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‘Rainbow Six: Siege’ Beta Impressions

My first impression of the Rainbow Six: Siege beta?  Not much of one, I’m afraid.  But like the heroic forces of suburban anti-terrorism in the game itself, I’ve breached the game’s flimsy outer barrier.  What follows is an exhaustive account of my search for most elusive objective in Siege: fun.

The game revolves around a roster of “operators,” which are — for lack of a better word — “hero” characters.  Each has a unique ability that they bring to their prospective team.  The rosters are divided first by nationality and then by attacker or defender roles.  Each of these heroes can only play for one side or the other, so you’ll need a selection from both sides.  Unlocking a character within a chosen nationality makes the next unlock within that nationality far more expensive for some reason, regardless of role or utility.  For this reason, you’ll want to carefully evaluate what characters from what national affiliations would best suit your play style and then try to unlock your first choices from separate areas.

You can customize the loadouts for your chosen operator, as well.  Each may select from two primary and secondary weapons, as well as a couple of auxiliary items.  Whatever choices you make can be further customized with several attachments with varying price and utility.  There is, however, no indication that you can do this, or how.  One click selects the item for your loadout, but another — without prompt or tooltip — takes you to the customization menu.  The list of attachments is for the moment unremarkable and of dubious value in the narrow scope of provided scenarios.

Only one person on your team can select one of these characters, so if someone else has chosen to unlock the same guy, you’re stuck with the generic ‘recruit’ fallback character.  It’s a problem that will likely be mitigated by time spent unlocking a wider array of operators, but newcomers are forced to take what they can get, when they can get it.  Because some of the operators have significantly broader utility than others, choosing to unlock one of them means that in many cases you’ll need to be pretty fast with your selection to actually get the chance to use them in a match.  Likewise, spending points to upgrade the gear of a specific character isn’t particularly helpful, when you can’t be sure of actually using them.

This thread of potential sabotaged by execution continues into the matches themselves.  You’ll play at least three matches with your team, playing as ‘attackers’ (counter-terrorism) and ‘defenders’ (terrorists) in alternate rounds.  Attackers will vote on their point of entry, and defenders on where they’ll plant their objective.  Once the voting is done, assuming one of the frequent loading crashes hasn’t sent you back to the main menu, you transition into a thirty-second preliminary round.

Attackers will control a fleet of tiny cylindrical drones, rolling and hopping through the defensive interior to try and locate their objective without being destroyed by a defender.  If they’re clever, they will find a concealed vantage point to park the drone, so that when the match starts they retain positional information on their foes.  There really isn’t any challenge in finding your potential objective, however.  The maps themselves are simple enough, and all you have to do is look for the floor that has any sort of defense.  There is one defender class that can jam the drones, but this only really affects your ability to set up a good vantage — the jamming itself clearly marks the area that they’re trying to protect.

Meanwhile, the defenders use their time to fortify the objective area.  Each person is able to set up an infinite number of entry barricades and two wall segment reinforcements by which to prevent explosive breaches.  A number of the defending classes can also utilize traps or other obstacles, like barbed wire or ballistic shielding.  The most practical, and indeed the only real strategy, is to use the team’s wall reinforcements to completely shield the objective room, rendering it a nearly impenetrable bunker.  The rest of the tools are then clustered around the remaining entrances, and the defenders hunker down for the inevitable charge.  Other approaches might exist, but the structure of the matches and the simplistic layout of the maps renders any other approach inefficient.

Once the match begins, the situation quickly devolves into a deathmatch surrounding whatever capture point (read: bomb, bio-container, etc.) has been chosen.  In 100% of the matches I played, killing the entirety of the enemy team won the match.  Once again, poor execution undermines what might otherwise be a more creative experience.  A random member of the attacking team is chosen to lug a “defuser” to the objective, placing it on a 30 second timer to neutralize the objective.  However, since all of the defenders are crouched around the objective anyway, and the room itself has been rendered immune to all but traditional doorway entry, the result is always the same.

Attackers storm the building, run for the area that’s being defended, then start firing and lobbing grenades into it.  The defenders work on deflecting the attack.  Death comes quickly, very rarely approaching anywhere near the five-minute time limit.  The last team standing is the winner, and the round ends.  Not once, in the whole of my time with the game, was an objective completed.  It just isn’t a good way to win a match.  In the best of times, getting a bunch of strangers online to cooperate is nigh impossible; just take a look at any popular MOBA and their overtly hostile communities.  High pressure situations tend to bring out the worst in those involved when they have no real allegiance to the other members of their team.  The fact that the game mechanics reinforce this sort of random just-shoot-everyone approach makes the problem worse.

The network performance doesn’t help any of this.  Many players spend the first minute or two of the match ‘rubber-banding’ around the map.  When you’re trying to breach a terrorist stronghold, endlessly being yanked back to where you were standing a few seconds ago renders a difficult task nearly impossible.  Strangely, the performance seems to level out somewhat as the match progresses.  Unfortunately, by the time it does, most people have already been shot or blown up.  Even getting into a game can be a challenge.  Frequent crashes pollute a matchmaking system that isn’t particularly stable to begin with. I’ve spent far more time queuing for matches than actually playing them.

All of this might seem to render the game a virtually unplayable mess, except that it somehow still manages to be fun.  When the servers aren’t choking, when players attempt to communicate with their teams, and when the standard approach is subverted by some off-the-cuff moment of creative player agency, the game absolutely shines.  The gunplay feels wonderful, and the levels are every bit as gorgeous in their destruction as the trailers portray.  The sound design is some of the best I’ve heard in an FPS, ratcheting up the tension of an engagement in a way that only the best shooters really master.  Even at my most frustrated, the crackle of blowtorches, the lethal pop of gunfire, and the rain of plaster always managed to quicken my pulse.

There’s a great game buried beneath the technical and mechanical morass.  If this beta is a genuine testing ground, Ubisoft has the chance to turn Rainbow Six: Siege into one of the most compelling team-based experiences in years. But if what we’re looking at here is a glorified demo, I have some deep concerns about the relaunch of one of my favorite gaming franchises of all time.

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