Today I'm kicking off a new feature called "Versus," where similar or related products are pitted against each other to see which one is truly the best, or at the very least, it will provide a list of significant similarities and differences to help you decide which suits you best. This premiere starts with a bang, a four-way throwdown where Rainbow Six: Vegas not only competes between original and sequel, but also each title goes up against itself on two different platforms (PC and PS3). There are many facets to this debate, more than you might expect (more than I did, that's for sure), so let's get started.
Note: I haven't had the chance to play these games on Xbox 360, though they also appear on that platform. I expect them to play comparably to the PS3 iterations, though I can't comment specifically on those iterations.
How Did We Get Here?
After a strong start on PC with the original Rainbow Six in 1998, and Eagle Watch, Rogue Spear, Black Thorn, and Urban Operations following, things got a little rough in Rainbow Six 3 and its expansions. It continued turning shoddy across numerous console ports, then became relatively embarrassing with the PC and console versions of Lockdown, much the way Sum of All Fears was an awkward half-breed of ideas from the previous R6 games and the forthcoming and excellent original Ghost Recon (2001). The series had made several missteps and was arguably on the ropes at this point. A complete overhaul and injection of new ideas were needed to right the floundering ship.
I remember the cover story for Vegas 1 coming to EGM in March of 2006, and it seemed so ridiculous as to possibly be one of their famous April Fool's jokes. But this wasn't the April issue. With the popularity of the "What happens in Vegas…" commercials and the debut of Las Vegas on TV, even if it wasn't a joke, it reeked of a lame cash-in on a popular trend.
Imagine my surprise when, with great skepticism, I popped the Vegas 1 disc into my PS3. Not only were my expectations for the game low, but this was the console port of a PC game, which was at the time one of the many established recipes for disappointment (movie tie-ins being another biggie they still haven't bested consistently). However, this was something different, something good. It was so engaging that I forgot to lambaste it for its absence of pre-mission tactical planning which existed in earlier titles in favor of an on-the-fly interface to set up and execute room breaching and enemy flanking. The frantic firefights and environmental destructibility completely distracted me from thoughts of loyalty to a punishing, hardcore, one-hit death system from franchise titles of the past. In fact, I came to appreciate and even embrace the health regeneration system that rewarded patience and using cover over twitchy reactive gameplay. It was still tactical and well-paced, just in a new way. This is what the series needed.
Vegas 1 vs. Vegas 2
Perhaps the afterglow left by the new play style gave me better impressions of the first game's story, or maybe it was the sense of mystery, discovery, and the cliffhanger ending of the original that made it feel so much more fresh than the sequel's continuation. In Vegas 2, you know you're after Gabe Nowak, and the story is mainly about him. There's no sense of discovery, uncertainty, or revelation. You just have to find him, hear out his motives (no really, you have to sit through his whining), and stop him. In terms of story, Vegas 1 wins. I have to also give atmosphere and pacing to Vegas 1 for being mostly at night and using more colors and lighting effects to really bring life to the game world of Sin City.
However, the multiplayer scene is more or less the opposite. Vegas 1 does feature four-player campaign co-op, which is a definite win over the two-player limit for the sequel's co-op campaign, since the AI guys have to tag along the entire time in Vegas 2, something else I saw as a weakness of the sequel in general. However, despite having basically the same play modes for the rest of the multiplayer (co-op and competitive), the experience and leveling system for V2 coupled with allowing respawns and the ability to carry two primary weapons instead of only one (as in V1) makes V2's multiplayer infinitely more enjoyable and dynamic. V1's co-op terrorist hunts gave each player only one life, so even one mistake can be the end of the match for you. If this happens early in the match, it can lead to a lot of boredom. V2 allows up to four respawns depending on difficulty, though at least one other team member has to be alive for you to be allowed to spawn. If everyone falls close to the same time, you're all out. Unless you play recklessly, odds are you'll finish together or die together, but not have the downtime V1's multiplayer exhibits. Taking chances and failing doesn't punish you as hard if you have a few respawns in your pocket.
