Written by Jennifer Lam on 6/6/2005 for PC  
More On: SWAT 4
How Police Quest transformed from a 2D adventure game into a full-fledged tactical shooter is beyond me, but the world is much better off now that it has. Sierra has been furiously toiling with the SWAT franchise, producing everything from a full motion video simulation to a 3D isometric strategy game. With SWAT 3, the company found itself a nice niche in the first person tactical shooter market and has decided to exploit it to the fullest potential. What we have today is SWAT 4, a title that really brings tactical shooters to the next level.

SWAT 4 is a first-person tactical shooter that has many similarities to Ubisoft’s much talked about Rainbow Six franchise. While that franchise features in-depth planning, SWAT 4 features more realistic on-the-fly situational tactics that need to be executed on a moment’s notice. Using a simple targeting cursor based system; the designers do an excellent job of giving players full control over the action.

The system is context-sensitive, so highlighting a door with the cursor will bring up options related to entering the next room. Deciding which tactic to use becomes vital to the success of the mission. You’ll always want to “mirror” under the door (with the use of a high tech remote camera) before you enter so that you’re not greeted with the business end of a deadly weapon. The tough part comes next, figuring out how to approach the situation. One of the key tenets of SWAT is the preservation of life so you’ll have a number of non-lethal options in your arsenal ranging from flash bangs to gas canisters. What’s great about this system is that it allows you to step back and take point on the door, or step into the fracas and deliver the projectile yourself.

Making this experience even better is some of the best squad-AI available in a first person shooter. Your teammates will approach each situation realistically, scanning each room, corridor, and nook and cranny before pressing forward. When playing SWAT 4 you get the feeling that each of your cohorts are living, breathing human beings who want to make it out of the encounter alive. Luckily (or not, depending on your point of view) the enemy adheres to the same great AI and serve as more than just cannon fodder. They’ll take up realistic positions in each room and tend to utilize cover to their advantage. It would have been nice to see enemies exhibit squad behavior as well (even thugs can coordinate their efforts) but what we have definitely gets the job done.

Core gameplay progresses through a series of scenarios that take place in and out of Los Angeles. Mission variety is excellent and ranges from a barricaded suspect in a home to a gas station robbery. Level design is believable and the structures feel like they could have been recreated from the blueprints of buildings in and around Los Angeles. Furthermore, suspects and innocent bystanders are always placed in random locations during each outing, leading to unique gameplay experiences every time out. Completing the mission will unlock newer missions that are more complex and more challenging to the gamer
The designers took great care to replicate the SWAT experience right down to the arsenal. You’ll have the usual assortment of MP5s and shotguns but what’s unique about SWAT 4 are the non-lethal weapons. Just like in real life, you’ll have the option to outfit your squad with less-lethal weapons such as a beanbag gun and a firearm that shoots high velocity paintballs. In terms of gadgets, you’ll get the aforementioned “mirror” as well as a unique door stop that will seal off an escape route, useful for situations where there is more than one exit.

Taken at face value, the graphics look severely dated. In an era that has Half Life 2, DOOM 3 and Far Cry, Swat 4 looks like it came from the minors. Luckily the game benefits from some great lighting effects that populate an otherwise pedestrian effort. Player models look great while civilians and enemies are more than passable. Special effects look great and it helps add some dimension to this rather bland visual package.

The audio is much better, taking full advantage of your 5.1 surround sound setup. When properly setup, SWAT 4 has great atmospheric audio that really immerses you in the experience. Take things slowly and you can actually hear the sounds of your suspect in the next room as he paces nervously, awaiting your arrival. Audio plays a key role in determining the position of suspects all around your location, playing a vital role in your success or your demise.

Each of the effects is painstakingly recreated too and sound great thanks to the use of advanced occlusion and reverberation techniques. Firearms that are discharged in a hollow basement sound far different than those set off in a typical living room. The designers really did a great job of recreating the situational audio that really is lacking in today’s games. Great sampling rates and clean recordings don’t hurt either.

When you complete the single-player portion you’d be wise to take your game online for one of the most addictive experiences available on the PC. Hop into one of the many populated servers and you can ditch the AI squadmates and tackle the bad guys with a team of human controlled teammates. If you’re playing with other gamers who are serious about maintaining the integrity of the gameplay, you’ll be in for one hell of an amazing treat. I haven’t felt this sort of rush since the first time I played Rainbow Six all those years ago. It absolutely took teamwork to an entirely new level while renewing a true sense of accomplishment. To omit the multiplayer experience is to miss out on an amazing chunk of gameplay that infinitely extends the life of the game.

SWAT 4 has a number of stability issues that really make this game difficult to recommend to casual gamers. Out of the box, it took us a good week of tuning and refinement before we could even get the game running. Even then, the game ran at a crawl on our P4 3.2GHz, 512MB RAM, GeForce 6600GT equipped system. To get the game to run at a respectable speed we had to turn down the graphics a bit, making for a rather unpleasant experience. Oddly enough, the game runs much better on our P4 2.4GHz outfitted with an Ati All-in-Wonder 9700. Perhaps the situation resides within the graphics cards, either way a patch is in order.

Weak graphics and stability issues aside, SWAT 4 is one of the most comprehensive tactical shooters on the market. The intuitive cursor-based command system works well and the attention paid to detail leads to an exciting, edge of your seat type experience that really has to be experienced to be believed. It’s not without its flaws, but it has so much going for it that you really can’t afford to pass it up.
I’m a huge fan of the Police Quest franchise so you could imagine my disappointment after Sierra revamped the franchise and slapped the “Swat” moniker on it. While the first two products were disappointments, SWAT 3 showed a brief glimmer of hope. A few years later and a developer change later, we have a pretty decent recreation of what life as a SWAT officer might truly be like.

Rating: 8.8 Class Leading

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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