Developer: Irrational Games
Release Date: April 2005
Sierra’s SWAT series has been a long running extension of their classic adventure series Police Quest. What began as a pseudo full motion video (FMV, when was the last time you heard that used?) simulation of SWAT missions evolved into a troubled tactical game from an isometric view a-la X-Com and then the logical jump was made to a first person tactical shooter in the penultimate SWAT 3. What was a critical success wasn’t much of a commercial one and Sierra went the Bruckheimer Hollywood approach with the next issue, SWAT: Global Assault Team which appeared across many consoles. What was a critical and commercial failure made someone in Sierra realize something: no one does tactical shooters like we do (not even Red Storm) so let’s stick to what we know. With the upcoming SWAT 4 (which has moved you from Los Angeles to New York’s vaunted Emergency Services Unit), the gamer can look forward to realistic situations, realistic weapons, realistic ballistic models and realistic human behavior. All of the variables that make SWAT work so compelling and dangerous are back again in what could amount to being this year’s sleeper hit.
Before you build any expectations, because SWAT has been on a sort of hiatus, realize this: SWAT is a life saving organization. While they pack assault rifles and strap Kevlar on their backs, a SWAT team’s primary mission is the preservation of life and the cessation of hostilities with lethal response being a last resort. Based on SWAT 3’s gameplay and what I have seen of a late beta build of SWAT 4, Sierra and Irrational Games plan to hold you to this. Go in guns blazing and you will fail. SWAT’s gameplay calls for a paradigm shift in tactical thought. While people termed Half Life as the “Thinking Man’s Shooter” of its day, SWAT 4 will most certainly be the thinking man’s shooter of today.
The reason behind this statement is the game’s user interface and tactical command you wield over your team’s various assets. In Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six and Republic Commando you outfit your troops so that you know you have enough grenades, ammo, etc. SWAT 4’s equipment choices are strictly limited to what SWAT officers carry with them. There won’t be much poetic license being taken in this department. Where things do get a little interesting is that you will essentially be operating your own Tactical Operations Command from your desktop. Each of your officers carries a helmet mounted camera and you can see through the scopes of Sierra 1 and Sierra 2 (affectionately referred to as High Ground, you sniper teams) where you can detach teams, stack them at different doors and not only give them the order to breach and clear in any number of ways (set charges, use shotgun to blast the lock or simply pick it), but you’ll also get a good look at what they are doing.
With this tactical flexibility left to your control, Irrational Games is hoping that you’ll operate as a Team Leader should, rather than kicking in doors and blasting people yourself. In order to make things easy, all you have to do is point in a certain direction, right click on a menu with your available options pops up, hover the mouse over your prefered action and your squad will obediently perform your commands, breach and clear, breach bang and clear and so forth. Civilians need to be neutralized so they do not get in the way in the midst of a gunbattle so it is wise to cuff them, same goes for enemies that have surrendered (press the action key will have you shout out commands for them to lay down their guns and put their hands on their heads in several varieties.)
Missions will range from barricaded suspects to hostage rescue to high risk warrants and arrests. SWAT 4 is aiming to mirror the whole process SWAT officers undergo prior to engagement. Intel during the extensive briefing will vary wildly depending on what’s available and sometimes you’ll have a recording of the 911 call to give you more insight. The whole point of this perspective is to take the Hollywood out of the game and to get that mentality out of your head. Don’t expect Collin Farrell and L.L. Cool J. in SWAT 4. Expect a gritty situation with nasty people doing bad things that need you to stop them from doing worse things. The suspects you’ll face range from a serial rapist/murder to Oxycodone junkies to professional hit-men to outright terrorists. There will be a mission and situation for every imaginable scumbag out there.
In addition to what Irrational Games hopes to be compelling gameplay is a new graphics engine tempered with the widely used and highly refined Havok physics set of rules. In the beta build I played, clipping was already at a minimal. There were some weapons that dropped through floors, but nothing that should be easily fixed between now and release. Already in this stage of development, SWAT 4 looks and sounds awesome. I was clocking on average 40 frames a second with my rig with, except for its graphics card (GeForce FX6800 GTS/OC) is pretty modest and mind you the frame capture application slows down the frame rate considerably. I’d imagine that if you can run Unreal 2004 then you’ll be just fine.
Multiplayer will be a big factor in SWAT 4, but since this is a tactical shooter and less of a Counter-Strike run-and-gun game, do not expect to just charge in guns blazing, or you will be face down fairly quickly. The pace of the game has been slowed down by the fact that your characters move slowly to begin with, and even with the shift key enabled, it barely feels like normal speed, which will force players to take the slow approach. In our build, there were four modes and 17 maps available for multiplayer, all bases on missions you encounter during the single player campaign. Co-op speaks for itself, and Counter-Strike fans will surely be familiar with the VIP escort mode, where one of your squad members has to be protected and escorted to a specific spot on the map. Barricaded suspects has one squad assault the opposing forces in team deathmatch gameplay, and rapid deployment has you track down and defuse three bombs within a time limit.
To add to the replayability of the game, Irrational has added a quick mission maker, which allows you to modify any of the campaign missions to your personal liking. Want more civilians? Add up to 25. Want more bad guys? Done! Boost their morale or skill, turn off friendly fire, select your own entry points, adjust the winning conditions by adding or removing objectives such as friendly casualties, rescue all civilians, etc. Compose your own team and their loadout, increase the difficulty or if you want to kick it up a notch, go Lone Wolf.
I am very excited about seeing this game in its final form. While there will certainly be co-op multiplayer and adversarial multiplayer, this game’s strength will doubtlessly lie in its single player campaign. With a few edges trimmed up, wrinkles smoothed and some code optimization SWAT 4 could end up being the game everyone slept on. Check out the screen shots and the video clips. You’ll see what I mean.
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