One other slight Achilles' Heel for V2's multiplayer is that, instead of loading to a lobby where you can send invites and chat pre-match (like it is in virtually every other title, including V1), it immediately throws you into a match, forcing you to either die to be taken back to the lobby, or try to send invites while dodging enemy fire. Not a huge deal, but it could easily have been avoided. Also, V1 always offers a minimap on-screen, something you need to hold a button down to see on PC. In the end, despite minor hiccups, V2's multiplayer takes the trophy between the two titles for its depth and added flexibility.
PC vs. PS3
In days of yore (maybe three to five years ago and older), console ports of PC games were almost universally inferior, and those that managed to be comparable often still suffered from performance or control issues. While we haven't eliminated the problem completely, epic strides have been made in improving this situation, in some cases flipping it on its head. The Vegas games are a prime example of this trend.
For V1 (and V2 and most other Ubi games for that matter), the PC multiplayer is handicapped by chronic server issues preventing connectivity that Ubisoft refuses to acknowledge, despite dozens of users complaining about it on their forums. We eventually resolved the problem on our own by playing over Hamachi, a VPN program that allows players on the Internet to play games and exchange files as if they were on a local area network (LAN). On PS3, network connectivity issues were few and far between, making it the platform of choice for V1 and V2 multiplayer.
On the other hand, the PC offers a variety of third-party customizable applications for voice communication (Ventrilo, Xfire, Teamspeak, etc.), while the PS3 may or may not keep communication lines open during loading screens and/or between matches.
Controls are another point of slight contention, since the buttons for vision modes and throwing grenades were inexplicably swapped on consoles between V1 and V2, and can't be remapped. No such issues exist on the PC since you can fully customize your control settings, and even use a controller, too, if you like.
Visually, the games can be cranked up to run in higher resolutions and with more detail on PCs than on PS3, if you have a system powerful enough to turn the settings up to max. Of course, the fact that V2 is largely unplayable on PC (more on that in a moment) makes this only a factor for V1 players.
V2 also offers popup help videos mid-mission that unfortunately cover up a large chunk of the screens often inopportune times. In console splitscreen co-op play, it covers the entire screen for player two. Not an issue on PC however, since it offers no splitscreen play.
The biggest difference between platforms comes when playing V2 in any manner at all on PC. The game for some reason doesn't cache all the necessary files and effects at the beginning of a level like it should, and as V1 did. Instead, it waits until it needs them, then loads spur of the moment, creating a situation where every outbreak of gunfire brings the framerate screeching to a halt, leaving you defenseless and often resulting in you getting killed. This affects both single player and multiplayer, and we deemed it simply unplayable after several attempts across multiple system configurations. Strangely, the PS3 version exhibits none of this behavior, running smooth as silk virtually the entire time. This proves that the PC version didn't need to be crippled, and that, if it wasn't intentional, it was at least a lazy decision not to optimize the PC edition.
The last item to note involves mandatory installation of data. On PC, it's expected that each game will probably take up a few GB of hard drive space, and they do, though PC hard drives from the outset usually start at or above the maximum size of the hard drives that ship internally with consoles at this point (180GB and below). On PS3, V2 requires about 3GB of hard disk space, while V1 only uses 116KB, and runs just as well. Kind of makes you wonder why those extra 3GB were required. They both run in the same engine (Unreal Engine 3), and load times aren't significantly different or anything. Vegas 1 clearly is less of a system hog.
And the Winner Is…
To sum up, V1 has a better story, four-player online co-op campaign (including console local two-player splitscreen), but online issues on PC probably make PS3 the way to go unless you totally don't care about multiplayer and/or are obsessed with visual fidelity. V2 is nigh unplayable on the PC in every way, but has expanded multiplayer offerings, making the PS3 version a solid bet.
Despite my fondness for the excellent level of polish in Vegas 1 on PS3 and PC, I have to give the overall long-term replayability to Vegas 2 on PS3. Online stability and experience-based multiplayer with unlockable gear and weapons keep it in our weekly rotation despite its age and everything else that is on the market. Vegas 1 is definitely a superb title and worth a play, with the better single player outing, and if that's all you want, it's the way to go (visuals and controls are better on PC, but multiplayer is better on PS3). However, if you have to pick only one and want a great multiplayer investment, Rainbow Six Vegas 2 on PS3 is the way to go.