Review by Steerpike
April 2005

Fun with Advertising

I worked in advertising for many years before moving on to my current career. In addition to utterly crushing my soul, it taught me discernment in the matter of quality creative across all media. While there's no doubt that a healthy dollop of luck is involved, a game studio's ability to reliably and consistently produce good creative is a major factor in its survival probability. This is why Irrational Games is in high summer while studio after studio goes gentle into the good night.

An ignorant person might accuse Irrational of creative retardation, because it has become well-known for gobbling up existing franchises and releasing new sequels. This started with System Shock 2 and will carry on with the upcoming Bioshock. Tribes Vengeance is another example. The trend continues here in SWAT 4—these games spun off from the Police Quest franchise, owned by Sierra. But Irrational has also demonstrated its ability to produce excellent original creative with Freedom Force. Even so, the grouchy might claim that Irrational needs someone else's cleverness before they can produce.

The grouchy are in error.

I was enjoying SWAT 4—the first of the franchise that I've ever played—but it wasn't until the middle of the game that I came to really admire it. This is due not so much to how good it is, though it's quite good; it's because one of the best print ad campaigns I've ever seen appears during a mission in a dot.com office. Here is a campaign that will never run, created for a fictional company, used as nominal window dressing for a mission so lengthy and so complex that I suspect 93% of gamers won't even notice it ... and yet there it is. Irrational is not lacking in the creative department, licensed franchises or no.

The nation's Special Weapons and Tactics units are the ones who deal with truly deadly police encounters, and in SWAT 4 you get to command a team (called an element) of the best, making the city safe for taxpayers one barricaded psycho at a time. SWAT 4 does a very good job of making you think and act like a SWAT cop—working in extraordinarily dangerous conditions with highly unpredictable opponents, helpless innocents, and exactly zero margin for error. Overall, this is another success for Irrational, with just a few problems marring an otherwise top-notch shooter.

Keepin' it Real

SWAT 4 and Tribes Vengeance both use versions of the Unreal engine, apparently sufficiently modified by Irrational to warrant a new "Vengeance Technology" moniker. Unreal is an amazingly versatile engine—actually it's more of a complete game-development environment than a 3D renderer—but it may not have been the best choice for SWAT 4.

The fact is Unreal 2.0 is getting a bit long in the tooth. Graphics in SWAT 4 aren't exactly subpar, but they're noticeably inferior to some alternatives. Minor tearing, seaming, and collision problems plus modest polygon counts contribute to the vague but persistent sense that SWAT 4 would have been a lot better if it had used Half Life 2's Source engine. Add to this the very peculiar decision to implement only token Havok physics and you have a game that manages to simultaneously seem both modern and dated.

Meanwhile, the sound is awesome, and the chief reason for its awesomeness is the extraordinary talent of Eric Brosius, who joined Irrational after Looking Glass fell apart in 2000. Brosius is one of the most incredibly gifted sound designers ever to grace gaming, able to manipulate player emotions like so much Silly Putty. His sound design is responsible for the choking suspense of the Thief games, the desperate terror and loneliness of System Shock 2, the operatic melodrama of Tribes Vengeance, the goofball cheer of Freedom Force, and now the gritty urban intensity of SWAT 4. The trick with this game's audio is the fine line between enough and too much, and as usual Brosius hit it on the nose.

Like a Heavily Armed Village Person

SWAT 4 doesn't follow a linear storyline (sorry, Jen); each mission is a vignette, a sort of Cop-land novella with no bearing on the others. It's not the SWAT team's role to investigate crimes or close cases. They go where other cops fear to tread, pummel the bad guys, and then it's Miller time, so a multimission narrative would have been contrived. These ministories also allowed the developers to throw in an assortment of environments and mission types without the extreme variance jarring us out of the game.

You get a basic overview from Dispatch prior to each mission, then the element leader (that's you) gives the team a more detailed briefing on the situation. If there is corollary intel such as a 911 call, you can play that as well. Clues are very subtly embedded in the briefings, so it's imperative that you listen carefully. Planning is an important part of SWAT 4, though not to the level of Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six. Here you listen to the briefing, decide on an entry strategy, select equipment for the team and go.

The equipment list is varied enough to give plenty of options without being ridiculously huge. Element members carry a primary and secondary firearm, some tactical equipment, and breaching tools for getting past recalcitrant doors. You can equip each officer individually, load one of several presets, or create and save your own. Equipment loadout is a major contributing factor to success. If Dispatch happens to mention that the suspects are wearing gas masks, for example, there's little reason to burden your element with teargas, while armored suspects will just chuckle at hollow-point rounds.

