Review by Steerpike
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 4these
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 4the first of the franchise that
I've ever playedbut 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
copworking 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 engineactually it's more of a complete
game-development environment than a 3D rendererbut 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
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
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 scoreyou'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
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 challengingthere'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 dangerbut 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
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 suspectthen
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 gunfireyour 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 elementrun 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 systemthere usually
is in Unreal-powered gamesbut 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
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 4it 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 frustratingand
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.
Release Date: April 5, 2005
Four Fat Chicks Links
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)
Where to Find It
Links provided for informational purposes only.
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by any party(ies).