Something shuffles in your peripheral vision, your crosshair twitches, and a short burst of gunfire is followed by the gentle thud of a lifeless body collapsing to the carpet.
All going well, this is the pattern of playing Rainbow Six — distilled and non-gratuitous. Next to the meaty, heavily compressed cacophony of a typical 1998 shooter, the stabbing pitter-patter of gunfire here sounded more like the first drops of rain before a storm.
What a unique and unusual experience Rainbow Six was when it came out 20 years ago. It was an exercise in videogame realism at a time when the concept barely existed outside of simulators, showcasing a harshness and humanity that changed the gaming world's perception of what a shooter could be.
I came at Rainbow Six from an oblique angle when I first played it, about a year after release. I was enamoured with my N64 — a console that, more than any other in the 3D era, was a haven of garish, super-saturated escapism.
While my PS1 pals were prattling on about Metal Gear Something and bobbing to the Chemical Brothers in Wipeout, I was bouncing around marshmallow worlds and decapitating dinosoids in Turok 2. My barometer of realism up to that point was probably Goldeneye 007, silly though that may sound, so when I bought the N64 version of Rainbow Six in the context of wanting ‘another cool shooter’ to add to my collection, I was totally unprepared for the experience.
The realism of Rainbow Six was like a drill smashing through all the the safeguards — the saves, the health pickups, the run-and-gun-and-jumping — that kept a regular shooter feeling gamey and comfortable.
The baseline difficulty of games was higher at the time than it is today, but even then Rainbow Six was relentless. In hindsight perhaps that was because it just worked so differently to every other shooter.
Where your Quake 2's and Unreal's were come-forward sluggers that were happy for you to take some to give some, Rainbow Six was strictly about the art of hitting while not being hit.
The first-person perspective was familiar but alien in every other way. Reloading was already a pretty ‘whoa, steady on there’ concept at the time, but here you had to hold a button for five seconds to do it, incapacitating you for that whole length of time.
The fact your gun wasn’t visible during the process made the whole experience weirdly ethereal, distancing you from the methodical killings, placing you with one foot in the game and one as an outside observer (more on which shortly).
Where the game's contemporaries were ultimately about the joy of pulling a trigger and the splattering of resultant damage, in Rainbow Six your kills — if indeed you got any — were just a small fraction of a much bigger picture.
The ‘Action’ phase of a mission would rarely take more than a few minutes. Before that you had the ‘Planning’ phase, which is where the real meat of the game was: picking squaddies, kitting them out, then plotting lines telling AI-led squads exactly where to go, when to throw flashbangs, and where to wait until you uttered the ‘Go’ codes.
You played as both the brains of the operation, and a cog in the machine you had created.
All this probably reinforces the image of Rainbow Six as a pretty aloof game; more simulation than shooter, designed for the kind of people who take paintball way too seriously and brand anything vaguely left-leaning as an insidious step towards communism (the villains of Rainbow Six are indeed left-wingers and eco-terrorists). But the story mumbo-jumbo stayed in the background.
What really mattered was the mission process, and it’s here that I learned one of my first valuable lessons in gaming: a sense of serious responsibility.
That’s because, despite all the shooting, you were more a commander than a grunt in Rainbow Six. Sure, you were right there in the firing line at the business end, but the relatively short time you spent doing this (and the fact that you could toggle freely between squad leaders during missions) encouraged you to identify more as an overarching guiding force rather than any individual character.
Which isn’t to say that these squaddies were pawns. The squad's members are humanised through their nationalities and names and backstories — little more than flavour text, perhaps, but enough of a platform for me to envision my relationship with them as a commander, and craft little stories based on their heroics, mishaps, and deaths in the field.
It made things all the more weighty knowing these people would diligently follow my orders to the last marker, their lives dependent entirely on my planning and understanding of where enemies were likely to be. It filled me with satisfaction and fondness for my teams when I’d watch them storm off on the paths I’d carefully set, reporting back every neutralised threat and downed Tango.
Conversely, when things went wrong, it was sickening.
This was largely down to the 'permadeath' element of Rainbow Six's campaign. An incapacitated squaddie would have to sit out the next mission, but a dead one was gone forever — their sacrifice punctuated by a melancholy trumpet jingle as they fell.
The double-difficulty ratchet caused by decreasing your supply of well-ranked operatives as the game progressed feels like a borderline-cruel 90s design choice, but it imbues an ostensibly dry shooter with an unlikely sense of humanity.
Without cut-scenes or narrative, just complementary systems that nudged the player's imagination towards creating their own stories, the game tugged at your emotions much more effectively than, say, having to rescue little girls from cages...
“Thank you, Tur—”
“No, shut up. You’re emotionally manipulating me and I don’t buy it any more”.
Combat is always swift, tense, and over in a flash. AI reaction times were almost instantaneous, and letting enemies unleash a spray of gunfire could easily result in multiple squad casualties.
If things boiled down to a shootout, it already felt like a failure of sorts, the bullet-holes in the walls and wounded squad-mates indelible stains on your well-laid plans.
The joy came not from outgunning enemies but outwitting them, taking them down before they even have a chance to react, disorienting rooms with flashbangs, and getting your squadmates to breach from one side while you enter from another.
It didn’t really matter who got the kills.
It was whether the plan worked or not and, when everything clicks into place, there isn't a feeling in games like it.
Each completed mission became available to play independently of the campaign, which triggered in me a kind of perfectionism, an obsession with going back to the drawing board and planning missions so that every shot hit the target and no damn commie eco-terrorist bullet left its chamber.
I’d memorise maps and identify key choke points where squaddies were bundling into each other or taking unnecessary shots, learning the game's quirks, refining and iterating the little things to eventually come up with the perfect plan.
Or I’d completely overhaul the dynamics of the game for myself. The fact that you could execute missions with anywhere from one to 16 operatives encouraged experimentation.
I’d try completing the game as Ding Chavez, playing the lone wolf with no pre-planning (Jean-Claude Sans Plan, if you will). Or I’d take on a more managerial role, setting up a trio of AI squads to carry out the entire mission while I watched everything unfold from 'headquarters'.
There was always an alternative way to approach every mission. It anticipated the kind of repetition and experimentation we associate today with Hitman, even though it came out a good two years before the barcoded one made his debut.
Rainbow Six was a unique shooter back in 1998, and still is. It replaced the thrill of the messy kill, exemplified by Doom, with the cold pleasure of a plan executed to perfection, and the endless avenues of experimentation open to a commander.
The brilliant twist was the human interest in overseeing a group of almost-tangible people who depended on your decisions.
Following the game's success, it became a series, and by the fourth entry had abandoned ambitious systems like the planning phase and permadeath in favour of a more arcadey approach (and, eventually, a phenomenal online shooter). While it’s hard to argue against the series’ trajectory from a business standpoint, those first three Rainbow Six games all stick to the blueprint of the original: methodical, unforgiving, elegant, and oddly humane.
Two decades of first-person shooters later, the game that started it all feels, if anything, more unusual than ever.