My first Rainbow Six Extraction mission didn’t quite go as planned.
During a demo event, I was paired up with two strangers who would become my close squadmates for nearly four hours. Having completed a solo tutorial with little trouble, I went into our inaugural mission thinking I’d carry my team to victory as a party of one. One swarm of slimy aliens later, I was out of action, cocooned in a sickly yellow shell. My poor teammates had to abort the mission, toss my immobilized body on their shoulders, and extract me to safety. I was quite literally dead weight.
Rainbow Six Extraction doesn’t just encourage players to work together — it demands coordination. Thoughtful team dynamics and risk/reward systems already make Extraction stand out among a recent wave of monster-filled co-op shooters, though it’s hard to imagine how solo players will stand a chance.
It’s an understatement to call Rainbow Six Extraction a major departure for the series. The latest installment of the long-running Tom Clancy franchise completely ditches head-to-head multiplayer for co-op. The game only features three-player co-op PVE modes, so it won’t (or can’t) have a thriving esports scene like its predecessor, Rainbow Six Siege.
Oh, and it also replaces military conflict against human soldiers with a Left 4 Dead-style war against gooey aliens.
As I watched aliens explode in a puff of bright green poison gas, I wondered why Ubisoft didn’t just create a new IP rather than using the Rainbow Six name. But the more I played, the more it made sense. The game emphasizes one element that justify keeping it in the franchise: team-based tactics
The basic loop is that three players group up and drop into an alien-infested map. They’ll get three objectives that they need to complete in sequence. The missions can be as simple as eliminating alien nests, though some are much more complicated and require serious planning. One objective asks players to locate three computers and then activate all of them in the right order within seconds of one another. The first time my team was asked to do it, we completely failed, activating computers at random.
After a few rounds and getting to know one another, that changed. The next time we got that objective, we spent more time talking it out. One squadmate sent a drone into a room to locate a computer and assess how many enemies were present. Once we worked together to clear the room, I stayed back at the ready while my other two squadmates pushed on to find the next two computers. Everything fell into place after that, with each step falling into place as we’d planned.
Those gratifying teamwork moments were present throughout the demo. In another mission, we had to rescue an “asset.” As we snuck through a gunk-infested building, we eventually found the captured soldier below our position on a catwalk surrounded by aliens and nests that would spawn even more if alerted. We carefully surveyed the scene, marking each nest and enemy. After a bit of coordinating, we each took aim at a nest and simultaneously fired to wipe them out. With the coast clear, I grabbed the asset’s hand to walk her to safety, which meant I could only use my pistol. My teammates walked ahead of me, clearing a safe path to the extraction point.
I don’t always see that kind of teamwork in a co-op game. In Back 4 Blood, I can basically run off on my own and gun down hordes without my friends. Communication might make it go faster, but it’s not a necessity. That’s not the case here. Every mistake I made came when I split off from the team or tried to play the hero. We were always stronger together.
Rainbow Six Extraction is full of risks that push teams to think smarter. Death isn’t a hollow threat that’s greeted by a quick respawn. If all players die in a mission, they don’t gain any experience points for their efforts. In fact, they actually lose points for failing. A player’s rank can drop if the team wipes, which creates some high-stakes drama.
In one mission, a teammate and I both went down, leaving one man standing. He was left with a decision: should he cut his losses and extract us all or finish the objective on his own to gamble for more experience? All three of us debated it, eventually deciding that it wasn’t worth the risk. We all made it out alive and got to keep our experience gains.
Characters add another level of risk. Like Rainbow Six Siege, players can choose from a host of playable operators. Each one has its own special ability and light stats. One character can set up a heavy turret for any player to use while another can shoot poison arrows. The twist is that operators aren’t always available. If they get too hurt during a mission, they become inactive and will need time to heal up.
But the real danger is a character “dying” during a mission. If the whole team wipes, each player’s operator goes MIA and can not be selected for the next round. To get them back, players will have to complete a tense rescue operation during their next run. The operator’s body will be strapped to a sort of alien tree. One player needs to yank them out, while the others need to shoot oncoming enemies and energy orbs that help the tree pull the trapped character back in.
MIA characters will come back on their own eventually, even if the rescue operation fails, but moments like that push players to talk through their options. When our squad was weak or one member was down, we’d always stop to chat. Could we realistically complete the next objective without our third member? If we failed, were we prepared to lose our characters for a few rounds? Those moments of risk assessment kept us on track, operating as a real squad.
Don’t go solo
All of that makes me worry a bit about the solo experience. Extraction doesn’t feel accommodating for a casual player who just wants to shoot some aliens, but doesn’t have a dedicated crew to play with. The game does have a few options to help those players. There’s a matchmaking option available for playing with strangers and the game does feature a handy ping system that lets players mark enemies and items for non-verbal communication.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine three strangers with no microphones turned on getting too far. That’s especially true of the game’s blisteringly difficult Maelstrom mode. Maelstrom is a souped-up version of the core game experience where squads can complete up to 10 objectives as mutations make each mission harder. For example, one mission might add a modifier that makes alien goo poisonous, damaging players who stand in it.
Even after playing for three hours together and building trust, my teammates and I couldn’t get past objective two. It’s a true endgame activity built for the most well-oiled squads. I’m not sure how a matchmade team of misfits would be able to realistically tackle that challenge.
That’s only a shame because Rainbow Six Extraction seems like it’ll be a relatively thin package at launch. The two modes I demoed are essentially all it’ll have come January. I could see players hitting the bottom of the barrel quickly as they repeat the same handful of objectives on different maps. Maelstrom offers something for top-level players to chase, but it feels built for dedicated crews.
So far, Rainbow Six Extraction is a gratifying, tactical experience that shakes up the franchise formula in the right places. The creepy alien aesthetic is an exciting change of pace from your average military shooter visuals. And by focusing exclusively on PVE, Ubisoft has created a focused co-op game that feels like it can coexist alongside Siege, rather than take over its throne. Just start pestering your friends now if you plan on playing, lest you’ll be at the mercy of strangers.
Rainbow Six Extraction launches on January 20 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC, Google Stadia, and Amazon Luna.
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