Believe it or not, but there was a time when the Tom Clancy game franchise that haemorrhaged titles in the 2000s was actually less popular than the legendary novelist himself. Even by the late 90s, only a handful of games based on his books had come out – most of them Hunt for the Red October submarine sims.
That all changed in 1996, when Clancy and Royal Navy captain Doug Littlejohns founded Red Storm Entertainment, hoping to get into the games market. After creating a couple of loosely-related PC titles, Red Storm found out that Clancy was writing a book called Rainbow Six, about Rainbow, an international organisation fighting a eco-terrorist organisation called the Phoenix Group.
That’s right, the first Rainbow Six game was rare video game book adaptation, and probably one of the only Tom Clancy games that the author had a significant involvement with. Still, when it released in 1998, Rainbow Six (the game) was much more than an obscure book-to-game conversion: it was one of the first purely tactical first-person shooters the industry had seen.
That doesn’t mean that it was an excellent or even a good game: there are plenty of moments in Rainbow Six that are frustrating – even badly thought-out. The game’s twelfth mission – in which you have to infiltrate an apartment, hack a computer, and escape without being detected – is an absolute nightmare. Fire a shot and you fail, get spotted even minimally and you fail, turn a corner straight into a CCTV camera and you fail. It’s one of those frustrating level designs that only a late-90s game could have.
But it’s hard not to say that Rainbow Six was a trailblazer in its field. With most shooters at the time like Quake and GoldenEye 007 focusing on all-out action, Red Storm had created a game where a slow, methodical approach was always the most successful.
Before every mission you pick your three-man team, select their gear and gadgets, then deploy them in different entry points. There was plenty of intel to read, not just about the mission itself but also its context and the political wrangling that surrounds it. While your commander eggs you on to track down the Phoenix Group before they unleash their bioweapon, a presidential advisor bollocks you for letting them get away in the first place.
Co-ordinating attacks is easily the best part of Rainbow Six: the feeling of pulling off a well-organised mission with minimal damage is second to none, amplified by the fact that it’s possible to lose a mission before you’ve even started if you’ve planned it badly enough. Not only can you switch between your three operators, clearing out floors before handing over to the AI, but you can also order your men around, telling them to follow you and guard an area while you advance.
A lot of the time, this works less than perfectly – in reality, your AI friends will get stuck on a wall or flat out refuse your order. Worse still, especially for anyone who shudders at the words “escort mission”, extracting hostages often becomes a nightmare in the game’s snakey corridors. One mission in which you have to extract a scientist from a cargo ship made us spend longer trying to find an exit that the hostage could go through than we did trying to find her in the first place.
Of course, there are plenty of things that do go right, too, and despite its pretty monotonous mission cycle – rescue hostages, defuse bombs, don’t let VIP escape – there is one operation in particularly that’s very memorable.
That mission sees you infiltrate a Kyrgyz nuclear missile silo, which rebels have captured and are threatening to blow up. You need to find the bomb within 20 minutes, but if at any point you trip one of the many tripwires, that counter instantly drops to three minutes. Acting slowly (but not too slowly) you’ll eventually reach a room that has two tripwires at the entrance – impassable. You’re forced to trip them, meaning you only have three minutes to take down the swarming enemies and defuse the bomb. It’s a mad dash at the end, and when you finally disarm the bomb with minutes to spare, it feels exhausting.
It also epitomises everything great about Rainbow Six, and why the series has lasted as long as it has. Encouraging you to use gadgets like heartbeat sensors and door charges in order to take out enemies quickly without alerting more, Red Storm always kept things chopping and changing, so that one gun or one gadget was never the answer to everything. Granted, most of the missions could be completed by gathering up your squad and shooting everyone to high heaven, but playing in that way doesn’t let you see everything Rainbow Six has to offer.
It may be janky, it may be unpolished, and at some points you’ll probably hate it, but Rainbow Six is truly a trailblazer in its genre, a game that was willing to go slow and see what happened. Rainbow Six: Siege may seem miles away from the franchise’s opening chapter, but it’s important to remember where everything started – a Tom Clancy book adaption in 1998.