Genre: Tactical FPS
Developer: Irrational Studios
Release Date: April 5, 2005
Buy 'SWAT 4': PC
I've long been a fan of the tactical first person shooter genre, dating back to my first experiences with Rogue Spear, Red Storm's second installment of the Rainbow Six series. The tension of hunting down your opponent, using your brain as much as your fast twitch skills as you try to take the right corners, positioning yourself ideally to get the first shot off… because one quick double tap of the left mouse button is all that separates the living from the dead… is peerless. The run and gun gameplay of fast pace FPS games, diving for health packs or making a bee line for the rocket launcher, is most definitely enjoyable but it's nothing compared to the experience of a tactical first person shooter where realism deprives you of second chances in the form of health kits, power ups and a big freakin' gun 9000. Clearly I'm not alone in this line of thought, what with the wild popularity of Valve's Counter-Strike, the Red Orchestra mod for Unreal Tournament 2004 winning the "Make Something Unreal" contest, and the perpetual success of the Rainbow Six franchise.
And then there is Irrational Studio's venerable SWAT series and their most recent offering, SWAT 4. I never played the preceding titles, having been firmly gripped by an everlasting addiction to the Rainbow Six games, but after test driving the multiplayer demo for SWAT 4 released earlier this year I was beginning to wonder if I had been missing out on something special. Now after having had the chance to play the full retail product, I can say that Irrational Studios has truly been working magic.
SWAT 4, as the name implies, thrusts you into the world of police Special Weapons and Tactics units. All the tension of taking down hostile tangos in a counter-terrorism scenario with the added challenge of actually having to make arrests, not body counts, all while trying to protect civilians and collect evidence. You don't even have the luxury of knowing who is a good guy or a bad guy until you see the gun in their hands. In singleplayer gameplay, you're briefed with as much (or as little) as the department knows about hostiles, objectives, and possible civilians or hostages. Then you get to equip yourself and the rest of the SWAT team with a gratifying array of lethal and non-lethal weapons, grenades, and gadgets. While this might seem straight forward, the success of your mission hinges as much on your decisions here as on the crime scene. Hostiles may be equipped with body armor which could render hollow point rounds fired at center mass utterly useless while gas masks will make you wish you packed flashbangs instead of tear gas. Similarly, it's important to ensure you have the right equipment to subdue uncooperative civilians or hostiles. My personal preference leans towards the pepperball gun, a thoroughly pleasing combination of pepper spray and a paintball gun, complete with a realistically modeled projectile trajectory that should please any paintball buff. Of course, for certain occasions, nothing really says "Get on the ground, now!" like a beanbag fired from a shotgun. You can also round out your equipment with sublethal grenades like flashbangs, stingers, and tear gas, the optiwand for peering under doors and around corners, and various other gadgets; you even have your choice of door poppers including explosives and breaching shotguns. Clearly, I'm in the wrong line of work because SWAT teams definitely get the best toys.
Once you and your boys are geared up, into the breach you go. Your mission objectives generally involve protecting the innocents on the scene while subduing the bad guys and some missions may require additional objectives like securing evidence. While it would certainly be plenty easy to just drop the bad guys with your silenced 9mm SMG and avoid shooting the innocents, SWAT 4 demands more from you. Each mission is scored based on a variety of criteria ranging from your ability to secure the weapons on the scene and make arrests instead of body counts to communicating with the boss and keeping your comrades in good health. The difficulty level for the game ratchets up the score required to move on to the next mission with the highest level of challenge requiring near perfection from you and your team in a very chaotic environment.
Unlike games like Rogue Spear where you and your team assault the mission area with a game plan drawn up during the briefing, you hustle your fellow SWAT team members through the mission with on-the-fly commands. The system involves are variety of context sensitive menus; right click on a door and the popup menu might include tactics like "open, flashbang and clear" or simply "stack up" alongside the door. The team member AI is surprisingly good, complete with plenty of feedback from the boys in heavily armored blue; you might even get yelled at for being in the way during one of the carefully orchestrated maneuvers. The missions are a delightfully tense blend of cautious exploration punctuated by frenetic encounters. Few things compare to the transition from being in a nice quiet hallway one second and being in a gas filled room with choking civilians, gun toting suspects and a squad of heavily armed officers of the law yelling, "Put the gun down!" … and then someone fires a gun. Precision performance under pandemonium is the hallmark of this game and it's something that many FPS titles lack. And it's also why I found the singleplayer component of SWAT 4 surprisingly engaging. I'll be 100% honest, I don't normally pick up games like this for the singleplayer. I don't think I've even made it past the first mission of Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield despite the countless hours I've put into that game. However, the demanding and exciting singleplayer gameplay offered by SWAT 4 kept me chugging through mission after mission.
Now on to what is probably the real money maker for Irrational Studios, SWAT 4 multiplayer. SWAT 4 offers a variety of online game modes that pit SWAT teams against suspects in different settings. The Barricaded Suspects mode is the most straight forward with each team trying to score points through neutralizing or arresting the opposition. And yes, I did just say arresting. Killing an opponent gains you one point while an arrest will net you five but obviously comes at a greater risk and requires more effort. VIP Escort requires the SWAT team to lead a lightly armed VIP (chosen at random each round from the players on the SWAT side) through the map to an exit point while the suspects attempt to capture, detain and ultimately kill the VIP after enough time has elapsed. This game mode is very demanding since both SWAT and suspects must choose their level of force accordingly; if the SWAT team kills the VIP they lose immediately, as do the suspects if they kill the VIP before detaining him for the required amount of time. This balance can be a tough one to reach when you don't know whether the person around the corner is a heavily armed opponent that can be dropped quickly or if it's the VIP… and trust me, trying to pepper spray a SWAT guy wearing a gas mask is a surefire way to spend some time watching the respawn counter tick down.
