On Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 and Being on the Wrong Side of Gaming History

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It’s astonishing to think about how far game design has come in the past decade. In recent years we’ve seen an unprecedented blending of genre elements into all manner of video games. Open world games are now expected to have top of class shooting and driving mechanics, all shooters must have some sort of RPG-inspired customizability, and god help any RPG that lacks “tight” controls. However, it wasn’t long ago that this wasn’t the case, and one must only look back to the Xbox 360/Playstation 3 era to see a far more eclectic mix of game designs in big budget titles. In no genre was this most apparent than in shooters, which evolved a great deal from early generation titles such as Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and Call of Duty 2 to “split-gen” games like Titanfall and Destiny. But during the decade that shooters established now-modern conventions, there were many titles in which “incorrect” design decisions placed them in the dustbin of history. Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 was one such game, but playing through it with modern eyes reveals it to be a fascinating case study in the evolution of shooters.

I can’t really separate out my interest in Vegas 2 from the timing of it hitting the market. Released on March 18th, 2008 (five months after the seminal Call of Duty 4 and eight months before Gears of War 2 solidified its predecessor’s legacy) the game felt like Ubisoft had designed it for a previous era of consumer expectations. That isn’t to say that the game was not warmly received, as it got solid reviews across the board (including a positive, four star review by Jeff Gerstmann). But for a well liked game, no one ever really talks about Vegas 2 nowadays. Not even as a weird curiosity. Why is that?

For starters, the game itself controls oddly and never feels very comfortable. Aim down sights is consigned to clicking the right thumbstick, sprinting is on the left bumper (with your character’s stamina being that of a 60 year-old smoker), and there appears to be no way to melee opponents in close quarters. And for all the praise that the first Vegas got in 2006 about its cover-based combat, Vegas 2’s system never really improves on it. As before, the player must hold down the left trigger near a wall of cover and the game seamlessly shifts the perspective from first person to third person. What’s not so seamless is the act of shooting behind cover. Oftentimes I would find myself behind unobstructed cover but unable to take a shot because the game deemed it so. Worse still were cover points that had my character automatically peek out, exposing her to very lethal enemy fire.

That’s not to say that the cover system doesn’t work, but just that it only works if you’re playing the game within some very rigid parameters. Doorways in particular are very consistent cover points that help facilitate the game’s core “breach and clear” gameplay. Like most Rainbow Six games, the crux of Vegas 2’s gameplay lies in infiltrating and clearing rooms full of bad guys. To that end, the campaign is structured around the specific cadence of your team stacking up against a door, you using a snake camera to see what’s on the other side, and then giving the “go” order to have your guys flash/frag/breach and clear the room. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the planning and execution of clearing a room provides a great rush and adds a layer of strategy to the proceedings. However, like in previous Xbox 360 era Tom Clancy games, it’s too easy to game the difficulty by sending in your revivable team mates to soak up bullets while you pick off distracted enemies. This is exacerbated by the fact that the game seems only designed to have one or two points of ingress per room. Usage of any non-traditional entry points, such as a window, results in some incredible clunky shooting and movement that almost always guaranteed me taking a fatal bullet.

Similar to the gameplay, the game’s story seems to have come from a bygone era. Like the novel on which the series is based, you are an agent of Rainbow, a multi-national coalition of elite soldiers who act as a sort of a worldwide SWAT team. Your team is in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that conveniently end up in Las Vegas during the events of original Rainbow Six: Vegas. Cue multiple scenes of people frantically screaming “Where is the bomb?!” until the bomb is located. Or was it really? Or is there a second (or third) bomb? Of course it is a bit rote to criticize a shooter for not having the deepest of stories, but even considering that the plot of Vegas 2 remains especially threadbare. There’s very little that establishes the state of the world, nor anything that justifies why Rainbow needs to deal with the situation instead of US law enforcement or military assets. The result is a campaign that grew repetitive as I kept clearing rooms with a story that seemed to get duller by the minute.

The counterpoint to my criticisms is that I’m looking at it through a modern perspective. Of course Vegas 2’s plot can’t compare to the likes of Wolfenstein: The New Order or Titanfall 2, nor can its gameplay hold up to Gears of War 4 or DOOM. But one need not come this far forward to see the game’s deficiencies. Remember, Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 came out in early 2008 following a bumper crop of excellent shooters, including Bioshock, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, and Team Fortress 2. Compared to what was already on the market in 2008, the game feels very much rooted in its predecessor’s 2006 design paradigm.

Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 is a classic example of mistiming the market. The first Vegas came out early in the life of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 and felt sufficiently fresh at the time to establish a fanbase. But as the developers sought to expand on their success in the sequel by making everything bigger and better, they missed the larger trends in the industry pushing shooters forward. That isn’t a slight at the design team, who had no idea what 2007 would bring for gaming, but it does show how a game can fail to capture the zeitgeist despite the best of intentions. Even still, the game’s failure to move shooters forward provides valuable insight as to why modern games are designed the way they are. It may not have the most glamorous spot in the gaming canon, but Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 remains a beguiling artifact of its unique era.