The Division [official site] has ensnared at least two members of RPS in its deadly streets, and as we creep through cover toward a better understanding of the game, we've taken a moment to reflect on the games that came before. Specifically, the games that carry the name of author Tom Clancy. From Rainbow Six to Ghost Recon and HAWX, the Clancyverse contains some of the finest tactical shooters that the PC has ever seen - and a few duds as well. Jake Tucker investigated the triumphs, the failures, and the origins of the Clancy game.
If you want to talk about the Tom Clancy games, you have to start with the man himself. Sadly now deceased, in 1996 Clancy was one of the world's best-selling novelists, the tsar of techno-thrillers, and he'd just co-founded a game studio called Red Storm Entertainment.
Authors don't usually move into video game publishing - though who could forget Michael Crichton's experiment with Timeline Computer Entertainment - and even though Clancy wasn't an active part of development at Red Storm, his access to military experts and technical consultants proved invaluable.
For 20 years, games bearing the Clancy name have been nearly guaranteed to have a gritty feel all of their own. Whether going door to door with the modern day combat of Rainbow Six or dealing with drones and robotic sentries in Ghost Recon, there's a sort of authenticity that many have fallen in love with. And considering every game with the Clancy name on the cover as a whole, they also have, in my opinion, one of the highest hit rates of any video game franchise in history.
Tom Clancy enjoyed his video games, and he had taken a liking to an early first-person shooter, The Colony, written by a programmer named David Smith. Clancy was so impressed with the game that he invested big money into Smith's 3D tools company Virtus and they soon pushed out the first game with Tom Clancy's name on the box, SSN.
SSN was a submarine game based on Clancy's novel of the same name. Problem: Tom Clancy had never commanded a submarine before, so he contacted his friend, eventual best man, and retired submarine commander Doug Littlejohns.
"He’d signed a deal with Simon & Schuster to publish this SSN game, and I looked at the deal and said, ‘You’re never going to make a red cent out of this. This is the worst deal I’ve ever seen, from your end,’" said Littlejohn, recalling the first time he'd looked over the deal Clancy had signed "So I got up on the Sunday morning, about 5am, and I remember sitting in the picture window in his house in Chesapeake and wrote a two-pager saying, ‘This is what you need to do, you need to find people who are dedicated game writers, you need to set up a new company which is dedicated to games, and you need to put some money into it.'"
SSN did well, but as Littlejohns predicted, didn't do much for Virtus thanks to the Simon & Schuster deal. Virtus and Tom Clancy went 50/50, Littlejohns took 15 people from Virtus and they made their own company, Red Storm Interactive.
"Red Storm started in the fall of 1996. We kicked off with a brainstorming retreat at colonial Williamsburg. Clancy was there, as well as the core group developers from SSN. We spent a couple of days in a big meeting room kicking around ideas for games," said Brian Upton, the lead engineer on SSN. "We eventually had more than 100. The idea for Rainbow Six came out of that session. It was originally proposed by a programmer named Mustafa Thamer [most recently at Firaxis working on XCOM: Enemy Unknown]. He suggested making a game about FBI hostage negotiators."
The game changed forms several times during development. At one point, it was known as "Jackbooted Thugs" and took a much darker approach. That fell by the wayside after Clancy decided he wanted to write a novel about the game, so Rainbow Six's story was brought back in line with Clancy's usual blend of high-tech military action.
"He took my basic storyline and weaved his own narrative around it," says Upton. "I remember getting to read the finished manuscript fairly late in development and doing some quick design changes to bring the game more in line with his story, but a lot of what went into the book started out in the game."
In 1998, the company released Rainbow Six - it wasn’t their first game, that honour goes to strategy title Tom Clancy's Politika, but this was the one that made everyone take notice. It’s a brutal struggle of a game that emerged blinking into the middle of a crop of excellent shooters: Half Life, Unreal, and er, Trespasser. It proceeded to turn the industry upside down. Rather than presenting an abstract idea of combat, and building you up to almost superhuman levels of invulnerability, this was as close to the real deal as 1998 PCs had seen or could feasibly handle. There were real world locations, real weapons, and a single bullet was often enough to kill you.
The game partly stemmed from Upton's frustration that the younger guys on the team kept beating him at Quake, due to their faster reflexes. You could say that too many rocket kills played a part in creating the tactical shooter genre.
On page two, Ghost Recon, Splinter Cell and experimentation, both successful and not-so-successful.
Iterative sequels and a sister franchise, Ghost Recon, followed, and with three million sales in two years the company garnered the attention of an up-and-coming publisher: Ubi Soft Entertainment. On August 29th 2000, Red Storm changed hands, and the rights to Clancy's name went with it. Tom Clancy the franchise had now outgrown Tom Clancy the man. There were worries that Clancy moving aside would herald drastic changes but the sale of the franchise lead the gaming Clancyverse into exciting new territory.
2002 saw the release of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, the company's first attempt to transplant the "authenticity" of Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon to a different genre. Instead of controlling a squad, you were playing as a single operative now, super-spy Sam Fisher. Splinter Cell was an attempt to capitalise on the success of popular stealth titles like Metal Gear Solid and Syphon Filter, but while those games tried to bring popular spy movies to life, Splinter Cell was more about whispering into levels with techo-wizardry and finesse than blowing up bases and snapping necks.
