So this is a little awkward. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege was released worldwide on the 1st December 2015. The game as it stood then wouldn’t have got close to this award: in fact, the launch was little short of a disaster, with unreliable matchmaking, frequent player drops, and various in-game manifestations of lag. The fact Siege is now Kotaku UK's game of 2016 speaks volumes about not just the hard work of its developers and Ubisoft since then, but the way games themselves are changing. Everything that makes Siege such a great competitive shooter happened this year.
The game itself, you may be surprised to hear, has no rainbows. It’s not even an enormous amount to do with Tom Clancy in all honesty, with the much more obvious inspiration being a BBC documentary on the Iranian embassy siege (hence the game’s title, one presumes) and various other accounts of that incident. Why? For all that we know about the existence of special forces teams, and in many ways fetishise them, the Iranian embassy siege is the only time that the SAS - the daddies - were forced to work in front of the world’s cameras.
I don’t want to spend too long picking over the similarities between this incident and Siege, but suffice to say any fan of the game will be surprised by the number and range of parallels. Some are obvious: perhaps the most sensational moment in the above footage is when an SAS operative blows out the windows with a breach charge and dives in. The absolute core of Siege is destructible environments, and using breach charges to come in through windows, walls and floors with the element of surprise.
Other influences are smaller, but no less piquant: the documentary tells how one SAS group came through the back doors, which they sledgehammered through for speed. There are four SAS operatives in total in Siege. One is called Sledge, and guess what he carries around. Another is named after the British Prime Minister who handed over control of the situation to the military: Thatcher. Tom Clancy wrote increasingly-spectacular fiction about special forces units: Siege may bear his name, but it’s going back to reality.
This is still a videogame, of course, one in the great tradition of not just the long-running Rainbow Six series but also the white-hot competitive beauty that is Counter-Strike. It’s impossible to avoid comparing the two because, structurally, they share a lot: two teams of five face off across a series of rounds, with no respawns, in objective-based maps that alternate each team’s role.
There are differences both small and enormous, however. Headshots are nearly always an instant kill in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, but in Siege they’re always an instant kill. Siege has no in-game economy: each operator has a personal loadout, which can be tweaked between matches, and one special ability or gadget. The way matches are framed is brilliant: attackers drive RC car-like drones through the level trying to spot defenders and objectives, while the defenders fortify their position, set up traps, and try to shoot the drones. If you die, for the rest of the round you can observe the level from CCTV positions and ‘mark’ enemies.
The dozens of playable operators is not as impressive as how differently they play, and the fact none feels out-of-place or especially underpowered. Yeah the fans argue, of course they do, and slightly archetypal characters like Glaz - a Spetsnaz sniper that’s absolutely terrifying in the hands of a skilled player - remain perennial favourites and are seen in most matches at some point. But there’s enormous variety here, and where operators excel at one particular thing they’ll always be lacking in other situations.
Take a defender like Frost, introduced in February’s Black Ice expansion. She can drop ‘Welcome Mats’, aka bear traps, in the kinds of locations that attackers might hurdle onto - the interior side of a window, or behind the deployable shield she can also bring along. Her primary gun can be either a Super 90 shotgun or 9mm C1 submachine gun. So as Frost you look to set traps that will ‘down’ incoming operators, then either finish them off at close-range (trusty shotgun rush) or hang back a little with the SMG and try to get 2-for-1 on any incoming saviours.
It’s not that this is what you do all the time with Frost - she’s a perfectly capable defender in a ‘normal’ firefight. It’s just that, if you know you’re going to be defending in a warren-like building with commonly-used blind entry points, then the above ideal scenario is one reason you might pick her. You’re always looking for options in Siege, analysing the battlefield's characteristics and planning how best to take advantage of it.
The whole point is that, when teams work together, certain combinations of abilities can be overwhelming. A co-ordinated assault in Siege is like nothing else in competitive videogaming, simply because there are so many moving parts within environments that are themselves a core part of each match’s flow. Not in a Dust II sense, not in the way that we learn our favourite maps back-to-front and then intuitively know when things will happen, but because Siege’s maps are dominated by destructible elements - and the greatest way to surprise an enemy team covering every possible entrance is to come crashing through the walls.
