Most people think of first-person shooters as fast-paced, arcade-style games where you dash about corridors in a first-person view while shooting everyone other than yourself. Or at least that's most people used to think before the advent of tactical team-based shooters like the SWAT games, which followed the routines of an elite police special weapons and tactics unit on its various crime-fighting missions. Developer Irrational Games is working on the fourth entry in the series, and from what we've seen, SWAT 4's multiplayer seems well on its way toward delivering the terse and suspenseful action the series, and many a tactical shooter, is known for.
We recently had the chance to try out the game's VIP rescue mode, and in it, two teams of players (SWAT members and suspects, who are essentially criminals) appear at different points in the level. One of the SWAT team's members is randomly chosen as the VIP, who appears in the current version of the game as a civilian in a very visible white suit. It's the goal of the SWAT team to escort the VIP to a drop zone for pickup, while the suspects are charged with capturing and holding the VIP.
Though VIP escort modes are nothing new to the world of multiplayer shooters, SWAT 4's approach actually has several features that should make the mode less frustrating (at least for non-VIPs), as well as open the mode up to swings in momentum between the teams. For instance, though the VIP is chosen at random from the SWAT team, players chosen as the VIP can actually equip guns and defend themselves so they won't go down without a fight. In addition, the VIP cannot be allowed to get killed by a stray bullet. As a result, ham-fisted SWAT members who accidentally kill off the VIP automatically tender victory to the suspects. Likewise, if trigger-happy members of the suspect team prematurely kill off the VIP, they'll lose the game for failure to make good on their hostage demands.
The "right" way for suspects to win in this mode is by killing off any opposing SWAT officers while subduing the VIP with a Taser. Then you must handcuff the poor sap and keep him down for two minutes. Being handcuffed and on your knees isn't really dignified, especially when the suspects continue to zap you with a Taser for laughs. But when VIPs recover from initial shock, they can actually crawl on their knees at a reduced movement speed. This may not sound like much, but most of SWAT 4's environments are indoor areas that have several tight corners and scattered furniture and debris that can be used as cover. Consequently, VIPs may have a shot at escaping, especially if their SWAT buddies can make smart use of flashbangs or tear gas canisters to provide distractions while moving in for rescues. Exactly where the VIP gets captured plays a big role in this too, so if the suspects can put down the VIP in a narrow corridor, especially one bounded by closed doors, they've got a very strong advantage. However, capturing the VIP out in the open leaves suspects vulnerable to potshots from SWAT officers who fan out.
The start of a multiplayer session of SWAT 4 lets you choose your character's equipment and weapon loadout, much like in the single-player game. Your character has five main inventory slots for primary weapons, secondary weapons, tactical items, breaching items, and personal protection items. SWAT 4's primary weapons include the all-purpose 9mm submachine gun (silenced or unsilenced), heavier weapons (like the M4A1 Carbine), several varieties of combat shotguns, and even a pepper-ball gun that dispatches pellets of stinging pepper spray. Secondary weapons include handguns and the Taser (which is crucial for securing VIPs and hostages), while tactical items include flashbang, teargas, and stinger grenades, the latter of which deploys a swarm of rubber pellets that stuns anyone caught in the blast. To breach doors, you can take either C2 charges (a loud and messy way to blast the lock from a door, which also blasts anyone behind it) or a breaching shotgun (which smashes locks but doesn't harm anyone on the other side of the door, which is ideal for breaking into cells that hold VIPs and civilians). You can also bring in Kevlar body armor to reduce weapon damage, as well as a visored helmet that protects your eyes from flashbangs and your noggin from damage.
SWAT 4's pacing at this time is very much in line with what you might expect. Compared to run-and-gun shooters, your foot speed is extremely slow by default, and it's not much faster when you're running. Moreover, your foot speed is even that much slower when you're crouching, which is about how you'd expect gun-toting cops and crooks to move in a crowded urban landscape or within a cramped office building where the only other people are also armed to the teeth. The game's interface continues to offer two choices: the "classic" SWAT 3-style interface, which is far more complex but offers more control options, and SWAT 4's more streamlined, context-sensitive interface, which offers clear visual cues when pointing your sights at objects in the world (such as closed doors that will automatically give you the cue to open, breach, or pick the lock).
However, despite the streamlined interface, the game also seems to refrain from putting in too many obvious visual cues for the sake of realism. Pointing your gun at a teammate in multiplayer, at this point in time, causes you to lower your weapon slightly; you'll do likewise while opening doors. In addition, SWAT 4 has several very realistic special effects, such as the way your in-game vision blurs if you're caught within the radius of a flashbang grenade or how you'll start coughing loudly and uncontrollably if you get caught in a cloud of tear gas.
Otherwise, SWAT 4 continues to look great. It employs a heavily modified version of the Unreal engine (developer Irrational Games built on the engine with its already-released Tribes: Vengeance, so it's currently expanding and enhancing the technology even further), but its environments are clearly handcrafted and exhibit great attention to detail. Furthermore, its detailed character models also look good in motion. The multiplayer gameplay and strategies are clearly different from most shooters, and they show much promise. In fact, if the rest of the game can turn out similarly well, then SWAT 4 will be a highly refined tactical shooter that's every bit as terse and exciting as it should be. The game is scheduled for release in early 2005.