Rainbow Six 3 came along just at the point when Xbox gamers most needed it. The immense success of Halo stirred up rumours that Xbox was fast becoming a one-trick pony. But there was soon to be an alternative, a slick strategic shooter with the added bonus of online play. Two years on and Ubisoft has another well-deserved monster hit on its hands.
The secret of its success? Playing freshly and differently enough from every other FPS on Xbox, and also being graphically tasty enough to entice all kinds of gamers, even those normally wary of a little strategy in their diet.
It's a series that plays on its own terms, putting you in the shoes of sharpshooter Ding Chavez and in command of an AI-controlled squad of up to three men. This is the really clever part, because you're able to issue direct orders by shouting into your Xbox Communicator headset. As long as your command is in the Special Ops handbook, the team will suck it up and get down to business (shouting "go to shop for crisps!" doesn't work unfortunately). If you don't have a headset, it's almost as easy to issue orders via some intuitive pop-up menus.
Rainbow Six is a highly trained counter-terrorist unit, and as such they're a versatile bunch. There are many more commands than we saw in previous Rainbow Six titles. Now, instead of just flashing and clearing a room, you can order the team to knock the door in with a battering ram, or take the hinges off with a shotgun blast. Although it's difficult to gauge just how more effective than blowing it to splinters with the old breach charge this is, it's still heaps of fresh fun to try out.
Another major new addition to the team's skill base is the ability to patrol. This works a little like Full Spectrum Warrior, where the squad moves up to a corner, which you highlight using the A button, and makes sure everything is clear before you run out and get your nuts blown off.
Again, the difference between the new 'Patrol!' and the old 'Move!' command is pretty subtle, but one thing you will spot is how the team is much less likely to get caught in the firing line and end up incapacitated just when they're needed.
If they do, it's extraordinarily hard to shift the blame from your incompetent leadership onto faulty AI. Your team-mates' ability to follow without getting stuck is pretty faultless, their skill at spotting enemies is just good enough not to make it too easy, and their behaviour convincing enough to make you think you're in charge of some living, breathing allies. They're the kind of companions you don't want to see hurt or left behind.
One change that doesn't affect the playability, but does add to the sensation of a well-scripted, engaging storyline, is that the team itself is now four times bigger. Although you don't get to choose which of the twelve members accompany Chavez, you'll hardly ever take the same three guys out on a mission, adding greatly to the feeling of mission variety. It also gives the team a more believable flavour - some characters flirt while others bicker.
This comes through the excellent voice-acting in-game, but also during some first-rate FMV cutscenes. When you have a taut Clancy-inspired storyline, you need dramatic and convincing sequences that live up to it. Thankfully they do, impressing with both their crispness and tight direction, not to mention making a fairly complicated plot easier to swallow.
In the team itself, Dieter Weber takes on a bigger role than before. He's the second playable character after Chavez, but only for a series of new (but not entirely welcome) sniping mini-games that take place at the start of some missions.