Rainbow Six Vegas is one of the very best Xbox 360 shooters of the past year, so it was only a matter of time before Ubisoft brought it over to the PlayStation 3. Thankfully, the PS3 version is just as good as the Xbox 360 game, and it even packs a lot of content that 360 fans had to pay extra for. The result is one of the very best tactical shooters made to date.
In Rainbow Six Vegas, you play as Logan Keller, the leader of one of Rainbow's elite three-man counterterrorist assault teams who is called into action after an operation in Mexico goes bad and, for some reason, the terrorists strike the casinos and high-rise hotels of Las Vegas. Your job is to stop them and ascertain their intentions, which involves the standard McGuffin device that will kill millions, and a secret military base hidden inside a massive hydroelectric dam. The story borrows a few too many plot twists seen in other Ubisoft games, namely Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, and the lack of a satisfying resolution makes the plot feel like a paper-thin reason to battle an army of terrorists in Las Vegas, of all places; but this is all easy to overlook, because the combat in Rainbow Six Vegas is simply excellent.
What elevates this chapter of Rainbow Six is the cutthroat tactical combat that relies on the use of cover. In Rainbow Six Vegas, slabs of concrete are your best friend, along with the edges of doorways, slot machines, the sides of SUVs, and pretty much anything else solid that you can put between yourself and the enemy. By moving up to those objects and holding down a button, you can "hug" the cover and then poke your body out from the sides or the top to shoot at the enemy before ducking down again. Or, if you're under heavy fire, you can poke your rifle around the corner and fire blindly to keep the bad guys at bay. The game seamlessly transitions from first-person to third-person perspective when you do get behind cover, so you get a very cinematic effect of watching yourself huddle while bullets impact around you.
You don't fight alone in Rainbow Six Vegas, either; you're usually accompanied by your two teammates. The artificial intelligence does a great job of controlling these agents as they follow you. Pathfinding, for instance, is very rarely a problem, as they can navigate the cluttered environment effectively, and they use cover just as well as you do. Controlling your teammates is simple, too. By simply pointing at a spot on the ground and tapping the X button, you can tell them to move to that position. Point at a door and hit X, and they'll "stack up" to it, or get into position to clear the room. Hitting down on the D pad tells them to either hold place or fall in behind you.
While the basic controls are pretty easy to pick up, Rainbow Six Vegas does have some weird default settings on the PS3 that seem unintuitive. No problem, as you can select the tactical control setup in the options menu, and that is similar to the excellent Xbox 360 control setup. Vegas also features support for the Sixaxis motion controls, though it feels completely tacked on and adds unnecessary complexity to what should be a simple task. The motion controls are used for when you snake a camera underneath a doorsill to scout the other room. You must move the Sixaxis in order to move the camera around, though the controls are so touchy and clumsy that the process of targeting and calling out enemies is a pain. Even worse, the motion controls don't adhere if you selected the invert Y-Axis controls in the options menu, so every time you use the camera it reverses what you're used to. This makes for an annoying, though not game-killing, issue.
What promotes Rainbow Six Vegas over its predecessors is the sensation that you're really playing as an elite commando. For instance, these new Rainbow agents borrow a page or two from Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher, and you can play in a highly mobile and agile manner. You can quickly rope out of a helicopter onto the top floor of a skyscraper, run over to the side, and leap over the edge on a rappel line, all in a few seconds. While on the rappel line you can hang upside down, lower yourself far enough to see into the target room, then call out the location of the terrorists inside. Then, on your command, your team will burst through the window and clear the room. This isn't just a mere gimmick, either, as the levels are designed so that most rooms have multiple points of entry, so you can determine your takedown strategy for each one. Admittedly, one of the contrivances in the game is that bad guys in a neighboring room seem unaware of all the gunfire and explosions going on down the hall, but at least this lets you execute textbook takedown after takedown throughout a level.
On the normal difficulty level, Rainbow Six Vegas is a moderately challenging game, though it's fairly forgiving thanks to the fact that you can absorb a fair amount of damage before you die. There are no health packs or health meters to worry about. Instead, when you take damage your vision begins to blur, and if you take too much damage you die. However, if you manage to find cover and avoid getting shot for a few seconds, your vision begins to clear and you'll be back at full health. This lowers the frustration level considerably, as you don't have to worry about rationing the health meter.
However, if you ratchet up the difficulty setting to "realistic," Rainbow Six Vegas becomes an incredibly tense and difficult experience--in a good way. In realistic mode, the amount of damage you can absorb before you die is much lower than in normal mode, and this makes you rely on using real-world tactics and playing a lot more conservatively (and, well, realistically). For instance, instead of charging across an open area like you might on normal difficulty, you'll probably want to pop a smoke grenade to provide concealment; otherwise, you'll get cut down before you get halfway to your destination. Realistic mode will result in you dying a lot, but when you do, you'll realize more often than not that it's because you did something stupid, which means you get to learn from your mistakes and be smarter for it.