And yes, this game does have respawns. All of the adversarial game modes are played out until the round time is over or the objectives are completed and players on both sides get to respawn at set intervals. This can be both a blessing since it gets you back into the action quickly rather than watching the last two people wander the map just missing each other for several minutes and a pain in the hind quarters because spawn camping is a frustrating possibility. The last of the three adversarial game modes is Rapid Deployment which is a fairly straight forward defuse the bombs scenario. And lastly, one of my favorite options is the ability to play the singleplayer missions cooperatively with up to 4 players online. For almost every game with a singleplayer campaign, this is my favorite way to do it, whether it's Halo, Neverwinter Nights, or now SWAT 4.
Key to the enjoyable gameplay of SWAT 4, both mutli- and singleplayer, is the map design. Each environment is richly detailed, ranging from the cubicle farms of the IT company (and let's be honest, who hasn't wanted to lob a few flashbangs over cubicle walls) to the gas station convenience store, every setting is carefully crafted. The levels are realistically brought to life with posters on the wall, mundane office materials on the desks, cluttered back rooms, and even boxes of donuts in the training area. The level designs aren't just eye candy and don't simply serve as places for the action but also affect the game play very directly. One aspect that caught me by surprise was having to weigh the challenges of having my vision impaired by the limited field of view while wearing a gas mask in a cluttered area against the benefits of being impervious to tear gas and pepper spray. I found myself having to frantically survey my surroundings and choose my path carefully so I didn't get caught up on the edges of desks, boxes or other obstacles. The realization that I had adapted to that handicap much like a real SWAT team member would have to made me chalk up a few points for Irrational Studios in the back of my head.
Making all of this gameplay and immersion possible is the brilliant game engine. Moving to SWAT 4 after two years of loyally playing Raven Shield with its now dated engine was a breath of fresh air. SWAT 4 sports all of the modern graphical features and takes full use of a DirectX9 compatible video card and the end result is quite beautiful. The textures are rich and vibrant and the lighting is particularly striking. The combination of luscious, high quality graphics and exceptional level design makes for an incredibly appealing gaming experience. Without comparing the technical merits of SWAT 4's Unreal technology-based engine versus the prestigious Source engine from Valve, I have to say that I find SWAT 4 more visually appealing than Counter-Strike: Source, which is definitely saying something.
Although graphics are usually what help games fly off shelves, mainly because screenshots are easy advertising, the total gaming experience can be ruined by poor sound… something that SWAT 4 does not suffer from. The game features plenty of voice acting with each mission briefing including a realistic emergency call from the 911 dispatcher and a run down of the situation provided by the commanding officer. In game, every person you run into will have something to say, including your partners. Although sometimes audio blurbs are repeated, such as a civilian lamenting coming to work that day, the voice acting contains enough variety that SWAT 4 encounters remain fresh and interesting rather than stale and repetitive. The various sound effects are also well done and all of the sounds are lovingly rendered in positional 3D audio. This is something any modern FPS contender should offer and SWAT 4 certainly delivers as required.
The interface is clean and straight forward. The onscreen HUD is unobtrusive but I did find myself wishing I could modify the crosshairs since I sometimes found them to be a little lacking in contrast in certain situations. The controls, similarly, are simple and straight forward. SWAT 4 offers the opportunity for franchise loyalists to play with the same controls as SWAT 3 but defaults to a very streamlined and intuitive system for interacting with the environment and teammates. I appreciated the range of customization for the controls; even the way in which the popup contextual menus work can be tinkered with. That kind of thought being put into a game is readily appreciated and I much prefer being able to change the game settings to suit me rather than having to change my actions to suit the game designers. Thank you, Irrational Studios.
Overall, SWAT 4 consistently impressed me from my first steps into the training mission. Of course, the reason why I liked the training mission was that it was possible to lose the mission by shooting your trainer. Maybe I'm a bit odd, but I like the option to do the wrong thing and be penalized for it rather than being denied the option outright. I was surprised to find myself thoroughly enjoying the singleplayer campaign on a game that I would have purchased solely for multiplayer. As a picky shopper, I prefer to spend money on games that will hold my interest long term with addictive multiplayer gameplay. To find a game that offers that along with an addictive singleplayer experience makes it really hard for me to exert any self control with my check card at the local retailer.
Irrational Studios has a winner on their hands with SWAT 4. The game offers what may be the best singleplayer experience in the tactical FPS genre and exceptional multiplayer gameplay. However, it must be said that this is a genre in which the devotees are particularly picky. Each game offers a slightly different style of play that appeals to some people and not others. That variation isn't necessarily so much an issue of quality but taste. Just as some people prefer chocolate ice cream while others like coffee or strawberry, some folks are inevitably going to prefer a game like Counter-Strike: Source over SWAT 4. But in terms of quality, SWAT 4 is definitely Häagen-Dazs-grade goodness and certainly not the low cost, low quality storebrand. I will say, though, that the vibrant, stylish graphics and unique gameplay will have me choosing a night of SWAT 4 over Counter-Strike: Source. I can strongly recommend tactical FPS afficionados give SWAT 4 a taste test… this may be their new flavor of choice.
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