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Written by  :  Terrence Bosky (5463)
Written on  :  Apr 24, 2005
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.83 Stars3.83 Stars3.83 Stars3.83 Stars3.83 Stars

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A real heartbeat in a crowd of pucks

The Good

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Team RAINBOW is a multinational covert ops team often called in to rescue hostages, disarm explosives, and fight terrorism. Raven Shield begins with a cinematic flashback to the last days of World War II and then picks up in the present day. Without giving too much of the plot away, a new terrorist network has started operations on a global scale and its fascist intentions have RAINBOW globetrotting on a series of 15 missions.

Every mission has three stages. The first stage is an intelligence briefing where several sources explain the situation, define the mission parameters, and give the player a heads-up on things to keep in mind. This is a straight forward stage and, other than improved graphics, remains unchanged from its predecessors.

The planning stage remains the bane of the franchise. Equally the most important aspect of the mission and the most flawed, Raven Shield shows marked improvements. First, selecting the team and outfitting them is now done on the same screen. Players can pick up to eight operatives skilled in assault, demolitions, electronics, sniper, and reconnaissance and divide them into four color coded teams. As an added bonus to keeping people alive, this time around operatives improve their abilities as they complete missions.

Team RAINBOW has an overwhelming amount of fire power to pull from: handguns, miniguns, assault weapons, sniper rifles, shotguns, and heavy weapons. Each of the almost sixty weapons has a descriptive blurb accompanying it, but Raven Shield adds stats to the weapon, so gun-novices (like me) have a way of deciding which weapon to pick. Now you can easily compare the guns according to their range, accuracy, and other factors. Raven Shield also introduces weapon modifications. Not happy with your Desert Eagle? Add a silencer and expand the magazine. Slap a scope onto an M-16A2 and now you have a makeshift sniper rifle that’s also effective up close.

Basic armor and camouflage types remain unchanged, but Raven Shield adds new equipment and reworks others. The classic flash and fragmentation grenade are here, as well as brand new smoke and tear gas grenades. The heartbeat sensor has been retooled as a pair of binoculars which show heartbeats through walls. Specialists will want their demolitions and electronics kits, but any team member can use a claymore charge or pick a lock.

After creating one to four teams, the next step in the planning phase involves surveying a blueprint of the level and setting up a series of waypoints and go codes for the teams. Basically this means drawing lines on the map, showing where your teams will go, setting the speed of the teams from an all-out blitz to a cautious creep, adjusting the level of engagement from shooting anything that moves to only allowing teams to return enemy fire, and telling your teams where to hold up or perform special actions. A new feature, in this game, is a small window showing what your team would see in-game at a particular waypoint. Realistic… no, but any help is appreciated.

Without a doubt, planning is still the weakest aspect of the game. Accepting this, Raven Shield (like some previous version) comes with prepackaged plans. The core of the planning problem comes from the fact that it is possible to outright fail missions—something I’ll deal with later—as such, Rainbow Six games have always placed inflated importance on the planning process forgetting Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke’s truism, ”No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” Planning, for the most part, is a system of trial and error. However, Raven Shield ameliorates this by allowing more on-the-fly control during missions.

During missions, Raven Shield looks like a standard first-person shooter. This is the first entry played over the barrel of gun, earlier ones showing only the on-screen targeting reticle, so the choice of weapons has an added effect. Preset waypoints show on-screen as gray dots, indicating which way your team should move. Other teams are computer-controlled, although you can easily jump to them or issue a blanket order for everyone to hold their position. Computer-controlled AI is much better this time, so players can afford to give the computer greater command, but special situations: disarming bombs or approaching possible ambush points, are still best left to the player.

As an FPS, Raven Shield retains the classic one-shot, one-kill paradigm. Striving for ultra-realism, Raven Shield doesn’t allow shooting while hanging from a ladder or leaping around. While the game has variable difficulty settings, even at the lowest setting opponents and teammates are rather bright and are fast, accurate shooters. Team members show a modicum of self-preservation, scattering when they spot an enemy grenade and being less likely to follow lemming-like into an ambush.