Depending on the level of difficulty you've chosen, you must achieve a minimum score in order to proceed to the next mission. Points are awarded for following procedure and achieving objectives. They're subtracted for un-SWATish acts such as failing to report an injured civilian or shooting a fellow officer. The nice thing is that you can choose the difficulty prior to each mission, and the "easy" level has no minimum score—you'll definitely be allowed to proceed unless you or a hostage gets killed during the mission, though that happens a lot even on the easy level.

There is no in-mission save, but in SWAT 4 it's really okay. Allowing you to save within a mission would screw up the game. And though I can guarantee that you'll be playing some missions over and over again, it's just ... not irritating. Perps and hostages are placed randomly but logically inside each mission, and honestly the game manages to stay fun no matter how many times you've done a level.

SWAT is the neurosurgeon of law enforcement: a single tiny error triggers the nightmare scenario. The death of a hostage means automatic failure, even if it's only indirectly your fault, so naturally you have to be very careful about using force. The game gives you an enormous appreciation of how hard this job is, how careful SWAT needs to be, weighing each pull of the trigger even when time is a factor. When SWAT makes a mistake, people die. SWAT is therefore not allowed to make mistakes. Ever.

Which is part of the savor of this game, and what makes it so challenging—there's a huge dichotomy of intent in that you control a team of deadly force warriors who have to be very, very careful about using deadly force. To reduce the likelihood of accidents, SWAT teams must cuff and report everyone they encounter, even the innocent. Bystanders don't always get that "on the ground, hands in the air" applies to them as well, but it's your job to restrain them, even if it means using a taser to do it. You're also supposed to arrest suspects, not kill them. To aid you in these tasks, the game offers an assortment of nonlethal weapons designed to hurt or disorient. But there's that dichotomy again: using them over real guns is tantamount to playing Go Fish with your element's lives.

Criminals don't generally employ beanbag ammunition and don't need to follow police procedure. Pointing a can of pepper spray at a felon armed with an AK-47 is a huge risk. Perps are rarely in a hurry to surrender if it's a choice between killing a cop or going to prison. Points are deducted if you kill without provocation, because you're only allowed to use lethal force if you believe lives are in danger—but you usually have less than a second to make that decision, and it's easy to get it wrong. It's also easy, very easy, to mistake a bystander waving his arms in terror for a suspect brandishing a pistol. So the less-lethal versus regular-guns dilemma is a major issue.

Less-lethal solutions are really not very effective, and flaws in the positional damage system make using live ammo to incapacitate rather than kill very difficult. In the real world, SWAT teams will cheerfully shoot a suspect in the leg to disable him. You can theoretically do the same in SWAT 4, usually without penalty. But suspects often won't surrender after being shot, even multiple times, and many manage to sprint away with a bullet lodged in their knee. Worse still, shooting a suspect in the leg or shoulder is almost as likely to kill him as a shot to the head, which is pretty ridiculous. I once shot a suspect in the leg four times, shouting for him to surrender throughout, and he still didn't; the fifth bullet killed him. I guess in SWAT 4 many humans keep vital organs in their femurs.

Of course, positional damage works brilliantly for your character. If you get shot in the leg, you hobble around for the rest of the mission; take one in the arm and you can't aim for anything. I have no doubt that Irrational tried to implement positional damage on suspects, but they didn't go far enough. If this is a realistic simulation of SWAT activity, then that realism should extend to the fact that shooting a suspect in the foot is always a nonlethal attack and that a seriously injured suspect is almost certain to surrender when ordered.

Zipcuffs: Not Just for Kinky People

You'd think that controlling a squad of four guys plus yourself in real time with no margin for error would be a logistical nightmare of hot keys and wild clicking. Luckily, Irrational came up with a graceful, elegant system that makes element control easy and pleasurable. They also included a bunch of interface paradigms from old SWAT games in case you like those better.

Your five-man element is broken into two teams of two plus yourself and color-coded accordingly. You can switch between colors with the touch of a button. Even very complex orders can be managed with just one or two clicks thanks to a command menu whose options vary based on where your crosshair is pointed. Also, the most logical command for any given context is just a spacebar away, meaning you don't have to conjure the command menu to give quick orders. Robust key-mapping aids the process, but even so I recommend a good five-button mouse, because things happen fast in SWAT 4 and it helps to consolidate your buttons. The game has a nice tutorial that guides you through the basics, though I wish it had included more on SWAT procedure.

You can open view ports to the helmet camera of any officer, effectively letting you see what they see. You can also issue commands through these ports, though you don't directly control any officer other than yourself. In some missions, snipers will position themselves at strategic locations and radio in if they see a suspect—then it's up to you whether to take the shot.

