SWAT 4 was one of the more realistic shooters this year. It was one of the tougher ones, as well. It's one thing to run through a game blasting everything you see, but it's a completely different challenge when you're only supposed to use force as a last resort. Things are going to get tougher early next year when SWAT 4: The Stetchkov Syndicate ships. As the expansion to SWAT 4, The Stetchkov Syndicate can be thought of as a graduate training course in law enforcement. But as a member of the special weapons and tactics team, you'll be up to it.
So what exactly is the Stetchkov Syndicate? Aside from being a cool name that the focus groups liked, it's an attempt to put a storyline in the expansion. Unlike its predecessors, SWAT 4 went out of its way to make the game about unconnected tactical situations that everyday SWAT teams deal with, such as executing high-risk warrants or saving hostages caught up in a standoff. The Stetchkov Syndicate will link the missions in the expansion together, at least by plot, as it tells the story of how you take down a powerful criminal empire that's dumping drugs and assault weapons on the streets. If you're the kind of SWAT player who likes a story, you'll be able to enjoy it. But if you liked how SWAT 4 didn't have a story, you can just ignore it here...so everyone is a winner.
Stetchkov will add seven new missions to SWAT 4, boosting the total to 21 in all. These new missions are designed to be bigger, tougher, and more tactically challenging that anything you experienced in the first game. For example, in some missions, you will now have to worry about cordoning off and containing a level, otherwise bad guys will have the chance to escape (and thus ruin your chances at success). Or there will be more doors and choke points that you will have to worry about, which means you may need to bring more door wedges along with you in order to contain the bad guys. And the bad guys themselves will be more heavily armed and armored than they were in the core game, thanks to all the weapons the Stetchkovs have been putting out on the street.
The good news is that you'll have new toys to help you in the struggle. The most basic are chemical light sticks, which you can use to mark rooms that you've already cleared. After all, one of the headaches of the original game was that sometimes you got disoriented and ended up clearing rooms twice. Now, you can just drop a light stick in it to mark it. The good news is that light sticks don't weigh much at all, so you can carry them along with your other gear. There are other new toys as well, including a slew of new weapons, such as submachine guns and nonlethal weapons, a new Taser, night-vision goggles, and more. And if you're the kind of player who usually ran low on ammo during SWAT 4, there's a new ammunition pouch you can carry that lets you take extra magazines, though at the price of another piece of equipment. Meanwhile, much of this new content isn't just limited to the Stetchkov Syndicate missions, so you'll be able to play the original missions with many of these new items.
There's more to the Stetchkov Syndicate than just new missions and levels, though. The game's popular multiplayer suite has been improved, and Irrational has also boosted the number of players in co-op mode from 5 to 10, which will let you get two teams of five online. This obviously has a danger of making the online missions a bit too easy, but you can bump up the number of enemies to compensate. Speaking of which, the quick mission-maker has been improved, so you can create missions on the fly, rather than make them in advance and save them for later. So now you and other players can chat in the lobby between missions and select the parameters for the next one. You can select a map, an opponent type, the number of opponents, and more.
The expansion will also introduce a couple of new gameplay modes, the most notable of which is snatch and grab, which is sort of a variation on the escort mode found in other shooters. In snatch and grab, one team plays as SWAT and the other team plays as suspects. There's a randomly placed briefcase in a level that the suspects must recover and escape with. The trick is that the suspect who carries the briefcase can only walk and only has use of his or her secondary weapon, which means that the rest of the suspects have to protect and escort the briefcase carrier. Naturally, SWAT has to stop them, but one of the neat tricks for SWAT is that if they arrest a suspect rather than use lethal force, then the suspects lose 30 seconds on the clock. This should encourage the SWAT team to try to use force as a last resort instead of run and gun, like you would in a normal shooter.
SWAT 4 was one of our favorite tactical shooters of 2005, and we're impressed with the new content that we've seen in the expansion. The expanded cooperative mode should be especially popular, too, judging from our time online with the game. The Stetchkov Syndicate is nearly complete, and it should ship sometime early next year, though publisher VU Games is still trying to nail down a date.