Like SWAT or Ghost Recon, Raven Shield allows for in-mission messages to teammates. Simple mouse and keyboard commands bring up a menu which lets you tell your team to breach a door and clear a room, throw a smoke grenade into a hallway, run to a specific area, escort a hostage, subdue a terrorist, climb a ladder, and more. This long overdue innovation balances the weakness of pre-mission planning while strengthening the squad aspect of the series. Why have team members if you can’t tell them what to do?

Graphically Raven Shield is the first Rainbow Six game to be impressive. Character models look great and the levels are larger and more highly detailed, including windows which can be opened. Taking the player around the world, from a mansion in the Caymans to a massive London bank, Raven Shield has a strong series of maps, with very little repetition. The flash grenade’s explosion burns an image into the screen which slowly fades, the tear gas grenade affects your vision while making the controls sluggish, and the smoke grenade billows out realistically (except smoke has a clipping problem, passing through walls).

If the core game isn’t enough, Raven Shield has various multiplayer aspects and several different single player modes. Beginning players can practice with the weapons, learn the controls, and learn basic tactics in a series of training levels. Players can also create custom missions. These one-shot missions use levels unlocked during regular game play to create new scenarios: terrorist hunts, one-man Lone Wolf operations, or basic practice.

The Bad

Eagle Watch, the original expansion pack to Rainbow Six, featured a watch mode allowing cocky players to set up the planning stage and watch as the computer-controlled party carried out their orders. Raven Shield retains this, but for some reason, a more useful post-mission replay feature has been dumped. First off, the replay feature had a cinematic quality (using a first-person or third-person perspective) which made watching successful missions fun. More importantly, if you failed a mission, you could watch the replay to see where the foul ups occurred.

And foul ups do occur. Even with a better engine, something as simple as having a computer-controlled party open a door and walk into a room looks like a major undertaking. They get caught on the doorframe or don’t give the door enough room to swing open or some other nonsense. For some reason, ordering teammates or a computer-controlled team to throw a frag grenade is still an invitation to sudden death. I don’t know how the AI can competently avoid an enemy grenade while dooming themselves by chucking a grenade just a few feet away. I’m still not sure how one of my team managed to fall to his death from a ladder.

One of Raven Shield’s strengths: tough enemies and randomized enemy start points, ends up being a matter of frustration. Wisely, the game’s focus is no longer on memorizing enemy positions, but on using tactical skill. However, in reality, this just means that instant death could come at any time.

I’m not talking about taking casualties. Players are likely to end up with their share of wounded or dead on a mission’s first play-through and it’s up to them to decide if the casualties are acceptable or if they should replay a level. What I’m talking about is the “Mission Failed” message you get when a hostage dies. Granted a hostage rescue game isn’t worth squat if it lets you pass missions where you lose hostages, but at this point, Rainbow Six games either need to include in-mission saving or reconsider the game’s design.

There is nothing more frustrating that working your way through a self-described “meat grinder” mission, only to suddenly fail because a hostage is shot. I still can’t believe that the terrorists presented in the Rainbow Six games are more inclined to open fire on an unarmed hostage than on members of an assault team. But more unbelievable, is that you can’t save during a mission. Everything can go right for most of the mission, only to collapse at the very end. Then you’re back starting from scratch.

The first few Rainbow Six games supported around twenty terrorists. This was bumped up to fifty with Black Thorn. Raven Shield hovers around thirty-five. This is fine for the campaign missions, but makes the custom missions a little lacking. Along these lines, several custom mission options are omitted from Raven Shield. Where is the Defend mode, or Assault, or Recon? Actually, scrap Recon. Thankfully, Raven Shield only has one stealth level and an exploitable bug makes it slightly more palatable.

The Bottom Line

While Rainbow Six started off strongly back in 1998, we haven’t seen dynamic changes in any of the series’ later releases save for some tweaking of the game’s planning portion. This is mostly to the game’s credit, since its core concept: a realistic tactical shooter set in scenarios extrapolated from the day’s headlines, remains effective. Raven Shield breathes new life into the franchise with smart innovations and a stunning engine, making this release feel like the first real update in seven years. However, I’m left wondering why some of the series’ key features were cut.