It's hard to believe it's been nearly 20 years since the Tom Clancy brand as we know it entered the gaming scene. For a long time, realism in gaming seemed impossible: the games were either too far-fetched to be remotely believable, or the technology just wasn't powerful enough to emulate real-world mechanics. Long story short, making a realistic game just didn't seem possible for quite some time.

Ubisoft's Tom Clancy games helped change all that. While there were games based on the author's novels before Ubisoft took over development duties, nothing really compared to the studio's work. Suddenly, video games weren't just about hopping on enemies or making barrels explode: with the right mechanics, games could finally feel real.

With The Division set for launch next week, now's a perfect time to look back at the three Tom Clancy franchises that helped change the industry as we know it - Rainbow Six and its close-quarters action, Ghost Recon's wide-open battlefields, and Splinter Cell's dark, deadly take on stealth-action gaming.

The Original

The first ongoing Tom Clancy series was 1998′s Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. Even way back then, Rainbow Six was a notably different kind of shooter: Turok 2: Seeds of Evil was more focused on gory kills and ridiculous weapons than anything else, and the original Half-Life was helping set the bar for stories in gaming, but neither game could really be considered "tactical."

That's where Rainbow Six came in: instead of having players mow down wave after wave of canon fodder, Rainbow Six treated each and every enemy encounter like an actual firefight. Bullets were highly lethal, and if you took a shot to the head, there was no hiding behind cover or long waits for your health to recover. Such mechanics may sound like an absolute pain, but players loved the idea of playing carefully - and it wasn't long before Rainbow Six had created its own sub-genre.

Rainbow Six, arguably more than any of its Tom Clancy brethren, has changed quite a bit over the years. The original game could be considered a simulation, and players could map out every single aspect of a plan and execute it. Rainbow Six Siege, on the other hand, focuses solely on close-range multiplayer matches - but, given that game's lukewarm reputation, a return to form may be just what the doctor ordered.

Tactics On A Grand Scale

Three years after Rainbow Six made its grand debut, Ubisoft expanded on the Tom Clancy brand with 2001′s Ghost Recon. Again, it was vastly different from other shooters on the market: Halo would go on to redefine first-person shooters on consoles, and Serious Sam hearkened back to the bygone glory days of PC FPS games. Again, neither could be considered tactical - but, even when compared to its predecessor, Ghost Recon was its own unique experience.

Most of Rainbow Six's engagements took place in relatively close-quarters maps - Ghost Recon, on the other hand, opened up the battlefield significantly. Players were essentially given free reign over massive chunks of land, and were free to clear out objectives as they saw fit. Ghost Recon wasn't necessarily open-world, but the levels were big enough to give players more freedom than any other game in the genre.

Ghost Recon has changed over the years, but not quite as drastically as other Tom Clancy series. For the most part, the core games in the franchise have always been about long-range tactical engagements ... though that may be about to change. Ghost Recon Wildlands is taking the tactical combat of the series into an open-world sandbox - and gamers will just have to wait and see if the drastic changes pay off.

Stealth Action Redefined

Metal Gear Solid redefined the stealth genre in 1998 - and, for the next several years, it was the only stealth franchise worth playing. Then, in 2002, Ubisoft tried their hand at stealth espionage action, and the world was introduced to Splinter Cell.

As with all Tom Clancy games, Splinter Cell was focused more on realism, high-tech gadgets and solid tactics than storytelling or set-piece moments. These changes to Metal Gear Solid's formula resulted in a much slower pace: each mission of Splinter Cell played out more like a self-contained puzzle than a level in an action game. Ubisoft's gambit paid off: Splinter Cell would go on to be one of the publisher's most successful franchises, and proved that there was room for more than one blockbuster stealth series.

Splinter Cell is also the subject of one of the best reboots in gaming history: Splinter Cell Conviction completely turned the series' formula on its head, with a bigger focus on speed and lethality than ever before. It was a jarring change, especially for longtime fans - but even so, Conviction is still regarded as one of the series' high points.

Sadly, Splinter Cell has gone MIA. Splinter Cell: Blacklist, released back in 2013, garnered plenty of praise from critics - and yet, Ubisoft hasn't mentioned the franchise since then. Of course, there's always a chance that the publisher has something up its sleeve for this year's E3 press conference....

With Tom Clancy's The Division just a few short weeks from release, it doesn't look like Ubisoft is about to abandon the brand anytime soon. The game's got quite a bit of potential - with any luck, The Division can live up to the lofty reputation of its predecessors.

The Division is set to launch on March 8.

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