A small unit is placed in an impossible battle. By all reason they should be dead; instead they're in and out, just like that, the victory theirs before the enemy even knows they've lost. In most games this happens because the commandos are supermen, or the enemy is just a little bit suicidal. In a Tom Clancy game there are no such advantages. Instead, the right strategy, the right high-tech weapon or gadget, and the right team are the only path to success. The battle is decided before the first bullet leaves the chamber.
For more than 15 years, Tom Clancy has presented the gritty, realistic counterpoint to most action games' abstract ideal of combat. This is the history of a franchise that has reveled in contrarian design, and in doing so has changed the landscape of digital war.
The Planning Stage
"The initial days of Red Storm were crazy," recalls Brian Upton, then the lead engineer and designer on Rainbow Six and currently a Senior Game Designer at Sony Studios Santa Monica. "We were all very inexperienced and in completely over our heads." With Littlejohns at the helm, the studio left port with no less than four games in development. The Commodore kept things in line by running the studio like a submarine, a low-protocol, high-discipline style that kept the studio on a methodical track but lacked patience for the iterative process of design. "[Littlejohns] always seemed frustrated that we couldn't just get it right the first time," Upton says.
It wasn't easy getting there, though. "We were trying to make four games simultaneously and had completely underestimated the workload," Upton explains. "As the schedule started slipping we went into permanent crunch. Frank Boosman, our head of production and one of the principal founders, was let go halfway through production. I pretty much expected the whole thing to implode at any moment.
"However, at the same time, the excitement level on the team for Rainbow Six was steadily growing. I remember one great moment where we were testing multiplayer and two players walked into a room and started blasting away, completely missing each other. Then one of them held still, waited for his targeting reticle to settle, and got a one-shot kill with a perfect headshot. That was when we knew we had a completely different shooter experience on our hands."
The hard work and impossible hours paid off. The result was a brutally challenging yet remarkably playable "thinking man's shooter" that was leagues ahead of the other "realistic" military games of the '90s. "To this day I still haven't seen anything like it," White notes, "as far as a combination of action and strategy. It allowed the player who was really into just action to have an experience that they wanted. Or, if you wanted to be a strategy guy, you could actually sit there for like two hours and make these detailed plans with go codes." With two disparate groups of players enamored, Red Storm was secure, and Tom Clancy's gaming legacy was born.
The War on Terror
Ubisoft proved itself a worthy steward to Rainbow Six with the 2003 releases of Rainbow Six 3. On PC, Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield was a fine return to form, another iterative sequel that modernized the game's tech while doing little to change its time-tested gameplay formula. On console however, Rainbow Six 3 was thoroughly redesigned. Although still a robust, tough-as-nails simulation, everything was streamlined. Squad control could be handled via one button context commands. The planning stage was gone. A moderate hit on PC, Rainbow Six 3 was a million-seller on console.
The move from PC to console wouldn't be entirely smooth, however. The next Rainbow Six games, Lockdown and Critical Hour, were even more action-oriented than their predecessors, occasionally replacing tactics wholesale with simple shooting galleries. Franchise fans recoiled.
Between the franchise's floundering quality and the coming of the new console generation, it was clear that the series was in need of some retooling. In 2006, Ubisoft Montreal delivered exactly what the series needed with Rainbow Six: Vegas. Vegas managed to walk a fine line, retaining many of the more action-oriented elements while also simplifying and re-introducing the strong tactical aspect that gave the franchise its character. As a cover-based shooter, it provided the necessary strategy-oriented counterpoint to Gears of War's bombastic style.
In 2001, Ubisoft released the fruit of that labor—Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon. The game used a similar framework to Rainbow Six, but being placed in the context of military field operations made for some fascinating changes to the game's design. The meticulous planning stage was never a part of this series, replaced instead with a real-time system that let you modify waypoints and strategy mid-operation. These operations took place in vast outdoor areas, yet battles were still over in seconds. This made the game a far moodier experience, as players would have long stretches of nervous, quiet tension punctuated by quick bursts of dangerous, heart-stopping violence. The game would not hesitate to kill anyone who wasn't fully cognizant of their surroundings at all times. Immediately more accessible than Rainbow Six, it still felt just as realistic and difficult, and was another breakout success for the Tom Clancy franchise.
In more recent days the series has returned, but in an unfocused way (Ubisoft has admitted that it's trying to re-find Ghost Recon's identity). Ghost Recon Shadow Wars ranked as one of the top Nintendo 3DS launch titles, and while it is an excellent turn-based strategy game it barely resembles its tactical shooting forebears. And don't forget Ghost Recon Wii. Actually, please forget Ghost Recon Wii.
