When the new-look Rainbow Six was unveiled at the end of Ubisoft's E3 conference last year, we don't mind admitting, we were hugely impressed with the concept. It took the core pillars that have long supported the series - careful planning and tactical combat - and fused them with something a touch more contemporary. The refreshed concept is thus: two teams square off against the backdrop of a hostage scenario. One team in the building, defending, the other team making their way into harm's way, on the attack.
It's a tidy idea, and although the concept has been moulded around the mechanics that inform the experience, it has a ring of authenticity to it. It's this realistic mood that gives Siege its identity, and from what we've sampled from our brief hands-on during the recent closed alpha, it's what's going to set this latest Rainbow Six title apart from the other shooters that continue to crowd the marketplace.
We've played matches on both sides of the law. When you're defending a hostage your primary job is to secure the environment around you. This is done by throwing up defences in double-quick time, creating bottlenecks through which to funnel your enemies, and ultimately giving yourselves the best chance at defending and subsequently repelling the imminent attack. Once this opening phase is complete it's game on, and the SWAT team, who've been trying to scout the building whilst the defences were being placed, enter the building and begin their assault.
The significant difference between the two teams, and one of Siege's defining factors, is that early planning phase. While the hostage takers will be scurrying around inside, the SWAT team are stationed on the periphery of the map and each has a remote-controlled robot that can whiz around the building and identify where the enemy are and what they're planning (unless they spot and shoot the drones, in which case you're going in blind).
Once the defences have been placed and the area has been scouted, the two teams come together for a Counter-Strike style shootout where players have but one life and must make it count as they try and complete their respective objectives. It's tense stuff, and the solitary life adds gravitas to each decision you make. There's still those who'll prefer the gung-ho approach - likely this will ease as players become more accustomed to the game - but these players will usually meet an early end while the more cautious stay alive that little bit longer.
The SWAT team can blast through doors, windows, walls and ceilings as they seek to make an impactful entrance, while the hostage takers lurk in corners waiting to spring their traps when the incoming wave finally hits. The defenders need to wipe out their adversaries and hold their ground, while the attackers must either clear out their opponents or rescue the hostage and - with pistol drawn - escort them from the conflict zone.
Our favourite moments from the alpha involved team-based play and well-executed attacks (there was no option to group up with friends, and we expect team coordination to improve drastically when we're allowed to party up), but there was also opportunity for solo heroics. One example had the whole team wiped out, with just us and two opponents left. We jumped down through a hole in a ceiling and quickly dispatched our laying-in-wait opponent before rescuing the hostage and escorting them to safety - all while the remaining enemy searched the house for us in vein.
There's a nice pace to the action, and the gunplay seems solid enough, although the hit detection did feel a little bit off at times. There's the obvious weapon choices for players to pick from, and there's class-specific perks that players will have to master if they're going to get the most out of the game. Also, if you've been waiting for a game that lets you make an entrance with a huge bloody hammer, this is it.
The matches are contested via several short rounds, so even if you bite a bullet early on in one fight, it won't be long before you're back in the mix. Teams swap over and take it turns to attack and defend, which breaks things up and, as far as we can tell, keeps it from getting stale. There were two maps in the alpha build we played, although we fought predominantly on the one with a more domestic setting. The second played out on a plane, and it's a bit bigger than the one based in the house. We're very interested to see what other scenario-driven maps the team can conjure up. Indeed, creative map design could make all the difference here, and we're hoping to see some great scenario-specific settings (for example, we can't wait to storm the inevitable embassy).
From what we've seen thus far, Rainbow Six: Siege is shaping up to be a decent shooter, possibly even a great one. The series staples - planning and execution - have been maintained, although it remains to be seen how the early planning phase will feel after repeat plays, and whether we'll get longterm gameplay variety out of the maps. There's potential here for this to evolve into an exciting tactical shooter with an interesting meta game, but ultimately we're still a while off finding out whether Ubisoft are able to deliver on the concept. Having played this early build of the game - which felt rough around the edges, it must be said - we're still very much looking forward to seeing more.