Matt Keller
19 Feb, 2006

SWAT4 Review

PC Review | Is Irrational's police sim a Harry Callaghan or a Chief Wiggum?
The SWAT series certainly has a colourful history. Originally a follow up series to Sierra’s popular Police Quest adventure game series, the SWAT games have taken vastly different appearances with each release. The first game, Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: SWAT was a full motion video endeavour as was popular at the time, but it was a big stinker like many others in that genre, despite having consultation from Daryl F. Gates, the father of SWAT. Police Quest: SWAT 2 took on the form of a team based real time strategy game not unlike the popular UFO and Jagged Alliance series, and met with a much more favourable reaction. SWAT3: Close Quarters Battle was released in 1999 after the series took a short break, and was the most popular game to date; managing to approach the popularity of the original adventure games with its tactical first person shooter approach, which many felt was superior to that of the competition (mainly the Rainbow Six games).

Vivendi attempted to branch out onto consoles with the SWAT series with the Argonaut-developed SWAT: Global Strike Team, but the game was met with a relatively indifferent response from critics and received a hostile reaction from the SWAT unit, who felt the game was much too trigger happy, and didn’t stick to the fundamentals of being a part of the unit. This caused a bit of friction between the publisher and the police force, but after they sorted out their differences development on SWAT4 began, this time at Irrational Games, a popular developer (once independent, now owned by 2K Games) responsible for efforts such as System Shock 2 and Freedom Force. The decision to outsource SWAT4 appears to have been the right one for Vivendi, as the game is the best game in the series to date.

Part of the beauty of SWAT4 is that each mission stands on its own, with characters and a situation unique to that level. This allows the missions to take on vastly different styles of crime prevention; one mission you’ll be infiltrating a diamond heist operation, while in another mission you’ll be called in to subdue a serial killer before he takes his next victim. It also frees the game up from any potentially silly and/or cliché storylines like those seen in SWAT3 and Rainbow Six 3.

Dropped soap, man in handcuffs, another man bleeding from anus. Very suspect.

Dropped soap, man in handcuffs, another man bleeding from anus. Very suspect.
Each mission typically begins with instructions from an emergency operator and the SWAT commander, though certain missions will allow you to listen to the 911 call, which often elaborates on the number of suspects and how much heat they’re packing. This menu also lets you see a rough layout of the area which your squad will be infiltrating, as well as any information that has been obtained on the suspects or potential hostages. Once you’ve got the details of the mission down, you can select your team’s load-out, customising every last bit of equipment for each member of your five man team. Players can choose between different types of machine guns, shotguns and pistols (many of which have been licensed from Colt Manufacturing), of both lethal and non-lethal varieties, which also applies to the ammo type of each weapon too.

There are no mission plans to hold your hand in SWAT4 – the player has to make all of the strategic decisions on the fly. The training mission does a very good job of teaching players how to work the mouse driven-command system, which allows one to issue commands to his squad on the fly. It’s wise to approach each level in the same basic manner; carefully approaching each room, using the wand (a special camera) to check under the door, opening/breaching the door and clearing the room (arresting/neutralising suspects, rescuing hostages, etc.). The game never forces the player into taking a predetermined approach to a level, which allows for a lot of improvisation. It does, however, expect players to stick to the SWAT’s Rules of Engagement, which mainly consists of giving warning to any potential suspects before engaging them and not harming any unarmed people – you can’t just run through a level, guns-a-blazing. Players can split their team up into two separate groups, and issue commands to them from across the level, using some rather neat picture-in-picture techniques. This is especially useful for storming a room from two entry points, and generally will cause perps to drop their weapons, rather than resisting arrest and being neutralised. Suspects can take non-lethal hits, but be wary that a person with low health will keel over, even after a leg or arm shot – sometimes the hit-boxes can be a little off, which adds to the frustration.

When office politics go too far

When office politics go too far
SWAT4 comes with a reasonable serving of 14 missions, each of which takes between 30 and 90 minutes. There are a number of different difficulty levels which have a major effect on what is expected of your team in terms of conduct, as well as the AI’s level of competency. The AI, especially that of your computer controlled team-mates, can be a little haphazard in an unpatched version of SWAT4; they’re constantly getting stuck on geometry, running through rooms full of perps and getting gunned down, or disobeyed orders and neutralising threats, rather than trying to disarm them. The latest patch fixes the AI (as well as a bunch of minor multiplayer issues), but it comes at a price; obtrusive in-game advertising, and lots of it.

Multiplayer is a major part of the SWAT4 experience, and the PC gaming community has taken to it quite well, with a reasonable number of servers available across the popular multiplayer gaming networks. There are four main multiplayer modes; Barricaded Suspects, VIP Escort, Rapid Deployment (all of which support up to 16 players) and Co-operative play (up to 4 players). For the most part, the main multiplayer modes are not unlike those of Counter-strike; Barricaded Suspects is your basic team deathmatch, VIP Escort is self explanatory, and Rapid Deployment has the SWAT team looking for bombs to disarm, while the Suspect team tries to stop them in their tracks. While the multiplayer modes aren’t exactly original, they are reasonably enjoyable, provided you’re playing with the right people, and with the latest patch.

SWAT4’s presentation is fairly classy, despite a relatively straightforward menu system. The in-game HUD is useful and detailed without cluttering the screen, and additional tools like picture-in-picture view modes for your team-mates and snipers are quite cool. Rag doll physics have been implemented, but they’re noticeably stiff in comparison to other major PC releases. The SWAT team models are well constructed, although the perps and civilians have a slightly dated look to them. The environments are widely varied with each mission taking on a drastically different setting, yet Irrational has managed to capture the atmosphere of each level quite well. Lighting and shadowing are up to scratch, although there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of advanced texturing techniques. With the right hardware, SWAT4 runs flawlessly, although big fire fights can bring even the best of PCs to their knees.

"I swear I didn't eat the last jam donut!"

"I swear I didn't eat the last jam donut!"
Sound is one of the strongest parts of SWAT4, largely thanks to some very accurate gun sounds. Atmosphere is boosted by screaming civilians and rather filthy-mouthed terrorists – add these in to your squad yelling at people to get down, and you’ve got a fairly realistic recreation of some of the finer moments of COPS. Music is quite for the most part, but pumps up when the action gets tense – particularly when an armed suspect has disappeared from view. Voice work from the commander, operators and 911 calls is quite good, though in-game, you’ll find that the civilians and suspects have a somewhat limited number of things to say, which is a little disappointing.

SWAT4 is a very solid tactical first person shooter, and easily the best game in the series, but it suffers from a number of minor problems that prevent it from being a top shelf title. The latest patch fixes a few of these problems, but introduces a major new problem in the form of obtrusive in-game advertising. Nevertheless, we’ve got no problems recommending SWAT4 to those looking for something a little more cerebral than the standard run-and-gun first person shooter.

Stay tuned to PALGN this week for a full review of the upcoming SWAT4 expansion pack, The Stetchkov Syndicate.
The Score
SWAT4 is a good tactical shooter held back by a number of minor and easily resolvable errors.
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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