Sierra's ever evolving Police Quest series hit a new high with the release of SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle. Enticing despite its flaws, this action/strategy game challenges you to lead an element of a SWAT--but unlike previous titles, you play the leader's role from a first-person perspective.
Comparisons to Red Storm's Rainbow Six games are inevitable, so let's get them out of the way first. The gameplay is similar in that, unlike more frenetic first-person shooters, you move at a realistic pace through real-world locales, and you and your enemies can be killed by single bullets. The similarities end there: the differences between the R6 titles and SWAT 3 are numerous.
When you start the single-player campaign, you first define your character and then choose a squad. There are six to sort through, and your decision is based upon profiles and police experience of the individual members. Once you choose one, you're stuck with it unless you start a new career, and since the campaign is completely linear doing so would result in redundant play.
All of the action takes place in Los Angeles circa 2005. Terrorism is becoming rampant as some sort of world peace festival approaches, so the SWAT branch of the LAPD is gonna be busy. Mission goals concern things like freeing hostages, diffusing bombs, protecting dignitaries, serving warrants to dangerous criminals, and doing other SWAT-like stuff.
You're given as much information as possible before each mission based on realistic recon: witnesses are interviewed, any suspects that have already been captures are interrogated, floor plans are studied if they're available, and so on. You're then free to equip yourself and the four members of your element with weapons and tools. The choice of armaments is limited, but realistic: standard and silenced versions of HK's MP5 tactical rifle are available, and M4 assault rifles can be used if the situation looks particularly hairy. Your crew also carries lightsticks to mark areas that have been cleared, handcuffs, flash bangs and tear gas, all-purpose toolkits, door charges, and other assault gear.
When you're equipped and ready, you enter the FPS portion of the game. Unlike the R6 games, there's no planning phase: you have to order your element on the fly and they can only carry out one order at a time. Ordering your officers is the biggest challenge--and source of frustration--in the game.
Your prime directive is to follow police procedure. That means, suspects are to be taken alive if possible. Before firing, you're supposed to order suspects to surrender and give them a chance to surrender. To prevent yourself from being ambushed, each room and hallway in any location should be methodically searched and pronounced clear.
You order your squad mates and interact with suspects through a mildly intuitive communication menu. You can issue directives to your entire element of four officers or to two-man teams. Once you play with it long enough you'll get the hang of it, but the woeful documentation is mercilessly brief in explaining the directives available to you. Plan to spend your first four or five missions experimenting by giving orders and watching to see what your men do.
For example, you can order teams to search. The search sub-menu appears with the options "left," "right," and "continue." Now suppose a team is facing you: whose left is the menu referring to? And what does "continue" mean? After much experimentation, we concluded that it's your left or right, and continue means "Search wherever you want." Mysteries that we never did figure out include two communications options: you can declare an area cleared or compromised, but neither declaration seems to affect the behavior of your squad.
In some cases, completing a mission seems impossible, but not due to its difficulty. When one of your directives is to secure all of the suspects' weapons, you have to search every nook and cranny in the theater of operations and find every last gun, and some are hidden in ridiculously obscure locations. Another objective oddity is when you're ordered to take a suspect alive: there's no way to ensure that a member of your element won't gun the poor guy down before you have a chance to urge him to drop his weapon.
Once you get the hang of the interface, the game is quite enjoyable. The graphics engine is startlingly crisp, but frame rates tend to bog down at higher resolutions. That's forgivable, though, because SWAT 3 is not a reflex-intensive twitch game: gameplay is plodding and methodical, and it's very forgiving if your graphics card can't crank out 60 frames per second.
There's one unforgivable omission: there isn't a multiplayer option. Though a patch is promised, it wasn't available when this review was written. SWAT 3's single-player campaign is very linear, and the only things that change if you play through it a second time are the locations of the hostages and suspects. Replay value without multiplayer is almost nonexistent.
Graphics: The game looks good and the engine makes excellent use of dynamic lighting, but frame rates slow down at high resolutions (even on a kickin' accelerator).
Sound: Clear and atmospheric.
Enjoyment: Lots of fun - once you come to grips with the communication interface.
Replay Value: Where's the multiplayer patch?
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SWAT 4, Police Quest: SWAT 2, Police Quest: SWAT, Soldier of Fortune, Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force, Soldier of Fortune 2: Double Helix, Grand Theft Auto 2, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings
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