Every Siege player has their stories. When I went back to play a few rounds before writing this, my team ended up defending bombs inside Air Force One. The attacking team knew where the bombs were, right in the centre aisle, and we fortified and hunkered-down around the position.
The first minute played out in near-silence. Then something in the distance behind me exploded. Smoke popped in front, and Montaigne and Blitz - two attackers with riot shields - burst towards our position. Our team managed to cut down one but, in the chaos, two of us died. We took cover and reloaded, ready to go, before one comrade took a headshot in front of me - from where? - and the other died a second later. The rest of the attackers rushed in and I died like a dog.
As I watched the replay, I realised Glaz had killed every member of our team. As we focused on the riot shields and the rush from the back, dealing with immediate threats, he had been outside of the plane, lying down on the wing, and firing in through the tiny passenger windows whenever he saw movement. It’s a tactic I’d seen before, but never executed with such sheer precision at the right moment. That player was a true operator.
This is a crucial part of what makes Siege so fantastic. Special forces tactics, and Counter-Strike reflects this in its own way, have a large focus on disorienting and surprising the enemy. Often you’ll die in Siege and have no idea what happened until you watch the replay, and see that the wall next to your perfect camping spot was blown up on top of your head, and the two operators waiting outside plugged you as you blinked in surprise. Sometimes, in the kind of beauty that only games like this deliver, you pop-flash into a room and find three panicked defenders shielding their eyes in the same spot - chumps in a barrel.
And even when it’s not planned, even when you’re not executing perfect strats with precision, the fact you can be so responsive makes every move dangerous. As a defender you often feel like the crewmembers in Das Boot, trapped and alert to every possible shuffle or unknowable clank of far-off machinery. The sound design in Siege is spectacular, giving players who pay attention the tiniest clues and cues well before anything happens.
Footsteps on the other side of a door? Unload in that general direction and you’re almost guaranteed a kill, maybe several. You hear them preparing to come through the wall? Same deal. The environment obscures vision but not sound, and certainly not bullets - so just because you can’t see someone doesn’t mean they’re not a valid target. It’s not uncommon to have matches where you get more kills from hearing people than from seeing them.
This dynamism animates and elevates Siege’s moment-to-moment competitive play. It makes the range of options for attackers and defenders so wide in any given situation that, cliche as it may be, no match ever feels the same. And as Ubisoft built on the game they doubled-down on this element, with the third expansion Skull Rain featuring the Favelas map - an absolute showcase for what the tech can do, and how differently it can affect the same environment over multiple matches.
It wasn’t just a question of maps, either: the most recent expansion, Red Crow, added calibre-specific environmental destruction alongside the spectacular Skyscraper map. There have been four substantial DLC packages for Siege over 2016, all of which are released a week early for Season Pass holders but go free for everyone a week later - in the latter case they do have to be purchased with in-game currency, earned by playing matches, but it’s hard to complain when this is relatively easy to do and keeps the playerbase united.
At the beginning of 2016 I wrote an article for Ars Technica called ‘Ubisoft is Killing the Best Game It’s Made In Years’, referring to Siege’s launch period - and my belief that this was a real step forward for the competitive FPS but needed attention. Ubisoft realised this itself, because where Siege was at launch to where it is now is a different world. Many of the big publishers are trying to deliver games-as-a-service, or platform, but in Siege’s case Ubisoft has faced problems but still walked the walk.
I don’t want to make a straight comparison between Counter-Strike: GO and Rainbow Six: Siege, because I love them both to death, and fundamentally they’re different. But I will say this. I’ve played Counter-Strike for around a decade, and my skins collection is off the hook. I haven’t played a competitive match of Counter-Strike in a long time, though. And that’s because, for me, 2016 was the year of Rainbow Six: Siege.