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Wot I Think: Rainbow Six Siege

Dream team

When firefights break out, bullets sending plaster dust into the air and punching holes through walls and doors, Rainbow Six Siege [official site] is as effective a depiction of close quarters first-person combat as I've ever seen. It reminds me of F.E.A.R., Monolith's horror-themed FPS. Take away the slow motion and the scare tactics, and F.E.A.R. is still fantastic, thanks to some of the crunchiest and weightiest shooting in gaming.

As in intense and grimly beautiful depiction of firefights, Siege is on the same level.

At the end of a round, the level is scarred. The new Rainbow Six doesn't have the kind of destructibility that you might find in Just Cause, Battlefield or Red Faction – the damage is much more detailed and on a much smaller scale. Individual bullets can penetrate certain materials and a shotgun blast or concentrated burst of rifle fire will completely destroy cover. That matters, not only because it's a brilliant way to communicate the intensity of the firefights, but because of the malleable tactical situations that the collapsible walls create.

The damage isn't cosmetic. Not only will bullets tear through walls and damage anyone on the other side, they'll leave holes that create new lines of sight. Explosives can create new entry points, either intentionally or due to unintended collateral damage.

Infiltrating a building through a second floor window, my squad split into two. Three went right, to secure a stairwell, and I went to the left with out shotgun-wielding bruiser, ensuring that no enemies could approach the rest of the team from behind. The chatter of fire came from the stairs and before our three chums could react, they'd been cut down. We ducked into a side room, with just one way in and out. The corridor outside would become a killing floor if anyone dared approach.

I expected the other team to roll a grenade into my lap. That would have flushed me out of the room and I'd have been doomed.

Instead, I heard footsteps and creaking floorboards as they moved into position. They surrounded the room and then, simultaneously, two of the walls collapsed under a hail of fire. Suddenly there were three ways in and as I bled out on the floor and the camera cut to my killer's point of view. From his perspective, I didn't look like an elite operative at all. I looked like Buster Keaton at the end of this clip.

I love almost everything about the minute by minute experience of playing Siege. There are few actions that don't feel involving. I've described the actual fights but scouting and preparing are just as enjoyable. It's slightly disappointing that there's no real planning phase and that the various entry points for each map don't have more of an impact on what follows. Wherever the attacking team decides to approach from, they'll soon be rappelling up the side of a building or breaching doors and windows at ground level.

Rounds play out quickly but that's not to say there's no room to stop and think. Whether you're playing against the AI or against other people, there are usual moments of calm within the storm. They usually last a few seconds and at first that doesn't seem sufficient – you can barely draw breath, let alone change your entire tactical approach on the fly.

As you gain experience – in the form of in-game levels and unlocks, but more importantly, in the form of ACTUAL EXPERIENCE OF THE GAME – your reaction times will improve. This is one of the essential and most important facts about Siege; you can feel yourself becoming a better player as you learn how to use its tools and systems. That's vital. If it weren't the case, the fairly barebones package that comprises the actual #content wouldn't be anywhere near enough to keep anyone's attention for long.

And here's the problem. Siege is a luxurious piece of design, an absolutely phenomenally crafted tactical shooter, but it's trapped in an outfit that feels more restrictive than Sam Fisher's corset. There are eleven maps and I'm not sure adding more would (or will, as more are incoming, for free) make the game feel bigger. It's the limited objectives that are the source of the problem. Whether you're trying to rescue hostages or defusing bombs, the asymmetric play only has room in its mind for two approaches – attack or defend. If there are bombs, you infiltrate and attack to reach them or defend them much as you would if they were hostages or valuables.

There's so little variation in the flow of each round, whatever the map or specific objective, that it's incredible that Siege has held my attention. That's testament to the intelligence of the fundamental design, which has found the sweet spot between reflex shooting and tactical team play. Best played with a group of friends, Siege only needs two people for a spot of terrorist hunting, but ideally you'll have five to form a full squad for team battles. It's entirely possible to have a good time playing with strangers though, provided you're willing to pop on a headset and listen to basic instructions, and the cooperative focus of the game actually seems to have ensured that the people playing are interesting in playing well.

Even though cooperation is required, particularly when coordinating defensive positions and preparing for intruders with wire, barriers and nitro charges, almost everything you need to say or hear can be communicated in a few words. There's no need for in-depth discussions – and no time for them, in fact – but there is a need to be responsive and responsible. Death comes quickly.

