Shooters are undergoing some subtle changes. Lots of developers are realising that the environments in which combat takes place can be exploited in new and interesting ways.
That doesn't just mean trick rocket-jumping or destructible pillars, because there are plenty of things that derive from real life to make our shooters more engaging.
Using cover, performing flanking manoeuvres and littering the scene of battle with bullet-pinged physics objects all add to the sense that you're up against something believable. Rainbow Six: Vegas is a series that's feeling the full force of these new and happy trends.
It uses all those ideas, as well as dragging in concepts from Brothers in Arms, Full Spectrum Warrior and Splinter Cell to furnish its invention. It wants to make sure that everything we thought we knew about the tactical shooter is wrong.
And so I feel like an old man. The first thing that sprang to mind when playing Vegas was "back in my day, Rainbow Six was all planning and orders... you kids have it easy." And you really do: Vegas is fully action-orientated, with solo shotgun fun, plenty of on-the-spot improvisation and a freewheeling squad system that operates just like Brothers in Arms. Simply point and hit the spacebar and your guys will run to their positions. Gone are the maps and the briefings, with all that pre-op stuff reduced to choosing shootin' sticks in the helicopter that drops you off at the start of a mission.
Vegas is heavy on the scripted sequences, and drives along the whole thing with an 'oh-no-terrorists' plot that actually makes sense in at least a couple of places. There are a number of AI sidekicks, and there are updates from your girl in the helicopter (and, as this game and the Xbox 360's Gears of War make clear, a woman's place is in the helicopter). Excitement, and not planning, is the order of the day.
The critical challenge throughout Rainbow Six: Vegas is simply staying alive by making effective use of cover. Although the perspective is first-person by default, any time you hold down the right mouse button, you lean into whatever cover is nearest, and if you need to see past what you're leaning against (over a wall, for example), the camera pulls out to reveal your goggled special ops character in all his third-person glory and a better view of his surroundings. Pushing directional keys enables you to lean round or pop over cover to shoot, or you can even blind-fire round the corner to make the bad guys keep their heads down. It's excellent.
As ever in Rainbow Six, you can't take many bullets. If you do get hit, your vision darkens until you're completely down, or, as happens occasionally, someone opens up at point-blank and you get a red-out as your body is eviscerated. You soon become acclimatised. Sidling along walls and keeping under cover feels safer, and you'll find yourself rejecting gung-ho impulses and feeling good when the slightly cautious (but shouty) AI team have your back.
Taking down a room with a practised assault is warmly satisfying, especially when your perfectly placed smoke-grenade gives you cover, or the frag grenade knocks out that troublesome machinegun nest with concussive finality. A great deal of care has clearly been taken in getting this system just so. The implementation of cover isn't broad-brushed like in Brothers in Arms, and so enemies aren't invulnerable because they're behind cover. Flanking is important, but so's headshot accuracy. This is a game that will reward your personal skill and your choice of weapon (of which you can carry two, and a pistol).