SWAT 4 is a 3D action game that puts players in command of a squad of special weapons and tactics police, and challenges them to solve tense, dangerous situations with discretion and responsibility befitting an elite officer of the law. The game's selection of authentically designed weapons includes several non-lethal choices, such as tear gas and flashbang grenades; as in real life, the ultimate goal of the police team is not to maim or kill the suspects, but to apprehend them before they can cause any harm to innocent bystanders (or themselves). Each time a level is played, the computer places criminal suspects and potential civilian hostages randomly around the map, so missions pose new dangers and solutions each time they are attempted. VU Games' Sierra-brand SWAT series began on home computers, but moved to consoles with the 2003 release of SWAT: Global Strike Team. The series returns to PC with SWAT 4, which was developed by Irrational Games, a studio known for its refined craftsmanship of earlier sequels such as Tribes: Vengeance and System Shock 2.
Normally, when I play an FPS, I jump right into a Multiplayer server and learn as I go along. But since I knew I wanted to play through the Single Player campaigns, I started out with the Training mission. SWAT 4 has some neat gadgets, and the Training mission is a good place to familiarize yourself with them. Although the gadgets may look self-explanatory, there are certain nuances that might not be immediately evident on your own. For example, you have the ability to split the four man AI squad into two groups and view the remote squad from their viewport, which is a helmet-mounted camera. You can also issue commands through the viewport -- however, a command cannot be issued on a door unless the player points the viewport at the door itself. A word of advice, though: listen carefully to the instructions given by the Training officer, because I couldn't find a way to have him repeat what he wanted me to do. There were numerous times that I had to abort the Training mission and start over because I got distracted and didn't hear what the Training officer was expecting.
After the Training mission I moved onto the Single Player campaign to test out how well my AI team functioned. The scene for the first mission was a Chinese restaurant, and the mission was to apprehend the restaurant owner, a visiting thug, and a weapon that the restaurant owner was reportedly modifying. I had hoped for some immediate action, but since I wanted to observe the AI's interaction I opted to send them ahead of me and merely served as cleanup crew to zip-tie hostages and suspects. Even on the Hard difficulty, the first mission seemed too easy, as there were only three suspects to apprehend. The same went for the second mission, but the lack of action was less noticeable, as I was busy checking out the intricate details of the second map.
This mission takes place in a house straight out of Silence of the Lambs. There are jack o' lanterns lining the back entryway, cockroaches scuttling around piles of garbage bags, and masks and mannequin parts littered around the basement area. It is clear that Irrational put great thought into designing their maps to create the proper ambience for each scenario (I've even heard comments from other players that they were too freaked out to play this map alone at night!). Another impressive map is that of an office building, where an area simulating a server farm is filled with computers that all has moving screensavers, a life-sized cardboard cutouts of a Tribes Vengeance character for fun. All the maps I played, although dark, were simply gorgeous with wonderful details and destructible environment.
As the old adage goes, variety is the spice of life, and the maps in SWAT are no exception. For Multiplayer, since the same maps are endlessly played, it's usually important to change things up to keep things fresh for players. Although the maps are visually appealing, they are lacking when it comes to the setting/lighting. All the maps I played were set either at nighttime or around dusk/dawn, and I assume it's because SWAT raids are not usually held in broad daylight. However, for the sake of gameplay, it would have been nice to have a daytime map thrown in every once in a while.
I've concluded that, although helpful when all I want to do is hang back and issue orders, the AI is far from perfect. There were several moments where I stood behind my team and just watched them bump into each other and shuffle around to get into the right position. Since many instances take place in close quarters, such as a stairway or narrow alleyway, you count on the AI teammates to be flexible when taking their places before performing a command. "Boss you're in my spot" seemed to be the running theme between my squad and me, and oddly, if I moved out of "his spot," my teammate didn't move to where I was previously standing. I even ran across a situation where a teammate got lost.
A unique concept that I have not seen in any other FPS is SWAT 4's hit damage system. At the lower left-hand corner of the player's screen there is an outline of a person. When a hit is taken on a certain part of the body, the corresponding part on the outline will flash red. Taking damage to different areas of the body will have different negative effects. If a player is hit in the arm, it will lower aiming accuracy and reticle precision. Taking a hit to the legs will cause a "gimp" and cause the player to move slower.
