Reviewed on PC.
I’ve made a few references to tactical shooters in my reviews despite the fact I haven’t really played one for any notable length of time. SWAT 4 seemed a bit more appealing than the genre’s staples, because it challenges you to non-lethally and legally pacify armed opponents, which is an interesting twist on moving from room to room ventilating enemy skulls.
In SWAT 4, you play as the leader of (surprise!) a SWAT team, and unless you type in a different name, you are called ‘Officer Default’. Over the course of the game, you and your squad are sent in to respond to a variety of crimes, including hostage situations, terror attacks and bomb threats. Some missions are particularly memorable, such as an early one which has you enter a serial killer’s house to save his surviving victims and bring him into custody, or one where a dangerous cult has taken over a block of flats. Like developer Irrational’s other games, the levels feature detailed and believable environments, and take place in a range of locations to keep things fresh. The squad members occasionally quip about what they see, and they are given a bit of personality and humour, which is a nice way of taking them slightly beyond ‘tough guy with gun #3’, but there isn’t enough dialogue to properly flesh them out. The combination of these elements means there is an unusual atmosphere that distinguishes it from the dry, dull fare it could have been.
The game has you giving orders to your squad to methodically search the maps for civilians and hostiles. Upon spotting either, you are required to shout for them to put their hands up. They might do as you say, they might mess around and need to be subdued with pepper spray, or, if they’re armed, they might open fire. In order to minimise the risk to you and your squadmates, you have to make use of flashbang grenades, tear gas, wedges to block doors, explosives to dislodge locked doors and an OptiWand to see under doors. Doors are kind of a big thing in this game. When the gadgets fail, fast reflexes are vital to pacifying enemies, since you can be killed within a second of them seeing you. This high level of challenge means every moment of the game is tense, as impatience is severely punished. Planning is also important to success; before launching each mission, you are briefed on the situation, and it is up to you to pick suitable equipment, for example using armour piercing rounds since the suspects are wearing bullet-proof vests.
Since you’ll probably screw up quite a bit, the game keeps things fresh by randomising the locations of suspects and civvies, which means you can’t just memorise enemy positions and breeze through. There is a flipside to this, which is the fact that the randomisation can completely screw you over. Once, I opened a door and found a room to be empty. After being killed, my squad returned to that room, and upon opening the door, we were greeted by four armed goons, who wiped out three SWAT members before we could throw a flashbang.
There are other annoyances. A big one is the fact that your ‘run’ is pretty damn slow, and if you are shot in the leg, your movement speed will be reduced considerably, which can make the rest of the level a tedious slog. The game is already slow paced, it doesn’t need to be fucking sedated. On a similar note, some suspects will flee, and playing tactical Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner is not fun, especially if your leg has been crippled so you’re hobbling along.
I did find a few technical issues. SWAT members would often prove they are the best of the best by getting stuck on something, meaning I would have to go back and give them encouraging nudges until they got back to doing their job. Occasionally, the squad would simply not respond to orders. While this was immediately apparent when I could see them, there were several points where I told them to follow me, then two minutes later found they had decided to give it a miss. Eventually, I became pretty paranoid about taking point, so I gave the ‘follow’ command several times, and checked they were still there every so often, making me feel a bit more like a babysitter than a SWAT leader. A few times enemies partially clipped through walls, and once a suspect’s shadow projected through a closed door. These instances saved me the effort of popping the OptiWand under the door, but obviously killed some of the tension.
The sound mixing presented some major problems. Listening for enemy voices or footsteps can give you an idea of the occupants of a room, which might be the little edge you need. This strategy is a lot more difficult to carry out when your squadmates bump into you and repeatedly call you a dickhead until you move out of the way. Much worse is how people shout over each other. When breaching a room, your squad will start shouting at occupants, and then the occupants will start shouting back, then you might call in to Tactical Operations Command, and then they will start talking. In the worst cases, this means you can have upwards of six people shouting at the same time, at the same volume, without much panning to clear things up. It does simulate the chaos of a SWAT raid accurately, but with headphones on it can feel more like a bad LSD trip and induce headaches.
I found SWAT 4 a pretty immersive experience. It’s highlights were the levels the reproduce the weirder side of policing, and I wish there were a few more of these. You will probably bang your head on a wall when stuck on the more challenging missions, but the game is concise enough that completing it won’t require you to take a six month course in military tactics. While it’s not exactly my kind of game, the meticulous, almost strategy-like aspects of SWAT 4 were appealing, so if you are a fan of perfectionist games, I would moderately recommend it.