies under doors, often in tandem with a vision mode, to decide how to handle specific rooms.

Regardless of the play mode, Rainbow Six Vegas lets you outfit your character with a wide variety of weapon, armor, and gear, and if you have an Xbox Live Vision camera, you can even map your face onto your onscreen character (though I should note that I discovered this feature after having completed much of the game, and now I can't get it to work). The weapons are all excellent and work as expected, and all offer zoom modes that are appropriate to the weapon type. You can customize your weapons and other gear as well.

Game play, overall, is excellent. Like other modern shooters, such as Call of Duty 3 (see the SuperSite review) or Gears, Rainbow Six employs a damage system where you are progressively hurt while being damaged. As you're hurt, your vision deteriorates dramatically--often quite quickly--requiring you to seek cover or risk being instantly killed. This effect works in the two alternate vision modes as well, to interesting effect.

Enemy artificial intelligence is particularly good, and this is handled in such a way that scripted enemy movements are kept to a minimum. In other words, if you get killed and are forced to restart at the last checkpoint, you'll find that the enemies don't behave exactly the same the next time around. Furthermore, they behave differently based on your actions. This keeps game play fresh and unpredictable, and at the Realistic skill level (there are only two skill levels), it means that the bad guys behave, well, pretty realistically.

Where Rainbow Six Vegas really shines is in the variety of game types it offers. There is a standard single player campaign, of course, during which you move from the Mexico border town, through various mostly-fictitious Las Vegas locales, and finally to the Hoover Dam-like finale. This version of the game is great fun, if a bit short. But since there are so many other ways to enjoy this title, the length of the single player campaign never becomes an issue.

After you've completed single player, you can move on to two different co-operative, or co-op, game types. In Story Mode, you and another player (via split-screen, local network, or Xbox Live) work through about 20 levels that are based on parts of the single player versions of the game. Then there's Terrorist Hunt (which can actually be played single player or in co-op mode). Here, you (and possibly a teammate) can work through several levels in which you must kill a specific number of terrorists. If you're playing co-op, there's also a time limit. In both Story Mode and Terrorist Hunt, the level ends when both players are killed. (You can't heal teammates as you can in single player.)

Beyond single player and co-op, Rainbow Six Vegas also offers various multiplayer game types, and again you can play these via split-screen, network, or Xbox Live (with 16 players). The game offers such game modes as Attack & Defend, Survival, Team Survival, Sharpshooter, Team Sharpshooter, and Retrieval, and each is fully customizable. I've only played a few online games, but I'm intrigued by a unique Rainbow Six Vegas feature where you are assigned a rank based on your evolving success online. In other words, as your skills improve online, your rank goes up, unlocking various gear types, armor, weapons add-ons, and other features. There are 16 ranks in total.

When you add this all up, Rainbow Six Vegas provides an amazing and diverse set of game types to play, which enhances the value of this title and keeps you playing. Best of all, though Rainbow Six does suffer from the recent Xbox 360 problem of having an overly abundant number of Achievements, these Achievements are at least spread out among the various game types fairly, further rewarding you for uncovering all of the game's possibilities. Job well done on that one.

Graphics and sound

The graphics and sounds in Rainbow Six Vegas are all topnotch. The game doesn't utilize traditional cut scenes, but instead keeps the plot moving through a variety of in-game transmissions, both video and audio, from other members of the Rainbow organization. This is effective and nicely handled.

Graphically, Rainbow Six Vegas can't match the wonder that is Gears, but you are given wonderfully realistic Mexico and Las Vegas locations. Vegas is rendered in neon-bright colors, with beeping slot machines and all the over-the-top silliness that you really do get in the city of sin. No real locations are named, but you will see believable renditions of the Bellagio, the Stratosphere, and other famous Vegas locations, and it's breathtaking when you fly over the city, or witness a casino explosion from a nearby rooftop. And most of the environments are fully interactive: When terrorists shoot the box you're hiding behind, the splinters fly. And you'll see slot machines explode in a shower of coins, which is a nice effect.

Rainbow Six Vegas delivers sonically as well. There are three distinct elements to the Vegas soundtrack, including the music, which builds to a crescendo at the right action moments (though I eventually elected to turn it off so I could better focus on other subtle sound details); voices, which includes the sounds of terrorists chatting about often humorous topics behind closed doors and taunting you as they attack; and general sound effects, which include such things as whirring helicopters, flying bullets, and exploding scenery. All are delivered in surround sound clarity and greatly enhance game play.

Conclusions

Having never played any previous Rainbow Six games, I can't tell how this title improves on its predecessors. But I can say this: Rainbow Six Vegas leaves GRAW in the dust, and it ranks among the very best shooters on the Xbox 360 platform. Actually, let me rephrase that: Rainbow Six Vegas is one of the best Xbox 360 titles ever created, and unlike some games--Gears of War, I'm looking at you--it delivers on all cylinders, with amazing single player, co-op, and multiplayer game modes. Unless you're a lettuce-chewing, Prius-driving pacifist, Rainbow Six Vegas should be on your list of gotta-have-it Xbox 360 games. Highly recommended.