Having played all of the SWAT titles from Sierra before, SWAT 4 maintains a good deal of continuity with its direct predecessor with an emphasis on methodical tactics and police realism. Everything in the game, from the controls to the radio chatter and the action, feels just about right. It is therefore not difficult to recommend this to SWAT veterans. Newcomers to the series, though, will take some time to adjust to the game. This is not a game where you run and shoot everything in sight. In fact, points are given for defusing chaotic situations in non-violent ways.
Refreshingly, SWAT 4 does not dwell a lot on the whole weapons of mass destruction and armed terrorist motifs that seem to dominate every military or police enforcement title out there. Yes, there are hostage situations and heavily armed men. But these are mostly domestic militia or vigilante groups. SWAT 4 offers fourteen missions. Unlike the Rainbow titles, these missions are completely separate. Some have SWAT assisting detectives in serving high risk arrest warrants. Others have them disarming or disabling gang fights or arms deals. There’s no overall story though.
Irrational has done a good job in depicting the various urban locales you’ll visit in SWAT 4. Most of the places you visit are seedy and run down and the graphics engine paints them in a distinctive manner. In one mission where I had to capture a serial murderer, I was more than a little jumpy because of the level design and the way the artists painted the rooms (photos and news clippings stuck on the wall, etc.).
SWAT 4 is played at a slow and methodical place. As element leader, you will be leading four other men who are sub-divided into red and blue groups. Unlike the recent Republic Commando, where all actions are preset for you, you have to dynamically build your entry plan on the fly while you’re in the game. You are given some hints on the floor plan of the place you’re going to but that’s not always available given the nature of police emergencies.
Using the right mouse button allows you to bring up a list of context sensitive actions. Point at a door and you can instruct the element to stack up, breach and throw in a number of different grenades. Point at a complying hostage or suspect and you can ask them to restrain the target. The default action can always be chosen by pressing space bar, which eliminates the need to use the mouse wheel to navigate through the action you want. SWAT 4 is full of helpful things like that. Once you cuff someone, for example, it will automatically switch back to your primary weapon.
As such, SWAT 4 is more tactical than most games. You don’t simply run through a room and gun everyone down. A cautious element leader will first secure the perimeter. You want to make sure when you’re doing a takedown, no one will try to sneak up from behind. There are specific tools to help with this. A door wedge, for example, can block someone from sneaking up from another door or it can be used to prevent someone from escaping. The second thing a cautious element leader will do is mirror the door for suspects. This will let you or one of your element peer through the door using worm-like cameras to see if anyone is waiting on the other side. Then you will want to stack up and try the door to see if it is locked and select from a multitude of entry options; pick the lock so you can be quiet or breach and clear so you can make use your force to bring about compliance.
Compliance is really the keyword in SWAT 4. Extra points are awarded at the end of the mission if you attempt to arrest the suspect without killing or injuring them. Killing a hostage will result in immediate failure of the mission, although some hostages and civilians are stubborn and therefore need to be subdued. To do this, you will have to bring down the morale of the target. Shouting at them is one thing (“Put your hands up!”) and is dramatic enough in this game that you may find yourself yelling at the screen too. You can also subdue the target with grenades, non-lethal shotguns, pepper spray, pepper spray bean projectiles or even a Tazer. These will encourage the target to give up and allow them to be restrained.
Clearing a room will therefore involve all of the preparation cited above in addition to the action, restraining all suspects, reporting in all injured or dead people, as well as securing weapons dropped by any potential suspects. Once you’ve done all that, you will encounter more doors and rooms to decide your next course of action. It sounds like a lot of work but a few hours with the game and you’ll get the methodology down pat.
Of course, sometimes the methodology does get in the way of the game somewhat but the game is able to maintain suspense by mixing things up on every outing. Hostages are in different locations. Civilians are hiding in different places and suspects can either be just around the corner or in completely different parts of the room. Since no two outings are the same, it’ll keep you on your toes, especially for audio cues such as footsteps and talking.
SWAT 4 also features a dynamic soundtrack that sometimes gives away enemies. For example, if you come close against a barricaded suspect, the soundtrack will immediately change. But it’s not a big enough disturbance that you will want to turn it off. In spooky places, the light ambient music also helps set the tone.
Speech in the game is about as authentic as it can be. Each mission begins with a clear briefing read out by the commander. If it is a 911 emergency, you also have access to listen to the call. Paying attention to these details will enable you to equip yourself for the mission.
Some of the most interesting parts of the game are when you use effective tactics to overcome numerical superiority. CS Gas is a good way to smoke people out of an empty looking room. It being silent also helps in case there aren’t any people. Flashbangs, for example, can incapacitate a room full of suspects for the precious few seconds so your element can get a bead on them.
Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. Your AI squad members seem to oscillate between two extremes. In one instance, I was surprised a dark basement entry with four suspects and a full five man element resulted in no casualties. In other instances, I was almost disgusted when two officers go down because of one punk running around with an assault rifle. The officers simply took too long trying to get the suspect to comply. If it were me, I would have just yelled and shot him. This is particularly troublesome in crowded settings where suspects are pretending they are complying (such as rubbing their eyes from CS Gas or Flashbangs). Friendly AI will simply let these people run around loose and they eventually turn around and shoot any police officer close to them.
In the latter half of the game, when most suspects are wearing full body armor and are carrying assault rifles, this can be disastrous. Some of the missions involve covering a massive amount of rooms, which means being a few men short is a recipe for failure. The level designers also seem to love to hide people in those ‘just around the corner’ places where a good burst of an AK47 will disable any armored police officer. And like real life, it only takes a bullet or two to kill you.
In multiplayer, some of these restrictions are relaxed. For example, you can play co-operative missions with up to four friends as a full element and use some of the exotic weapons you don’t normally get in the single player. It’s also necessary because three of the four game modes, Barricaded Suspects (team death match), Rapid Deployment (bomb disarmament) and VIP Escort divide SWAT and suspects into two teams. While the co-operative mode is reminiscent of SWAT 3, it is unfortunately not as flexible. There is no way to turn on respawn and the last couple of missions feature dozens of foes. With only two people, that’s hard to finish. There’s no way to do a generic good guys versus bad guys like the popular Terrorist Hunt feature in Ghost Recon games.
SWAT 4 does provide a mission maker. Using simple drop down menus you can retool existing maps into different scenarios that can be saved and replayed at a later date. These unfortunately do not show up in the multiplayer portion of the game.
As I got more into SWAT 4, my experience became a give or take. I didn’t like the fact that you can’t deploy light sticks to help illuminate a room. In SWAT 3, they did this after clearing each room to mark what terrain has been covered. On the other hand, the bullet physics for SWAT 4 are incredibly fun. High caliber weapons can punch through wooden doors, dry wall and even the steel frame of a car. One time I was shooting inside an office space and put a few more bullets than I should have through a cubicle only to find out later that a hostage was hiding behind it.
In spite of these shortcomings, SWAT 4 is still a very good game. No one has tackled this subject quite like Sierra has and Irrational has done a stellar job in preserving the look and feel of the predecessor while adding modern amenities. If you are at all interested in titles like Rainbow, Ghost Recon or the recent Brothers in Arms, you’ll find SWAT 4 worthy of your attention.