In Multiplayer, there are three different game types to choose from, and in all the teams are divided into SWAT and Suspects. The first is Barricaded Suspects, which is similar to Team Death Match. The team with the most points at the end of the round wins; teams get one point for a kill and five points for an arrest, which requires the player to stun, then zip-tie the opponent. The second is VIP escort, in which one SWAT member is randomly selected to be the VIP. The Suspect team needs to apprehend the VIP, and once apprehended hold the VIP for two minutes before executing him. The third is Rapid Deployment, where three to five bombs are placed throughout the map. SWAT must find and disable all bombs before the round is over.
SWAT wears a dark blue uniform with a lighted blue strip on the back of the uniform, and Suspects wear a dark green uniform with lighted eye strip on the back. Since both teams wear dark uniforms, add to that a dash of darkness and you have a recipe for frequent team killing; this was evidenced in the hours I spent playing Multiplayer. The only way to quickly tell whether someone is a teammate is if their lighted strip is visible. There were many times when I hesitated and waited until putting my crosshair over a player before attempting to shoot. Let's hope this problem will be rectified with different colored player skins in a future patch.
Although the game has only been out for mere days, there is already a clear disparity amongst the skill of people playing Multiplayer. Either that or the hit detection is faulty, and only time will tell which is the real cause. In Raven Shield, there was the gun that seemed to be the best and most powerful that most of the "elite" players used. I couldn't find the gun in SWAT 4, and I haven't noticed a majority of people using one gun. Overall, the guns seem rather weak and take too many bullets to incapacitate an opposing player. At least there's a wide range of options, including less lethal guns such as the Pepper-ball Gun, Less-Lethal Shotgun, and Taser Stun Gun.
SWAT 4 prides itself on being the most realistic law enforcement game to date, and the developers even went as far as retaining a technical advisor with over 30 years of SWAT experience to help maintain accuracy. However, there are some inconsistencies in the realism that bothered me, and I confirmed such suspicions with a sheriff friend of mine who has SWAT experience. For example, the effects of a taser gun should dissipate as soon as the trigger is released from the taser gun; in the game you suffer negative effects for fifteen seconds after the trigger is released. Also, if a player is wearing a gas mask, fumes from Pepper-balls should not affect him. I tested this by equipping a gas mask and Pepper-ball gun, then went up to a wall and fired Pepper-balls at it; I ended coughing up a lung. In the same round I ran around and Pepper-balled anything that moved, but that was just for my own sadistic enjoyment. With realism being the fundamental trait of SWAT 4, it makes me wonder how such inconsistencies made it into the final version of the game.
The tactical FPS fans seem to be divided into two camps; on one end of the spectrum you have the group who want a realistic sim, and on the other end you have the group who want to play an enjoyable game regardless of how real it looks. When creating a tactical FPS, the developers ride a fine line with the possibility of weighing too far on one end of the spectrum. One of my only gripes with SWAT 4 is that it weighs too heavily on the tactical end to be thoroughly enjoyable. It is possible to spend so much time being incapacitated by Pepper-balls, Stinger Grenades, CS Gas, and Tasers that the game quickly becomes unenjoyable. I can also see how players can abuse the use of this equipment; however such is the risk when playing Multiplayer.
Additionally, the player movement and action is way too slow for my taste. The common complaint with the Multiplayer demo was the slowness, and I had hoped that Irrational would fix it for retail. Granted, the developers reportedly sped up the player speed, but it still seems rather slow when trying to move out of the line of fire, switch weapons, or wait for an opened ret to close.
My other smaller yet still important gripe is the inability to choose different characters. You are able to choose among five different men, but no women. Additionally, the only noticeable difference among the men is their voices; even their bio pics don't look strikingly different. Although women SWAT members are rare, they exist and should be a selectable option. People can argue that everyone looks the same under all that heavy uniform and armor, however Ubisoft did a good job with Raven Shield by making the character builds and faces look distinctly different.
Surprising to me, I had far more fun playing SWAT 4's Single Player mode than Multiplayer -- this coming from someone who typically refuses to play Single Player in games where Multiplayer exists. If you're able to stay out of the way or at least ignore the AI's constant statement that you're in the way, the Single Player mode is great. If Irrational is able to speed up the player speed just a tad so that run speed and player movement is faster, if server admins are able to control the abuse of non- lethal equipment, and if server admins are given remote server control, then SWAT 4 would be just as spectacular for Multiplayer. With a few tweaks in a patch, SWAT 4 has the potential of being the best tactical FPS to date.
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