The terrorists are close. You can hear them through the door, whispering. But there are only two of them, so, feeling action-star confident, you race into the room with your assault rifle blazing. One second and a flurry of lead later, you're dead.
Quickly recognizing that you're not the indestructible leading man of most videogames, you turn to your two teammates. They must be standing here for a reason... and two-versus-two sounds like a fairer fight. Ordering them through the very same entrance, you hang back and wait for the "all clear." It never comes. The terrorists found cover and your men, completely exposed in the exchange, are now crumpled on the floor and fading fast. You dash to their aid, receiving another fatal head wound as your reward.
The third time is different. You study your options, as well as the layout of the building. Noticing that the room in question is top level, with a wall of windows to one side, you sneak to the roof and silently command your squad to rappel down the side of the building. Leaving them, you return to the death door and, rather than open it, snake an imperceptible camera wire underneath it. With the ambush set, you give the signal and watch in grainy black and white as two shadows materialize behind the glass, then explode through it. The terrorists dive for cover and turn to face the new threat, not realizing that the real threat - you - is about to bust that damn door to the ground and shoot them in the back.
Finally, success. Because now you're playing by Vegas rules.
Sequences like that happen all the time in Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas. You'll approach a new environment or new enemy from your old-fashioned, one-man-army FPS perspective and the more realistic, team-based Vegas will knock you right out. Learn to play by its rules, however, and it will reward you with an entirely different, but no less satisfying, way to play a shooter game.
So while you may be used to charging through levels, strafing from side to side and fragging every pixel that blinks at you wrong, doing so in Rainbow Six Vegas will just get you killed repeatedly and frustratingly. Instead, the game retrains your brain to look for cover first and shoot later. Seeking protective objects in the environment to hide behind, duck beneath, press up against or dart between is absolutely crucial to any kind of success. Walls, pillars, chairs, slot machines... practically anything solid and nearby is fair game.
You'll need everything you can find, too, as just a few hits in Rainbow Six Vegas will take you down. And the terrorists? They're both as vulnerable and as adept at taking cover as you are. The results are long, exhausting back-and-forth battles filled with breath-holding silences, nerve-wracking peeks around corners and intermittent, staccato bursts of gunfire. They may not be as fast, but the showdowns here are undeniably more intense and dramatic than in the vast majority of other action games.
Be warned, though, that Vegas takes its tension-drenched atmosphere very seriously - perhaps too seriously for some gamers. Despite all your cautious self-preservation, a good portion of your conflicts will inevitably finish with a "game over" screen and, just like that, you've lost half an hour of your life. Vegas doesn't enable you to save anywhere and check points are spread extremely thin. Some will find this design choice incredibly irritating; others will enjoy how it ratchets up the feeling of mortal danger even further. Our opinion shifted with the quality of the mission we were stuck on and how much fun it was to try over and over.
Remarkably, we found ourselves reloading that last checkpoint without hesitation more times than not. The game gives you so many tools to work with (snake cameras, smoke grenades, heat vision, etc) that you're always eager and able to attempt new strategies.
The most obvious tool is your Rainbow Six team - really more of a Rainbow Two - and they are surprisingly helpful. Crucial, even. Completing a mission without having them breach and clear a door, or sending them to the opposite side of a room to draw fire, can be next to impossible. And while they do need an awful lot of medical attention, throwing yourself into the center of crossfire to deliver a life-saving Pulp Fiction-esque injection is one of the most heart-pumping aspects of this game, or any game.
That is, until you sign onto Xbox Live to test any of the eight extensive multiplayer modes. Then you discover what "intense" and "heart-pumping" are really all about. Because when every gun popping out from behind a poker table belongs to a live human opponent with the same - or maybe better - plan of attack as you, the experience gets almost too real. A single-player map can eventually be memorized; you start to get a vague instinct for when and where the next attack will come. There are no such reassurances in Rainbow Six Vegas's online matches.
Deathmatch-style modes do exist and are definitely entertaining, but it's team play - much like in the single player campaign - that will keep you coming back. We lost count of the number of times we were stalking another player, carefully preparing for the final kill, when our own life was suddenly and brutally ended. Of course, a third player had been following us... and, disturbingly, could have been coordinating with our prey the entire time.
Graphics, gameplay, atmosphere, all-important multiplayer... Rainbow Six Vegas gets pretty much everything right. It even shines on the little details, like wind whistling through a freshly shattered window or jackpot coins spilling out onto a freshly bagged terrorist.
But the game's greatest feat is adding strategy to the first person shooter and getting the player - whether working alone or with others - to occasionally stop, forget about the gun and just think. You'll be amazed at how well it works and at how good it feels.