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SWAT 4: The Stetchkov Syndicate

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action
Publisher: Vivendi


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PC Review - 'SWAT 4: The Stetchkov Syndicate'

by Arkalem on Aug. 9, 2006 @ 2:16 a.m. PDT

Entitled 'The Stetchkov Syndicate', the expansion pack brings a host of new levels, weapons and enhancements to the highly rated SWAT 4

Genre: Tactical FPS
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment, Inc.
Developer: Irrational Games
Release Date: February 28, 2006

Among adults in today's society, there is a certain stigma against the "boys in blue," those peerless civil servants who sacrifice so much in an attempt to ensure our safety. This is largely because the primary job they do (protecting us from others) occurs far less frequently than the secondary job (protecting us from ourselves) that so inconveniences our lives. While they may occasionally stop a speeding shard of semi-molten lead with their scantily armored torsos, it is far more often that one of their uniformed rank bounce a radar beam off of your careening sedan as you precariously juggle your coffee, bear claw and cell phone in a potentially tragic dance of sheer ignorance.

This imputation against our para-military civilian defense does not, however, apply to the expertly trained and heavily armed officers of the Special Weapons and Tactics Units that provide the extra punch the force needs in the case of a well-organized or dangerously fitted criminal foe. These masked and Kevlar-adorned centurions are romanticized in the popular media, having garnered a slew of television shows, video games, and even a slick silver-screen adaptation involving the man himself, Samuel L. Jackson.

Perhaps the best of these SWAT-flavored entertainment options is the Sierra-produced series of strategy games that dates back ... well, about as far as computer gaming itself. With such a long history, the series has run the gamut from top-down, RTS-like action to its current form of first-person super fast-paced shooter. SWAT 4, the critically acclaimed last full entry in the series, introduced a pile of new gear and tactical options while retaining the absolute need for painstaking strategy and careful room-by-room clearing. It is this exact unique flavor that Irrational has attempted to retain in the first official expansion, SWAT 4: The Stetchkov Syndicate.

The verdict? Irrational has hands-down succeeded. A load of new weapons and gadgets, a new UI feature, and several new modes of play add to the already superb style of the original game without in any way damaging the flair that has made SWAT 4 such a great alternate to the run-and-gun action FPS titles that make up the bulk of the genre. There are no new graphics or sounds to be found, but this is in no way a detraction. The expansion solidly uses the base provided by the original title to create environments that are even more stark and anxiety-inducing than those found in that noted precursor. The gameplay of the new single-player campaign is simply outstanding.

Missions cover a few familiar venues, such as a concert area and an arcade, but the maps are laid out in such a way as to create tactical significance in each and every room. That door doesn't just lead to a heavily barricaded church dining area, but to a strategically essential flanking position that will allow a lightning-strike pincer attack from the red team (which has been pre-positioned on the left) and the blue team on the right. This intense planning is made possible not only by the excellent level design (a staple of the SWAT series), but by a new feature that allows the player to issue a hold command, that is, to order a team to complete a certain task after a "go" order. This feature was conspicuously absent from the original, and IT provides what has been a missing link in the otherwise-solid tactical playground. As an added bonus, the officers of the special team can finally stop wasting non-lethal ammo and goodies on resistant civilians; a short-range quick melee attack (i.e., a swift smack to the face) will down almost any silly civvy in moments.

The new weapons also do a great deal to repair the very, very little that was wrong with the strategic element of the original game. The EC-90, a new 5.27x88mm submachine gun, allows for a lot more spray (thanks to its high-capacity magazine) and a good deal less pray than the SMGs from SWAT 4. Along the same lines, if laying down a huge amount of lead is your game, then the 5.56mm Squad Automatic Weapon will likely catch your attention and hold it. Firing something in the general vicinity of a kajillion rounds per minute, the SAW allows its wielder to hand out a pretty large bouquet of bullet wounds, and is therefore more often turned against you than it is on your side. There is also a new tech-9 automatic pistol and the 800-pound gorilla of handguns, the .50 caliber Desert Eagle. I must admit that the last of the new conventional weapons, the Colt accurized rifle, seems woefully out of place. While it is certainly a powerful and well-realized weapon, it is also an exceptionally slow sniper-style rifle that has nearly no place in the largely close-quarters combat that is standard in the series.

There are other, more non-conventional weapons as well. A 40mm grenade launcher provides a menagerie of new less-than-lethal options. While it offers the standard grenade loads (CS, Stinger, and Flashbang), it also throws a whole new round into the mix. The Triple Baton grenade unleashes several polyfiber sticks that smack into anyone near them, stunning (and potentially severely wounding) them. A new type of Taser pistol also makes an appearance. While the "Cobra" stunner has only a slightly longer range than its predecessor, it introduces an invaluable new short-range drive-stun that can be used to drop a foe without the expenditure of the dangerously finite prong cartridge.

The final piece of the already-delicious pie comes in the form of multiplayer. With the edition of the 10-man co-op mission functionality, the title offers players the ability to set up two complete five-man teams to tackle difficult player-created content. Another new feature limits the number of mission leaders to a single player, which allows only that person to issue orders via the command interface. In well-organized games, this is a godsend. With these new features, and with a good team, The Stetchkov Syndicate offers perhaps the very best co-op game on the market today.

None of this praise is to say that the expansion is perfect. There a few problems that have been present since the original, which remain unaddressed. For one, the A.I. still has very few (nearly negligible) flaws that could have been tightened up with the wrench of an official expansion pack. Squads occasionally bunch in doors and get ripped apart by enemy fire, or refuse to fall in on the player, forcing a retreat and regroup. These problems are rare, but they are present, and even a very few incidences can damage the continuity of the game. The other major flaw is, of course, the ridiculous save system. While it certainly has its staunch proponents, such an unrelentingly harsh save style is painful in a title that requires such slow and purposeful movement. At one point, I spent nearly an hour clearing out a theater, only to be shot in the face when, on the very last room, impatience got the better of prudence and I opened a door without mirroring it first. All of that work wasted. I had to actually take a break from the game for a while to avoid procuring a very real handgun and putting a bullet in my monitor.

Overall, SWAT 4: The Stetchkov Syndicate is one of the most solid expansions I have ever played. While many add-ons for great games are disappointing – it's difficult to improve an already near-perfect model – this is not a failing found here. While SWAT 4 is, without a doubt, the trend-setting front man of the squad tactical FPS genre, The Stetchkov Syndicate screams for the bar, and your hands, to reach for the sky.

Score: 8.7/10

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