“Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six” (the game, not the book) turned 20 this week. Before the Clancy moniker prefaced a ballooning number of games, sequels, spinoffs, and expansions, it highlighted one of the most realistic shooters of the time.
The game was a smart, brutally unforgiving shooter in a 1990s era headlined by the likes of “Doom,” “Goldeneye,” “Duke Nukem,” and “Quake.” It was well-received and kicked off a mini-era of realistic tactical shooters that included “Brothers in Arms,” “Ghost Recon,” and “SWAT,” not to mention several “Rainbow Six” expansions and follow-ups.
The premise, with a plot that loosely follows the book, was simple enough: Kill the bad guys. But “Rainbow Six” distinguished itself with a planning stage that took more effort than the actual mission and gameplay, where anyone could die with just one bullet. Soldiers killed in a mission stayed dead, emphasizing the need to prepare.
The game made for an occasionally tortuous, but gratifying experience offered by no other at the time. Planning essentially became its own game, even if it sometimes felt like homework. Each mission began with a summary of the situation and commentary from Clancy stalwart John Clark, the “Six” of “Rainbow,” and other consultants. Players chose their soldiers, assigned them to teams, and selected their limited equipment. Then they accessed a map of the current mission, almost always located at a compound (presumably for ease of design). Players assigned routes and go-codes while directing different teams when to flashbang a room or dismantle an explosive.
The game offered its own plans for the first few levels, but players had to develop their own for the rest of the game. This forced the player into an “Edge of Tomorrow”-like existence of plan, execute, fail, repeat. Fortunately, the planning interface was intuitive and the payoff immensely satisfying.
I downloaded the original to determine if my fondness was grounded in reality or nostalgia.
My campaign (titled “It’s for a FDRLST Piece, Honest”) first tasks the team with rescuing two hostages from the Belgian embassy in London. John Clark reminds me in the briefing that this is Rainbow’s first chance to prove itself … and possibly its last. I set the level to expert, assuming the gaming skills I’d sharpened over the last two decades would give me the edge I needed over a game that still couldn’t buy booze. Impatiently, I used the default plan that offered only one go-code and no breaching orders.
The game loaded. My three teams got in position. We were ready to prove to terrorists around the world that there was a new sheriff in town. The other two teams crouched by their entry points. I could see their heart rates on my screen. Eager and alert, but calm. Tigers ready to pounce. This is what we trained for. I’m team leader Ding Chavez, desperate to show that I belonged here, to show that my 33-year-old self could do anything in a game that my 13-year-old self could. I set my HK MP5SD5 to three-round burst and shuffle up to the door. Here it goes.
How do you open a door? Was it the space bar? Enter? Shift?
Hang on, terrorist scum. I’ve got to go back to the main menu and look at the controls. NUMPAD0, of course (John’s gonna ride me for that in the debrief). Mission reload. Everyone gets back in position. Maybe it’s all in my head, but their heart rates somehow look calmer. Maybe we needed that false start. But now it’s real. I give the go code and unlock my door.
Everyone dies within seconds. My team is dead. Also, I died without so much as a trigger pull. It was a catastrophic failure. The “mission fail” screen loaded, the game reveling in my impotence with an image of two dead Rainbow soldiers. I became all too familiar with that picture over the next few days, even as I downgraded from high difficulty to medium difficulty … and then to easy.
I ended up playing six missions before stopping on account of game-breaking bugs, likely due to Windows 10 running a very old game. The AI often frustrated as teams stacked on top of each other or got stuck behind doors. And, of course, everyone looked like a stack of elongated icosahedrons (plus the black demolitions expert was white in-game). But I was surprised at just how well the core of the game held up. It’s a game, much like “Hitman” today, where failure and experimentation are an enjoyable part of the experience. Hearing “contact!” and “tango down,” rather than the guilt-inducing sound of failure, makes the time-consuming plan tweaks entirely worthwhile. It was fun. More than that, it was incredibly rewarding.
And I miss that sort of game. The franchise veered away from its slow, deliberate nature after “Rainbow Six 3” (the genre faded with it). It moved in a more accessible direction (partially to appease console gamers), doing away with the planning stage and adding features like regenerating health in “Rainbow Six: Vegas.” “Rainbow Six Siege” launched in 2015 and plays much more like the “Rainbow Six” of old, with quicker deaths and some form of mission planning. But it is multi-player only and nearly inaccessible to new players.
Maybe there’s no longer an appetite for a tactical single-player game like the original “Rainbow Six.” But Sony’s success with story-driven, single-player games and “Siege’s” endurance show that there might be an untapped market out there.