A man watches helplessly as terrorists break into his home, beat his wife and threaten the life of his child. He's kidnapped, forced to strap on a suicide bomber vest and ordered to detonate himself in the middle of New York City's Times Square unless he wants his entire family to die.
Then things get really bad.
If you've seen the first gameplay footage released for Rainbow 6 Patriots, you know what happens next. An elite tactical team controlled by the player interrupts the heinous plot and, after sniping all of the bad guys, decides to kill the innocent guy too - tossing him and the explosives off the Brooklyn Bridge with a quick apology and promise that his death will serve the greater good.
Brutal? Wait until you experience that mission the way we now have, with the "target" prototype visuals from the video above replaced by updated, much more vivid and visceral detail. According to publisher Ubisoft, Rainbow 6 Patriots still isn't in full production yet, but you wouldn't know from looking - the sacrificed man's house is now full of personal, humanizing effects (a Christmas tree, an iPad with readable articles, a wife whose cheek you can kiss or caress) and the bridge scene is now awash in dramatic atmosphere (sirens flashing through heavy rainfall, cars careening in every direction, a teammate tensely calling out sniper shots). When that unthinkable choice is made at the end, the emotion on the characters' faces - the victim, the squad - is palpable.
Choice, of course, is what Rainbow Six shooters have always been about. Even when Rainbow Six Vegas streamlined gameplay in 2006, the slow and strategic approach remained - if you didn't direct your squad or plan your approach to a room intelligently enough, it was instantaneous game over. That's truer than ever in Patriots. We watched a developer breach the same terrorist-filled garage and neutralize the same hostage situation in half a dozen different ways - sometimes through careful placement of teammates, sometimes through careful timing of entry, sometimes through careful use of smoke grenades, sometimes through careful priority of target neutralization and, one time just for fun, through completely careless "kick down the door and run in solo" bravado.
Exactly how much have your tactical options been expanded? In Vegas, the total number of ways to interact with a door was 5; in Patriots, the total is 12. And for every feature that's been removed (you can no longer command your two squad members independently), a new ability is added (you can see through walls in a high-tech power similar to Batman's Detective Mode). Both enemy and ally AI seem better as well. When the developer began firing his gun outside the garage, the terrorists didn't rush out to see what was happening - they immediately killed the hostage and found cover positions. Similarly, the Rainbow squad knew when they'd been detected and automatically responded in a smart, sensical way.
As the man on the bridge makes mercilessly clear, however, Rainbow 6 Patriots will present you with more than strategic decisions - the ethics of fighting terrorism are major themes, too, and you'll often be asked to weigh the good of the few versus the good of the many. Creative Director David Sears informed us that the bomb vest from the video was but a small (and less extreme) preview of the moral dilemmas you'll face elsewhere in the game, then promised that some of those choices would change your experience. While the storyline doesn't branch, the gameplay in a particular mission can. For example, in that footage the player shoots the legs of policemen to prevent them from accidentally detonating the explosive. During our demo, the player took so long to kill the terrorists that they shot the policemen, removing that moment altogether.
To make such dilemmas even tougher to solve, and to craft a better narrative (Sears readily admits that nobody remembers the story and characters of Vegas), Rainbow 6 Patriots will introduce a shifting POV that occasionally puts you in the shoes of civilians, first responders and, yes, even the terrorists themselves. Call of Duty copycat? Maybe, but it sounds like less of a linear gimmick here. A civilian might pick up an abandoned gun to defend herself, though she won't shoot very well and could be viewed as a threat by nearby law enforcers - another choice, another potential consequence. You may play as a terrorist long enough to sympathize with his situation and understand his motivation, then have to shoot him when you're once again playing the hero.
Why would you sympathize with a terrorist? Because in Rainbow 6 Patriots, the enemies aren't Arab or Russian like in every other shooter - they're homegrown, Americans who are angry enough at the direction of their country that they've chosen to overthrow its government through violent means. While describing this aspect of the game, the development team showed us slides of Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protests and hinted at mission settings as familiar as a Midwestern shopping mall or as close as a Californian desert meth lab. 80% of the campaign takes place on US soil.
The percentage becomes a bit more international in multiplayer maps, but we'll be discussing that half of Rainbow 6 Patriots in later coverage. For now, know that customization is confirmed, Terrorist Hunt is probable and, according to Sears, "We used to be the #1 shooter online. We want that back."