The element's AI is pretty solid and their aim is incredible, befitting a SWAT team. They do ignore commands sometimes, and they have difficulty executing a series of unrelated instructions. Also, they occasionally don't take the most expeditious route to their intended destination. Overall, though, you can trust your element to do its job and keep you safe. More than once they popped a guy who was about to kill me, often dropping him before I even realized I was in danger. The one thing they don't seem to do is use their secondary weapons, and you can't tell them to switch.

It's harder to judge the quality of enemy AI, because encounters in SWAT 4 tend to be extremely fast and involve a lot of shouting but very little gunfire—your element understands that killing is a last resort. Most of your time is spent locking down cleared areas and scouting your next move, knowing that multiple suspects could be lurking behind any door. I've observed suspects do a lot of realistic stuff when they see the element—run away, seek cover and return fire, shout to their friends, even shoot at hostages. There are no glaring failures in AI, and more than once perps exhibited problem-solving intelligence like getting the drop on the element by circling around and sneaking up behind us, so overall I'll say it's solid.

Levels were designed in consultation with a former SWAT commander and show excellent attention to detail. The environments and objectives are well thought out, and the specifics of the mission rightly impact your strategy. You can just crash right into a serial killer's appropriately Silence of the Lambs-ish house because he's busy torturing a victim and wasn't expecting you anyway. Meanwhile, a botched robbery at a diamond wholesaler is a nightmare of metal detectors, locked vaults and labyrinthine cube farms, not to mention heavily armed and armored suspects very much aware of your presence. Overall level design is superb, varied, and very challenging. The one common thread in all of the missions is that if you ever get complacent and start treating the game like a normal shooter, you've already failed.

SWAT 4 includes tools to make your own missions by altering the specifics and objectives of existing maps. I think there's also an editor buried somewhere in the file system—there usually is in Unreal-powered games—but I couldn't find it. Once you wrap up the game, it's fun to try the various missions at different difficulties and with different criteria for success.

Finally, SWAT 4 also includes a multiplayer component through GameSpy. If you loathe the obnoxious and intrusive GameSpy Arcade utility as much as I do, you may not find this feature particularly tantalizing. Still, multiplayer games are available and very well-executed. Multiplay in SWAT 4 is a cooperative team effort not dissimilar to Counterstrike. I don't believe we'll see a huge SWAT 4 community online, because it will be unable to compete with UT2K4 and other games more well-known for multiplay. It certainly deserves more attention that it's likely to get. Hopefully Irrational will release some additional single-player levels to keep the game fresh.

No, It's Not Like the Movie

Personally, I tend to like the idea of games like SWAT 4 more than the actual execution. I lack the patience for overly tactical shooters and find most team command tools obtuse and frustrating. Not so in SWAT 4—it has probably the best interface I've seen for controlling a team of AI-driven cohorts. Perhaps by the time SWAT 5 turns up, we'll have a really good mechanism for issuing verbal commands via headset. Even without such frosting, SWAT 4 is very immersive and an elegant play experience.

This game should resonate with a very wide audience, and it deserves the widespread praise it's enjoying. SWAT 4 is tactical enough that your play style will be drastically different from a normal shooter, but it's not so ridiculously tactical that they forgot to include a game with the game. You will repeat missions many, many times, but, as I've already said, it somehow isn't frustrating—and it makes the 14-mission single-player campaign seem longer. In many ways, SWAT 4 strikes the perfect balance between action, tactics, and challenge.

There's a one-level demo floating around out there, and I advise you to try it out before buying this game, just to make sure that this is the sort of thing you like to play. The demo mission is a barricade-hostage situation at an auto shop, and it's probably the worst and clumsiest mission in the game, so bear that in mind while you play and don't judge too harshly. Still, it'll give you an idea of what to expect from the whole package.

I really liked SWAT 4. This is a solid offering that should appeal to a wide audience. I'm playing Stolen at the same time, and though both are tactical action games, Stolen is riddled with flaws while SWAT 4 delivers the goods. I'm taking points off for so-so graphics, problems with positional damage, and a very weak Havok implementation, but the truth is these flaws can't seriously tarnish what's destined to be remembered as one of the best tactical shooters yet. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Release Date: April 5, 2005

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 98/ME/2000/XP (Windows 2000 with Service Pack 3, Windows XP with Service Pack 1 or later)
Celeron 1.2 GHz or AMD Athlon 1.2 GHz
256 MB RAM
2 GB free hard disk space
DirectX 8.1 compatible audio support
nVidia GeForce 2 (MX 200/400 not supported) with 32 MB or ATI Radeon 8500 with 64 MB, with Microsoft DirectX 9 driver installed (nVidia GeForce 4 Ti (not MX) with 128 MB, ATI Radeon 9500 with 128 MB, with Microsoft DirectX 9 driver installed recommended)

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No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.