A lot of the fun came from the settings and environments. You were infiltrating parking garages and offices - all places you’ve seen before, but with the addition of your night vision and a bag of gadgets, you felt almost predatory, stalking dark corridors and taking out unsuspecting guards.
After Splinter Cell, Ubisoft had proven they were worthy guardians for the Tom Clancy name, and with the release of Rainbow Six 3 in 2003 we started to experience the true potential of the tactical shooter. Technological limitations in the earlier engines had restricted the scale of the close quarters combat. But with the power of PCs increasing, Rainbow Six 3 could have a lot more going on under the hood. The end result is a sequel that delivered a host of advancements and updates, without messing too much with the magic formula.
Almost every aspect of the game had slight improvements. The tactical map the series was famed for was now in three dimensions and when you told your soldiers where to go you could also tell them which way they should be facing. This wasn't a cosmetic tweak - it had tactical implications, as did the very ability to view the map in 3d.
The next outing in the Rainbow Six series was Lockdown. After a strong run, this was a stumble. Lockdown is a stinker. The attempt to create a more action-orientated experience stripped out everything that distinguished the original games from any other shooter and it couldn't even stand alongside those shooters in quality.
Lockdown may have been a failure but it wasn't a dead end. It heralded a new era in which Ubisoft continued to experiment with the Clancy brand and several reinventions followed, the most successful being Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter in 2006.
Ghost Recon had always struggled with its own identity. At first glance, it looks like Rainbow Six, except in open battlefields rather than close quarters urban settings. With Advanced Warfighter, Ubi moved the game into the near future and upped the ante with the 'advanced' tech of the title. The game also brought in a more structured narrative, putting you in command of a four-man team of elite soldiers known as Ghosts.
The result is a more gung ho, often silly entry in the series. Even now, years since I last played it, I remember having to take on not just one but two attack helicopters, dumping assault rifle rounds into the flying death-machines while mashing the target button in the hope my heavy-weapons guy would suddenly learn how to target aerial units. Thankfully there's some leniency in the new design and you can now take a handful of rounds before keeling over, instead of the customary single bullet.
Advanced Warfighter removed the option to hop between different troops on your mission, replacing it with the ability to boss your squadmates around with a quick tap on the middle mouse button, sending them to set up ambushes or cover your flanks.
This trend of reimagining Clancy titles with an action twist carried over into Splinter Cell: Double Agent and Rainbow Six Vegas, sequels that annoyed Tom Clancy purists but found mainstream success. Although Clancy had stepped away from the games that bore his name after Red Storm's acquisition by Ubisoft, that name continued to be a mark of quality, and of a certain kind of approach to quasi-realistic modern and near-future tactical military shooters. But there was always the question of what other eggs the golden goose might be tempted to lay - where there other genres that didn't have the requisite amount of Clancy?
Ubisoft went with two new titles: H.A.W.X (2007) and EndWar (2006). EndWar was a real time strategy game that missed the mark so badly I begged RPS not to make me write about it. It was packed with ideas, but they didn't cohere. Before release, the ability to control the game with your voice was held up as a key feature, which neatly distracted from questions as to what exactly players would be controlling and why. The game wasn't a complete failure but most confrontations were simplistic rock paper scissors affairs, with little tactical depth.
H.A.W.X fared much better. It's a jingoistic Ace Combat-riff that leaned heavily on Clancy’s literary output, tasking you with missions such as escorting Air Force One and retaking parts of the U.S from a rogue private military corporation. H.A.W.X works for the same reason every jet fighter game since After Burner has worked - because being a fighter pilot is cool as hell.
Despite a sequel to H.A.W.X showing its face a couple of years later, and a pair of underwhelming entries in the Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon series, things went quiet for the Clancy games for a while. But the last couple of years have seen the Clancy games going through another period of reinvention, this time focussing on what makes the individual franchises unique - 2015's exceptional Rainbow Six: Siege broke down and reinvented the core elements of the series: close quarters combat and really scary ultra-lethal combat. Meanwhile, Ghost Recon: Wildlands pulls its focus onto Ghost Recon's whole "men with guns in the outdoors being all military" vibe.
The interesting wildcard now is The Division. It's a game far removed from the usual Clancy schtick as it looks a little like - whisper it - a "tactical" reskin of Destiny set in the middle of New York. The looters and other assorted enemies you attack don't die with a single burst of gunfire, but have torsos made of Teflon.
It’s another departure for the Clancy brand, for sure, but it’s one that’s in keeping with a history that started with a game about submarines and thus far has taken in tactical action, sneaking in goggles and flying planes around while whistling Highway to the Danger Zone to yourself.
This constant reshuffling and rejigging of ideas is one of the things that makes the Tom Clancy games so interesting. They’re built on a solid foundation of gritty real world tech-lore, high-stakes action, and the sort of narratives that make conspiracy theorists squee, but they're not tied to specific rules or genres. The Clancyverse can contain weapons that appear to mimic real hardware but the ARPG, stat-heavy loot-guns of The Division are at home there as well. It was never about realism so much as it was about reality seen through a specific lens. That allows for shifts and changes in what is possible in this weirdly interconnected setting.
And even though the man whose name sits on the box isn’t with us anymore, it’s that reinvention and experimentation that’s managed to keep the franchise invigorated over 20 years.
Our review of Tom Clancy's The Division will be with you as soon as we've had time to explore the game with its populated servers.