Tommy Jacob, the creative director of the multiplayer side of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, tells us that his team found the balance between old and new. "We're going more towards rewarding the player for teamplay than a lot of the previous console Ghost Recon titles, which I know was a big deal to the early Ghost Recon fans." At the same time, he says, "We are diverging a bit with [the] cover systems that exists within Ghost Recon: Future Soldier." This means "there's a little bit there for the old school Ghost Recon player" while also providing a more "refined experience".
From the Shadows
The developer took to building a title that would fit the legacy of the Tom Clancy name. As a character-driven adventure, it would have more story than the bare-bones military plotlines that powered the Rainbow and Ghost squadrons. The protagonist, Sam Fisher, is a man with a dark sense of humor and full awareness of his mortality, and he uses both to get through the seemingly impossible missions he undertakes as an agent of Third Echelon.
Ubisoft Montreal's game, 2005's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, refined both single-player and multiplayer sides of the Splinter Cell coin, and added a custom-designed cooperative multiplayer mode. A beautiful, comprehensive package, it's still considered by many to be the apex of the Splinter Cell series. 2006's Splinter Cell: Double Agent took the series to the next generation of consoles, though curiously it didn't bring its creator, Ubisoft Montreal, with it. Instead Ubisoft Shanghai crafted an Xbox 360 game with a new engine and a new Sam Fisher—a broken man, his daughter recently killed, he undertakes a suicide mission going undercover in a domestic terror cell. By adding "Directed Moments," seemingly impossible binary choices made under extreme duress, Fisher's torment was made even more real. The strangest part of the Double Agent saga? Ubisoft Montreal did make a Double Agent title, for Xbox and PS2. It's an almost entirely different game from its 360 counterpart, with different levels, a richer, more complete story, and a classic feel that stems from its use of the classic Splinter Cell engine. Both games, it turns out, are worthwhile.
Ubisoft Takes Over
Ubisoft initially seemed to struggle with this new-found freedom, however. 2008's EndWar was full of promise -- a fully voice-controlled real-time strategy game taking place during a peak oil World War III, it seemed like the perfect extension of the Clancy legacy. Unfortunately, the focus on making the voice control accessible meant it abandoned the rigorous tactical challenge that embodied the franchise for so long, so while it looked and talked like a Clancy game it didn't feel like one. 2009's H.A.W.X also wore the clothes of a Clancy game, with its near-future fighter pilots and tale of evil private military companies. But from a gameplay perspective it was not just a standard dog-fighting action game, but one that actually simplified the action -- mechanics like the Enhanced Reality System, for example, put up a series of rings that you can fly through to line up your target for a perfect shot. 2010's H.A.W.X 2 introduced some simulation elements, but didn't polish off problems with AI and mission design. It, too, didn't fully live up to the Clancy legacy.
The Future of War
2012's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier didn't look like anything special when it was originally revealed. Gamers were concerned about the Call of Duty-style running and gunning and its more bombastic tone. But Ubisoft was paying close attention to feedback. The finished product stayed true to Ghost Recon's roots, giving gamers a strategic shooter with a considered tempo - exactly what Ghost Recon fans wanted. A variety of new futuristic tech nestled nicely into the Ghost Recon formula, including adaptive camouflage and hovering drones.
But 2013's Splinter Cell: Blacklist is undoubtedly the true centerpiece in Ubisoft's recent Tom Clancy revival. Most will argue that there's never been a bad Splinter Cell game, but there's also no denying that 2006's Double Agent and 2010's Conviction didn't make the same impact as the franchise's original entries. Blacklist, in comparison, hit all the right notes. Verticality made its return, letting players satisfyingly take out unsuspecting enemies from above. A massive co-op campaign and the long-awaited return of Spies vs. Mercs gave Blacklist plenty of legs long after the conclusion of the tense campaign. Blacklist turned out to be so much fun that most were even willing to forgive Ubisoft for replacing Michael Ironside, Sam Fisher's iconic voice actor.
At E3 2013 Ubisoft unveiled Tom Clancy's The Division, the first original Tom Clancy brand offshoot since H.A.W.X. Created by Ubisoft Massive, the team behind the well-received Ground Control series, The Division is nothing if not ambitious. Slated for Xbox One, PS4 and PC, at first glance the game looks like a typical (albeit gorgeous) tactical shooter. Players are shown taking cover, returning fire, and scouring the abandoned streets of New York City for supplies. But The Division is actually a full-blown massively multiplayer experience.
Balancing the challenges of accessibility and complex strategic realism is no easy feat. But it's one that the Clancy franchise has managed with seeming ease almost since its inception, and recent bright lights like Splinter Cell: Blacklist show that Ubisoft's best studios can still pull it off. Tom Clancy's name recognition has always made his brand's games the perfect place to experiment with thoughtful, difficult gameplay designs that never condescend to the player -- the games might be tough, but Clancy is a tough man's novelist. By taking this route with Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and Splinter Cell, Red Storm and Ubisoft built unique, successful games that pushed their genres forward immensely. As long as that continues, there will always be a place for Tom Clancy in gaming.