Ubisoft had a heck of a booth this year at E3. The thing was huge — easily as wide as a city block, and half as long — with a vast open interior patrolled by performers walking about in period costumes relating to the next Assassin's Creed game.
The company's games looked pretty great, too. Far Cry 4 continues that series' legacy of bringing color and vibrance to the first-person shooter genre without being garish; The Division had Jaz's jaw on the floor and actually did something new and valuable with a tablet companion app; and Mike is drooling over Assassin's Creed: Unity per usual. And yet, as many people have pointed out, there's a certain sameness about Ubi's lineup.
To wit: The recently released Watch_Dogs sets players loose in a massive open world, where they complete free-form missions acquired while taking control of communication towers throughout Chicago to gain dominance over different regions. Far Cry 4 allows a player to team up with a friend in a massive open world, where they complete free-form missions acquired while taking control of fortresses throughout the countryside in order to gain dominance over different regions. The Division gives players a chance to team up with several friends in a massive open world where the complete free-form missions acquired while taking control of key tactical points throughout New York in order to gain dominance over different regions of the city. Assassin's Creed: Unity lets a player team up with... well, you get it.
This common thread of game structure running throughout Ubi's current catalog made Rainbow Six: Siege feel all the more refreshing. Here is a game that bucks the inertia of Ubi's collective design approach — and of shooters in general, really. It's a small, contained, highly structured experience, tasking players with very specific goals in an asymmetrical design. Siege plays like nothing else I saw at E3.
It also plays nothing much like classic Rainbow Six. I don't doubt that fact will come as a disappointment to some fans, just as I wince whenever I see what long-time personal favorites like Castlevania have mutated into. However, speaking as a total outsider to the Tom Clancy franchise in general, I find Siege's approach to tactical multiplayer combat wonderfully refreshing. It may be more hands-on than the old-school vision of Rainbow Six, but the form it does take feels wholly satisfying.
In keeping with the core concept of the series, Siege sets a team of paramilitary operatives (Rainbow Six) against a team of terrorists (in the demo I saw, Rogue Spear). Each team has very different objectives: Rainbow Six works to free a hostage from the terrorists' clutches, while Rogue Spear attempts to maintain control over the hostage until time runs out. Of course, there's shooting and death involved, but this is not the typical multiplayer shooter where fallen players respawn after a few seconds. Once you're down, you're down, and a single lucky headshot can take you out of the action for the entire round.
What sets Siege apart from typical shooters is right there in its name: Matches adhere to an asymmetrical structure, with terrorists playing a defensive role and Rainbow Six venturing into turf held by the enemy. Before a match begins, both sides have 60 seconds to prepare themselves; the terrorists can use fortifications to lock down the area where they've chosen to take their stand, while the good guys can send remote drones into the battlefield to get an advance look at the enemy's tactics.
Once the match begins, anything goes. Rainbow Six advances on the enemy stronghold, while Rogue Spear prepares for the onslaught. Should they wish, the terrorists could potentially snipe through the windows to try and take down the encroaching foe. Or they can hunker down around the hostage and wait for the CT operatives to come to them. They can stick to their fortified areas, relying on the reinforced walls and obstructed doors to funnel the attackers into tactical choke points; or they can sneakily set up camp in unprotected areas in order to catch their enemies by surprise.
Conversely, the Rainbow Six team can take a variety of approaches. They can rely on a point man with a durable shield to draw and block fire; they can invade the enemy-held building together or at separate points, inserting at ground level or grappling/rappelling to a different level. Breachers can use shotguns to blast through fortified walls or blow open blocked doorways. They can either lead the hostage to safety in order to win, or simply take down all the terrorists.
All of this makes for a remarkably complex and unpredictable five-on-five shooter setup. Despite Siege's very specific goals and limited array of capabilities (each side has only three class loadouts to choose from), a match can go in many different directions. The high stakes and tight time limit, combined with the terrorists' ability to effectively redefine the flow and pathways of the map with their deployable structural reinforcements, demand teamwork and flexibility.
While Siege might seem like a mode of a larger game by description, in action it appears to offer some of the most intricate and variable team-based combat I've ever seen. No doubt the final game will incorporate much more than the single map (a large suburban residence) demoed at E3. But even in that single stage, each round played out differently, and the amount of teamwork required to adapt to the game's ever-changing situation of search and rescue was truly impressive.
Yes, the games industry churns out a lot of shooters every year, and Ubisoft makes lots of games that feel the same. But Siege shows the there's still plenty of potential for creativity.