“Rainbow Six Extraction” is a game about planning. In Ubisoft’s latest installment to the Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six franchise, due out Jan. 20, players squad up in groups of three to act as exterminators, clearing maps of alien infestations. This work can be broken up neatly into three phases. There’s the planning stage, mostly characterized by crouch-walking to and fro across the map, gathering information. There’s the execution phase, in which your trio swings into action to follow through on the previously devised plan. Then there’s the rest of the game — the bulk of the game — which is when things don’t go as anticipated.
Maybe your drone expired before it saw the alien nest around the next corner, and now you and your friends are stuck in the spawner’s black, gummy secretions. Or you blasted a gap in a wall, and now an alien is shooting acidic spitballs at you through the hole in the adjacent room. You know what they say about the best-laid plans.
In “Extraction,” most enemy types — ranging from tiny green burs that stick to you if you brush up against them to exploding quadrupedal aliens to hulking megabosses — can be defeated in some optimal way. On their own, these are relatively simple puzzles: Nests, for example, create “sprawl,” a goo that slows you down when they’re alerted to your presence, so you need to sneak up on them or destroy them from a distance. A big part of the aforementioned planning phase is quietly dispatching the more minor nuisances early on.
What makes “Extraction” compelling, then, is how it mixes and matches enemy types and encounters, sometimes forcing players to make pivotal choices about which threats to prioritize on the fly. The variety of encounters is also clearly aided by the game’s setting. An alien threat gives Ubisoft more leeway to be inventive with enemy types than the military shooter genre might typically allow. (It also allows Ubisoft to sidestep some of the thorny questions being raised about SWAT tactic simulators).
There are 18 operators from which to choose, each boasting different speed and armor stats and unique special abilities. There are also customizable weapons and gear players can select before deploying. The synergy between weapon, gear and special ability choices plays a big role in setting up successful plays. This bevy of variables — between operators, destructible and constructible environmental elements, enemy types, spawn points, maps, difficulty settings and more — will likely give the game a long shelf life.
But it also makes first impressions a bit difficult to pin down. In our test session, we lost a lot more than we won because so much was unfamiliar, and there was little time to get acclimated. When players spawn in, their squad is assigned a random task: Capture a target, destroy a certain number of nests, recover an operator marked MIA, and so on. Some of these were way more intuitive than others. More than once, we accidentally killed an alien “specimen” we were meant to lure someplace else.
Adding to the complexity is the fact that after each mission, operators are briefly placed into a recovery phase, which means they can’t be selected for play. And so, my teammates and I were made to cycle through characters, never spending enough time with any one operator to really get acquainted. It’s hard to assess a game of “Extraction’s” scale in just a handful of hours.
“Extraction” also, regrettably, suffers from a problem that plagues most Ubisoft games: It’s ugly. An alien infestation isn’t supposed to look good, I suppose, but I’m not sure I would’ve liked spending time in any of the game’s settings even before the apocalypse hit. Many of the New York and San Francisco maps my squad played looked like the lobby of a just constructed apartment building designed in the gentrified architectural style (you know the one) run through one of those psychedelic AI image filters. And the animation that plays when you pull a teammate from the clutches of an alien tree — as shown in the image at the top of this story — is just nasty.
Even still, I liked what I played. “Extraction” does a great job of building up friction that makes it more difficult to complete deceptively simple objectives. There’s also a surprising amount of depth, as evidenced by all the neat little tricks and features I picked up on during the demo: Using a melee attack on sprawl on the floor, for example, clears it out of the way and makes it easier to walk. But it’s not clear from the test session how “Extraction” might play once the game is “solved,” so to speak, and the optimal way of handling the game’s myriad puzzles is figured out. “Extraction’s” biggest test will come once the novelty — and the tricks — run out.