Although I'm complaining about the lack of modes, I've enjoyed both the team vs team centrepiece missions and the human vs AI terrorist hunts. The AI has obvious advantages, mostly in terms of the number of folks it drops into a mission and its apparent ability to spawn hordes of enemies as soon as you reach an objective. That's frustrating, as it goes against the nature of the game, which rewards planning and careful sweeps of every room in a building. But playing with Graham yesterday, the two of us against all that the AI could muster, the game took on an entirely new type of tension. It also made me want Left 4 Dead 3 in this engine, as enemy bombers bursting through walls seemed just a little too much like monsters to be credible.

The Left 4 Dead craving sums up my only real issue with Rainbow Six Siege. I keep wanting more from it and, more specifically, from this beautiful and unpredictable engine of destruction on which it's built. My favourite moments in the game could be part of a SWAT game rather than a terrorists and special forces deal, and I absolutely want to play that game. The tension of trying to make an arrest rather than taking a shot, and not knowing quite what is waiting behind each door would be fantastic. As it is, in Siege, you know what's behind the door – it's a person with a gun who wants to kill you.

I'm tempted to complain about the unlock system but I'd be doing so out of habit rather than for any good reason. New operatives, each with a unique ability that helps in either attack or defense, are unlocked fairly quickly. You'll have your first after doing a couple of singleplayer training missions and you can take your pick based on the playstyle you favour rather than having to climb a ladder. Essentially, as long as you're not stuck with the basic Recruit, nobody has an overall advantage over you – instead, they have a skill that gives them an advantage in specific situations. But so do you. Planning so as to make the most of your squad's skills is one of the keys to success.

The season pass is another easy target for criticism but the only people who have any real reason to criticise it are the people who spent money on it. Everyone receives the new operators and maps that are coming for free, those with the season pass just get a few days exclusive access, and some weapon skins and boosters to unlock everything quickly. Given that the people who buy the season pass are presumably going to be dedicated players, they're unlikely to need those boosters, given that they'll spend enough time in-game to unlock everything sooner rather than later anyhow.

Several times, both while playing and while writing this review, I've come close to condemning Siege as a too-brief flash of brilliance in search of a proper home. Siege does feel like a slight game, and that's due to the compact nature of the maps and the way that almost every mission turns into a deathmatch rather than a careful approach to a finer objective. The planning phase for the defenders is the closest the game comes to a and it's best to accept that Siege is an intelligent multiplayer FPS, with disruptive and satisfying gadgets, rather than a thoughtful full-on tactical experience. It's a bloody good multiplayer FPS though.

And that's down to the technical side as much as anything. Matchmaking and connectivity have been spot on, although there seems to be some confusion between Uplay's own voice settings and the game's in-built ones. I've found the volume of in-game voice so low that I had to turn down the rest of the sound effects, and Uplay's own settings seem to take precedence unless they're disabled. That hasn't happened for everyone I've been playing with though.

Anything that interrupts or weakens the actual audio design is criminal because it's some of the best I've encountered in recent memory. Whether it's the voices of AI opponents identifying one of your teammate's movements or the sudden thudding footsteps of a startled enemy behind a wall, Siege is a masterclass of diegetic sound.

Every noise, whether it's the telltale crackle or whirr of a specific gadget or the creak of a board, sounds as if it has its origin in the world. It's only after going back to other games after playing that I've realised how rarely that's the case – sounds in Siege actually seem to bleed through walls and to muddle into one another. It's quietly spectacular, just like the damage system. Nothing in the game looks particularly extravagant but everything reacts to the combat and that's more important than a thousand ultra high-res textures.

Here's one more reason why I love Siege. Everything that I do feels meaningful and satisfying. Take remote cameras. Sending them into a building is tactically astute, whether scoping out enemy positions or trying to find an objective within a building, but the device works so well because the tiny remote drone moves just right, bumping against or clattering across obstacles. It's like a stealth minigame, as you scuttle underneath furniture and away from prying eyes. From the individual pieces of equipment to the actual movements of your operative, Siege's component parts are all exquisitely handled.

And yet I still wish they'd been placed in a more inventive or expressive shell. For all of the wonderful craft on show, Siege doesn't contain any surprises. It executes its plan to perfection but there's no room for deviation.

Rainbow Six Siege is out now.

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