Never send a man to do a job that five could do. We take a look at Irrational Games' contribution to the SWAT legacy.
The world, for once, is not in dire peril. All maidens, damsels and princesses are checked and accounted for; legendary artifacts properly sealed and protected; hostile extraterrestrial forces are currently pre-occupied with the raping and pillaging of worlds more significant than our own; and megalomaniacal despots are otherwise indisposed with the business of recruiting minimum wage cannon-fodder. It's a small mercy, but SWAT 4 foregoes the trite, oft-exploited and ultimately needless narratives of typical videogame fare in favour of, well, nothing.
That is to say, Irrational Games' entry into the long-running franchise makes no attempt to provide a storyline of any kind (much like the SWAT movie, badumtish!), no doubt in order to maintain a sense of realism throughout. And frankly, is a better game for it. Substance over style, if you will. As the leader of a 5-man element (comprised of yourself and a Red and Blue Team of two men each), players are inserted into a desultory collection of missions, the objectives of which differ greatly from one to the next but, in keeping with the credo of the Special Weapons and Tactics unit, almost always involve the diffusion of a highly volatile situation with as little force as necessary.
And it is in this single caveat that much of the game's challenge and enjoyment is to be found. By forcing players to be more circumspect in their actions, that is to say, by placing the emphasis on non-violent resolution rather than visceral displays of brute force, the game becomes an exercise in concentration and methodical precision. Confronted with ostensibly the same decisions real-life SWAT members face, players will find themselves having to resolve conflicts while adhering to stringent protocols, and at all times prioritizing the safety of civilians. Of course, this all plays rather better than it sounds. Having to decide in an instant whether to open fire on an armed assailant or attempt to uphold your missive of peaceful engagement and thereby run the risk of being killed (and consequently, having to start the entire mission from scratch) can make even the most innocuous encounter a nerve-wracking experience.
Unnecessary force of any kind is frowned upon and more importantly, reduces your mission rating according to the severity and frequency of your transgressions. Upon the conclusion of each mission, players are assigned an overall score by calculating the bonuses and penalties accrued throughout the mission and this final grade then determines whether your mission was a success or failure. On the 'Easy' difficulty setting, the passing score is 0, and on Elite, the hardest setting, that value is increased to 95. Included in the criteria upon which you are judged are the number of suspects arrested, incapacitated or neutralized; the number of civilians killed or injured; weapons secured and the reporting of status to the TOC. This latter criterion is of particular importance as informing the TOC of the status of hostages, downed team members or restrained suspects accounts for a significant proportion of your overall score.
At the outset of any particular mission, players are briefed as to the situation at hand and furnished with all known particulars including points of entry, maps of the location, as well as suspect and civilian information. Thereafter, players are given the opportunity to equip themselves and their team members with the necessary primary, secondary, tactical (non-lethal) and breaching weapons and other assorted paraphernalia needed. Proffered here is a customary selection of hand guns, shotguns, automatic and semi-automatic rifles but it is the non-lethal weapons such as tear gas, flashbangs, stinger grenades and the less-lethal shotgun that will become the cornerstones of your arsenal. And if not, they're certain to be the most fun. Though somewhat macabre, there's considerable enjoyment to be gleaned from pepper spraying an uncooperative suspect or subduing a blood-thirsty assailant with stinger grenades and a taser charge.
Keeping abreast of the multifarious tasks and situations presented you while at the same time making effective use of your squad mates is not as difficult as one might think, facilitated as it is through an intuitive set of contextual commands, pop-up menus and windows. With a click of the right-mouse button players are able to quickly and efficiently invoke one of any number of commands for the entire team or red and blue elements individually. The breaching of a locked door, for instance -- by quietly picking the lock or detonating a small charge of C2 explosive -- or the clearing of a room with gas, stinger grenades or flashbangs before entering. Furthermore, ascertaining what it is exactly your team members are seeing is a simple matter of calling up (via a press of the Insert or Delete keys), an inlaid window showing just that. This window can then be enlarged and orders issued regardless of your position relative to theirs.
Although issuing orders is a painless task, the carrying out of said orders is not entirely without its problems. As you might've guessed, the AI quirks prevalent in most every title of this ilk reveal their unfortunate countenances in SWAT 4 as well. While watching your squad mates shuffle awkwardly around a doorway, as though engaged in their own private game of musical chairs, is no more than a minor, and somewhat humorous, bugbear, having them ignore direct orders or remaining oblivious to considerable and immediate enemy threats while single-mindedly carrying out orders is frustrating, and rather less funny. The enemy AI, unfettered as it is of the player's whim, fares somewhat better. Too much so at times. Even the most crazed, drugged perps possess an almost unerring aim and will, given half a chance, pick you or your team off with clinical precision. This, combined with a healthy sense of self-preservation (they'll seek out cover or flee) and a morale system that dictates how readily someone will surrender (liberal doses of pain, in case you were wondering, tend to weaken their resolve), makes for some truly unpredictable and tense encounters. Quibbles aside, the AI does a laudable job.
Augmenting the 14-mission single-player campaign is a Quick Mission Maker which allows players to derive their own scenarios from those missions already in the game as well as a team-based multiplayer component. There are four multiplayer game modes in all -- VIP Escort, Barricaded Suspects, Rapid Deployment, and CO-OP -- each being a variant on the SWAT vs. Suspects theme. In the first, one SWAT player is randomly assigned the status of VIP. It then falls to the rest of his team to escort him to the extraction point within the level. Conversely, the Suspects attempt to capture and hold him for two minutes after which time they must kill him to be victorious. Barricaded Suspects is akin to standard Deathmatch in that players are awarded points for neutralizing or arresting members of the opposite team. Rapid Deployment tasks the SWAT team with find and disarming three to five bombs strewn throughout the level within a given time limit and CO-OP allows up to four people to play through the single-player missions as a team.
When compared to the numerous squad-based permutations currently in the marketplace, SWAT 4 is not what you might call 'pretty', nor is it overly ambitious, but it succeeds where most others have failed; it creates an atmosphere so palpably textured that you'll be more than willing to overlook its smattering of inconsistencies to spend just a little more time in its world.