Bad Boys Bad Boy, what ya gonna do!
I love SWAT style games, there's something far more satisfying for me in a tactical shooter rather than a run-and-gun blast-fest. Now don't get me wrong, I also love blast-fest games but my preference is for the Raven Shield style of shooter where I can have a good squad to call upon, one of the big reasons I loved the new Star Wars Xbox game, but we're here to talk about SWAT 4 from Irrational Games.
There really isn't a story to SWAT 4, it's a series of missions against varying terrorist threats, and there are some nice briefings and tactical screens then its right into the thick of it with your squad.
This is where a good tactical shooter can shine or drop into the Hell of 101 Tac-shooter swamp-deaths (The Chinese have a lot of hells, Jack). If you don't have a quick orders interface, good command and control of your team members you might as well be shooting blanks.
So in SWAT 4 I am glad to report that Irrational nailed the command and control interface system perfectly. They seem to have taken a leaf from other games and I can't blame them, using a quick-point icon/reticule system allows for a rapid deployment of squad members to any part of the area, along with a number of chosen options.
Its a few mouse clicks to command an element to breach and frag, or stack up outside a door and wait for a go-style code. You can easily split your elements up into smaller teams and command them through a nice pop-up HUD camera, giving you total control over the squad that's separate from you.
In some maps you even have sniper cover, the sniper will call out the target information and you can pop-up the sniper-cam to take control and bag the target yourself. This is a nice and nifty innovative touch that I feel increases the tactical options of the game and provides an extra finger-on-trigger element for the player.
Picking a lock or setting a breaching charge takes no time at all to order and you're left feeling as though you're in command of a tightly trained SWAT team, rather than a rag-tag band of mercenaries.
Apart from that, nothing else has changed and the old adage applies: if it's not broken, don't fix it. You're still playing a tactical game of cat and mouse with the various terrorists and hostages, shouting for their compliance, if they don't comply, a few shots nearby should do the trick - if that doesn't work, there's always a flash-bang or CS gas.
Swat 4 isn't really a giant leap forwards in the graphics department but it does what it does really well. It has a nice feel to it; the graphic artists have given a good feel to the interior and exterior locales as well as providing a decent level of texturing and life to the character models and various hostages.
The use of lighting and shadow in the game is nicely implemented, it allows for some pretty tense situations as certain levels have areas that are plunged into darkness - the tactical flashlight on some of the weapons is an absolute must and works very well, playing a nice beam of light onto the area.
There were a few problems with the mirrors and so on in the game, they almost looked as though they were TV or monitor screens, replaying camera footage rather than a reflection, and this is a tiny minor gripe however.
Nothing seems washed out or pixelated in the game, there's a pretty good level of detail to the various environments and characters. Several of the maps have a dirty and grimy feel to them, with huge amounts of textural polish applied to the locales themselves.
This is really where Swat 4 shines as far as I am concerned, there's a huge level of detail that has been crammed into the levels of this game, and it really comes to life thanks to the placement of the objects. From discarded soda cans to all kinds of trash, boxes and bottles - Swat 4 has a real 'lived in' feel to the locations; you can actually believe you're striding through the darkened corridors of a restaurant with the constant threat of terrorist activity only a door away.
As for the actual level design, the same level of detail has been applied in the creation of the various locales. They are all meticulously crafted and built by the designers to resemble real world locations, from the fences and the maze-like interiors to the dirty back alleys and parking lots.
Here's where Swat 4 falls down a bit, but not by much, some of the models feel a bit too chunky, big hands and slightly exaggerated features. What you do get however is a pretty good set of models for your squad and the various hostages and enemies, nothing that smacks of superb design or really stands out. But that's ok since you're able to forgive the developers since the action of the game is spot on.
Passable, nothing that really stands out and some of the animations can seem to be a bit off cue sometimes, again it's not a huge game-breaker since you're usually concentrating on the action, but if you're bothered by having slick and spot-on animations then this game may have a few quirks, but I can forgive it for that. The animations for the various Swat members are the usual variety of reloading, kicking in doors and so on, they do their job and that's all I can ask for.
Let's face it, squad based games are made or broken on the strength or weakness of their AI. Swat 4 has a fairly competent AI however and has only suffered from mild team-based idiocy once or twice since I have played it, this ranged from team members taking a gung-ho attitude when told to hold or triggering a command too early, these are few and far between however, but enough to mention in the review.
The enemy AI is a mix of flanking and taking cover, they attempt to coordinate their attacks and will actually provide a good challenge to new and veteran gamers alike. They have various levels of morale and some will continue to fight on even when comrades are down or dead, acting as gung-ho as the squad itself. I always did like the mix of AI in a good shooter; it makes trying to judge the situation a lot harder and adds a whole new level of skill to play.
Hostage AI is another ball-game entirely and varies between the meek and mild, to the downright uncooperative, people that will refuse to comply unless you threaten them with a weapon or in some cases zap them into unconsciousness.
A nice mix of ambient, spot and special sound effects round out this package quite nicely, there are some meaty weapon sounds and the various guns/weapons/tools have a distinctive aural feel to them.
It's upbeat and it's sinister in places, the music in Swat 4 is a nice mix of styles that enlivens the atmosphere.
The voice acting and dialogue in Swat 4 does its job and the acidic-dry banter between the squad members lightens the mood somewhat and helps to keep the suspension of disbelief. Along with this of course are the various calls for compliance and the defiance of certain suspects, screams of the hostages and so on. It's good enough to keep the game from sounding like another reflex-blaster.
Swat 4 comes with adversarial and cooperative game modes, so it's a winner as far as I'm concerned in that area. The adversarial styles are reminiscent to that found in games like Counter Strike and so on. One team tries to defuse bombs and the other must stop them.
For me however the big bonus of the game is the fact you can team up with four friends and take on the game missions, or quick missions (via the quick mission editor) using proper team tactics and squad manoeuvres. There's nothing quite like busting down a door and flash-banging a room full of tangos, with your friends.
With the quick mission editor and the cooperative gameplay, Swat 4 stands perfectly head-to-shoulders with other games of its genre and can hold its own. It's not the best game of its type, far from it. But what it delivers is a good solid title with lots of replay value, tactics and special weapons. It feels competent and well designed; it has a lot of polish but could have done with a serious tidy-up in some areas, just to add that extra gleam that we've come to expect from Sierra (Vivendi).