”Okay. Okay. Okay.” I repeat the word slowly, hoping it will calm me down. Rainbow Six, the multinational counter-terrorist squad should be here any second now, but I’ve checked and we’ve got the windows and doors barricaded. “Okay.” They’ll probably come up the stairs, or maybe through the bedroom down the hall, but a teammate has a heartbeat scanner pointed that way, so we won’t be taken by surprise when they get here. “Okay.” I drop a tall metal shield to the ground and shrink down behind it. “Okay.” Just need to hold out for a couple of minutes and everything will be fine. Footsteps. A lot of them… They’re above us. They’re on the roof. The sound of ziplines. Shattering glass. A buzz. “Okay. Okay. Okay.”
That’s Rainbow Six: Siege, in a nutshell. Okay, a lot more than that too, but there’s the core of it.
In my recent review of Battlefield Hardline I bemoaned the way that game squandered the “cops vs robbers” premise in its multiplayer mode, which was indistinguishable from a traditional Battlefield game: “Good guys” and “bad guys” splayed out across a huge map, equally matched in number and firepower. This isn’t how criminals fought against law enforcement, I argued, neither in real life nor in our best fiction where engagements were intense, cramped and costly. I’m not yet sure if Rainbow Six: Siege (which I had the chance to play over a recent Alpha) is going to be a good game, but I can confirm that its version of “cops vs robbers” is dynamic, stressful and evocative in the way I had hoped Hardline’s would be.
Siege’s Alpha featured one mode, a 5 on 5 hostage rescue that tasks one team (the elite and eponymous “Rainbow Six”) with locating and recovering a VIP. To prevent that from happening, the defending team can hunker down behind hand placed barricades, barbed wire, remote explosives, and other special obstacles. Of course, the assaulting team has their own collection of tools: Various explosive charges for breaching doors, windows, and floors; stun grenades; a sledgehammer. You know, just counter-terrorism stuff.
Each round falls into a rhythm. You choose your loadout, vote on a starting position with your team, and then shift into a preparation phase. If you’re on defense, you block off walls and hallways, plant traps, and distribute body armor. If you’re attacking, you and your teammates scout the place with RC car-style reconnaissance drones that bounce and hop around the map while you try to locate the hostage and identify the defensive strategy being put into place. And then the action phase starts and everyone, all at once, takes a deep breath and holds it. (Except, of course, for that one guy slinging slurs.)
There is a sense of physical vulnerability in Siege that I haven’t felt in years—maybe not since the original Rainbow Six games. While death comes easy in competing tactical shooters like Counterstrike, in Siege it can come from nearly anywhere because so much of the game world can be destroyed. That I’m typing this paragraph out surprises me more than anyone: When environmental destructibility was first positioned as Siege’s unique selling point, I rolled my eyes hard. We’ve been blowing up things in games for ages now, why is this time supposed to be special? The answer is that, however boring the ad copy is, Siege’s dynamic environments act as a catalyst for interesting tactical decision making.
So, the first time you play defense, you rush to reinforce every wall and board up every window, then plunk down a metal barrier to hide behind and cross your fingers. The assaulting team can still breach these walls with special charges or sledgehammer in the barricaded doorways and windows. Because the attack can still come from anywhere, you don’t ever really feel any safer. Which is when you realize you could do more than just lock yourself in: You can carefully open yourself up. Leave this hallway clear; keep that window unboarded; plant some C4 on the inside of a doorframe that looks, from the assaulting perspective, safe as houses. This same sort of misdirection can come from the attacking team’s use of gadgets, too. (A fact I learned the hard way.)
The moment you realize that you can subtly guide (or be guided by) your enemies is the moment Siege gets its hooks into you. Suddenly you’re not only trying to line up a shot, you’re playing mind games with your opponents. You anticipate their attack, but they predict your defense. And then, best of all, your plan falls apart and you have to improvise. Cornered, you breach through the ground and escape to a lower floor. Outnumbered, you let the enemy secure the hostage—then snipe at them from the closet. Alone, you slam your rifle butt through the wall and turn a pantry into a pillbox.
Throughout this piece I’ve slipped between different ways of referring to Siege’s depiction of combat: Is it a team based sport? Is it another military shooter? Is it a spiritual successor to SWAT 4? The truth is, I’m not sure that Siege itself knows the answer to those questions.
One of the two available maps in the Alpha release (and the one I was matched into much more frequently) was a suburban two-story, and the hostage scenario that played out therein evoked a militarized police response to a home invasion, not a terrorist plot. So maybe this version of Rainbow Six is more law enforcement team, less international security force. But then, as an attacker, character voice-over refers to the enemy teams as as “OpFor,” a term most will be familiar with through its usage in games like Call of Duty 4, where it references a vague, foreign military force. So we’re back to counter-terrorism. But in reality, OpFor is a term used to designate domestic military units that pose as enemies in training scenarios, so maybe this is all one big wargame? Just you and your team blasting through bedrooms?
Except, they never really feel like bedrooms at all. I look back on some of the footage I took of Siege and I can tell that these spaces are well made, but in the moment, they all just feel like pieces of level geometry. Partly that’s to do with the intensity of combat: When your team swarms into the master bedroom, you don’t have time to think “Hey, look at that cool bed.” You just think “Is there a threat behind that waist-high rectangle?” And that happens so fast because the stakes are so sharp and as much as any horror game, the action is frightening. And so these domestic spaces fall away in the fear of impending violence. They lose their character, their domesticity.
But they’re not real spaces, right? No one really lives here, right? But… Someone, some artist somewhere, spent time decorating the living room. And an architect planned the whole thing out—they had that thought “Oh, and the kids room can be over there.” That’s a thought they had. And someone thought about the best way catch the evening light that passes through the kitchen windows.
Some dev did live in this space for months, crafting and re-crafting it until it felt right. And normally, I’m the sort of person who notices this stuff. I’m the jerk who stops a wallrun in Titanfall to read a piece of interesting signage, or to check out a cute little cafe. But in the Siege Alpha, even the most carefully created space is just boxes and curves and strange angles for me and my fear and my shotgun.
Like Hardline before it, Siege seems determined not to step on any toes. It lets you play cops-and-robbers in the suburbs, but without committing to being “about” a militarized police unit. You can play as a counter-terrorist force, but only ever fight against folks that look more or less like you. But also like Hardline, it can’t help but say something interesting (and political) anyway. In Rainbow Six: Siege, the threat of immediate, axial violence (and the explicit duty to exert my power) transformed the lived-in into a grey collection of strategic possibilities and attack vectors.
I don’t know what the rest of this game will look like—more maps, more modes, a single player campaign. But I know that Ubisoft Montreal has performed a sort of alchemy of geometry and combat and tension. Everything feels contingent, changeable, under threat. That’s an achievement. It’s a hell of a skill. I wonder what they’ll do with it.
Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.