Tom Clancy Games and Improvisation Versus Strategy

Tom Clancy is probably more known for his association to games than to the extraordinary range of books, film franchises, and television shows that bear his name.

Clancy was one of the founders of Red Storm Entertainment (along with Royal Navy captain Doug Littlejohns and Creative Director Steve Reid), with their games mainly being real-time strategy before they released Rainbow Six in 1998. Soon after, Ubisoft snapped up the rights to Clancy’s name and began a sort of “shared universe” of gaming, with characters from each game cropping up in other titles.

I wanted to talk about Clancy’s games for a while, but was looking for the right topic. It was only when I started re-reading his book Rainbow Six, as well as re-reading the first two Splinter Cell books by David Michaels (co-created with Clancy) that the idea formed. There is a central theme throughout those books that is reflected in the games. The main characters of the respective books always have a plan. And it either goes one of two ways; as smoothly as possible or everything goes to hell and the characters have to improvise to survive. And this is something that the games have captured perfectly.

Video Games and the Unique Beauty Between Improvisation and Planning

I first was exposed to Clancy’s games with a demo for the Playstation version of Rainbow Six. Later on in life I picked up the Nintendo 64 version, both of which are seen as the runt of the litter compared to the PC version. While the PS1 version was more of a standard FPS, the N64 kept the planning stage of the PC game, albeit a rudimentary version.

Rainbow Six’s planning stage is the main bulk of the game. While most people picked up the game for the action segments, you would spend more time plotting out your attacks than executing them. As Super Bunnyhop says in his look back on the game, “…it’s normal to spend only five minutes playing a mission after spending thirty minutes planning a mission.” (7:09). I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. But it’s how the game changed as I went along that drew me in.

Rainbow Six gives you a world with several choices and lets you play how you want. So when I first played the game I sent in as many soldiers as I could, clearing every room with a waypoint every few metres to keep them moving in the direction I wanted. But as my confidence grew the game changed; I knew the rules now. I could use less soldiers (therefore preventing less casualties), I would use specialists rather than all-rounders and more importantly, less waypoints. Once I knew how the game worked I began to improvise. I knew what would work, what wouldn’t and would intentionally give myself more of a challenge by having the enemies not marked on the map. It was odd that I had learnt to adapt through rigorous planning.

Splinter Cell was a similar tale. I started with the fifth entry, Conviction, which was a departure from the rest of the series. Conviction was a stripped-down affair, giving protagonist Sam Fisher less to work with in terms of variety (no non-lethal kills or wide selection of gadgets) but upped the violence and ferocity. In the older games, you had to plan for everything. If you wanted to knock out a guard, you would have to find a place to stash them. You only had a set number of bullets and gadgets. On certain levels you could only kill a certain number of people, so you would have to know when the right time was to strike and who to work around.

Conviction‘s single-player had elements of strategy and creativity (it even had a set of challenges called “Prepare and Execute”), but it was the co-op Deniable Ops mode that brought it to the fore. In the Deniable Ops mode Hunter, you are dropped into a map with ten enemies. You have to take them all out, but if you are spotted/heard, another ten enemies would be spawned in. It created beautiful moments when I would play the game with friends, because of that mix of planning and improvising. Do you take out the static guards first, or those with a pre-determined path? Do you systematically move across the map or jump back and forth to whittle the herd down? Some of my favourite gaming moments of last year were when as a team we would clear a map without any mistakes, planning every detail to the letter, as well as when one of us would throw caution to the wind and either messing up completely or taking a risky chance and it turning into a success.

Another Clancy property, Ghost Recon had a similar pathway. In the first couple of games it was much like Rainbow Six, but in open battlefields rather than buildings. I came to the series with Future Solider, which moved away from the tactical aspect into a more free-flowing state of combat. While the Ghosts (as their name suggests) are primarily a stealth team, but can easily switch to out-and-out combat if needed. And much like Rainbow Six, you can take a back seat and command teammates from a pilotable drone, creating strategies of clearing battlefields without an alarm being raised, and having the ability to synchronise shots. It’s the bare bones of its tactical ancestors, but the ability to switch from one to the other and quickly snatch a kill while the enemy isn’t looking lead to those excellent moments in gaming, where the fun is from your own experience and not a pre-determined set piece. Even with the most recent release in the series, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Ubisoft was talking about making the game a blend of improvising and planning.


It’s interesting that looking back, all the examples I’ve gave are stealth-based games. And now, thinking about it in terms of a wider circle of games, other stealth series’ have the same balance of careful preparation and creativity. Hitman is a perfect example. I would spend hours plotting for every contingency and every pathway in my playthroughs of Blood Money, sometimes sticking to the set path I had devised and other times taking the initiative when an unplanned opportunity came about. It even got to the point in Hitman: Contracts where I knew the rules of Hitman well enough that I could enter a level with no previous knowledge of it and come out with a Professional or Silent Assassin score, just by knowing how the game would work and seeing opportunities.

However, some games can get lost in the middle. Continuing with Hitman, the sequel Absolution had the best blend of improvising and planning, with different challenges in each level to incentivise a well thought-out strategy, while having enough maneuverability in the world for those who wanted an off-the-cuff approach. But the silly addition of a Point Score, which penalised you for improvised actions (which weirdly the game also pushed you towards) made anything but trial and error and planning feel like a failure. (Edit: After writing this I found Writing on Games’ video about the new Hitman and improvisation. Check it out here).

Newer Rainbow Six’s go the other way. While I loved Vegas and Vegas 2, those games had only the slightest resemblance to having a tactical planning method. You could formulate plans, but only at pre-determined points, and without much variety apart from a different grenade being thrown. It played much more like an on-the-fly approach to combat. From what I’ve seen of the most recent release, Rainbow Six Siege, there is a bit more of a blend between strategy and improvising, with each operator having an ability that would help during the planning stage and either continuing with that approach or switching it up as the attacking phase gets underway.

Not many other games have this nice mix of styles. If you try and improvise in something like Civilization on any difficulty other than super easy, the AI will stomp all over you. The sequels to the superb, original Assassin’s Creed confused improvisation with “variety of weapons that kill the target all the same way”, leading to some of the most linear “non-linear” gameplay in the world. And while you could plan a shootout in Max Payne 3, it’ll more than likely get torn up before the first bullet is fired. That’s not to say these games are bad, on the contrary, I enjoy those games. But it’s interesting that nearly all of the games that have Clancy’s name on them have this excellent blend of two opposing styles and seem to own it all by themselves.

So, what is your favourite Tom Clancy game? Do you like the newer games or are you a stalwart traditionalist? And are you more of an improviser or are you an armchair general when you play games? Let me know in the comments.

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