Fans of realistic first-person shooters found a lot to like in SWAT 4, the latest chapter in the popular and realistic police series. Unlike most shooters, where your goal is to kill anything that moves, your job in SWAT is to serve and protect the citizenry. This also means trying to spare the criminals so they can answer to a court of law. So you're only supposed to use lethal force when you run out of options. As you'd expect, this resulted in a tense and exciting game in which you have to think and react differently. Now developer Irrational Games is working with publisher VU Games on the expansion for SWAT 4, due out early next year, and we chatted with VU Games producer Paul Pawlicki for the details.
GameSpot: What is the Stetchkov Syndicate, and what role does it play in the expansion? Does the presence of a crime syndicate indicate more of a storyline connecting the missions, like SWAT 3? Or are the missions still fairly stand-alone in terms of story, like they were in SWAT 4?
Paul Pawlicki: The Stetchkovs are a crime family that has slowly infiltrated the city. They are gaining power and are responsible for an increase of guns and drugs on the streets. When the law is being broken the police are called in. When all hell breaks loose, the police call SWAT. That's where you come in. You resume your role as the commander of an elite SWAT team. You must eventually find the head of the Stetchkov crime family and bring order to chaos by any means necessary.
Here's the story behind the stand-alone missions. In the preproduction stages of SWAT 4 we talked to SWAT officers and learned that in their line of work each day on the job is different from the day before. The calls they get always require the same quick-thinking and tactical expertise, but rarely are they related to one another. Knowing this, we made a conscious decision to do the same thing in SWAT 4: create exciting missions that weren't necessarily tied to each other.
However, sometimes there is an event or series of events that over time has an increased affect on SWAT's workload. It may not appear that these events are connected right away, but put together a few clues and one might discover that there is a correlation. This is the route we chose to go with on the expansion pack. Some missions may not have anything to do with crime family, but others have a direct link back to the Stechkovs.
GS: Now that the game has been out for a while, and you've had a chance to interact with the fan community, what are the top three things that fans love about SWAT 4? And what are the top three things that they didn't like? How will you address these concerns in the expansion? And what other sorts of new features or gameplay improvements are you planning?
PP: There were many things that were well liked by the community and the reviewers alike, but if I had to pick three I would say less-lethal weapons, five-player cooperative multiplayer, and the easy-to-use interface.
Less-lethal weapons were a bit of a hard sell at first in a tactical first-person shooter like SWAT 4. The hard and fast rule is usually kill or be killed, but once people started playing multiplayer rounds with less-lethal weapons they found the pure joy that could only be had by pepper-balling some guy into submission and arresting him.
Some of the most fun to be had in SWAT 4 is playing the single-player missions with four of your buddies. Enemy placement is randomized, and this means that you could replay the same levels over and over and always have a different experience. We've increased co-op support to 10 players in the expansion pack.
SWAT 4 took a big step forward from its predecessor in regard to squad control, with an easy-to-use graphic command interface. The new interface allowed users to control their squad by simply clicking a mouse button. This made the game more accessible to a wider audience.
Now for the bad. This part is always difficult to answer. I mean, nobody likes to think their baby is ugly. Here are some of the things we know people didn't like plus the things we are doing to fix them in the expansion pack.
There was no ability to vote. One of the biggest complaints right away was that some people would come into a multiplayer game and start team killing or join a co-op game and be, well, less than cooperative. We did allow kicking and banning but that was only if you were logged into the server as the administrator. Now, during a multiplayer game, any of the players will be able to initiate a vote to kick and ban those problem players, change the map, or even the game mode.
There was no built-in voice communication. People wanted to be able to communicate with voice over IP. We agreed. SWAT 4 co-op benefits greatly from communication. Now there is built-in VOIP, which really adds to the fun.
And skins were too similar. Some people complained that our SWAT officers and the suspects' skins looked too similar in multiplayer, and they did. Now we've added a skin chooser that lets you drop in user-created textures and enable them in the multiplayer game.
GS: How will built-in voice communication be handled? We imagine that players will have to supply their own microphones.
PP: Yes, players will need their own microphone, but that's it. Then all they need to do is install the expansion pack and press a hotkey to talk to their teammates. It's just one of the many new features in the expansion pack. It really makes a huge difference when you are trying to work together as a team, especially now that we have increased the number of co-op teammates from five to 10.
Guns and AmmoGS: There are at least three other topics we'd like to ask about: guns, guns, and guns. What new weapons are in the expansion? Is there any other new equipment or gear, as well? And will any of these new toys be playable in the existing SWAT 4 missions?
PP: We like our guns, too, and take them very seriously. In fact, we received a lot of praise for our realistic weapons and our accurate ballistics in SWAT 4, and Irrational Games continues its excellent work in the expansion pack.
There are about a dozen new weapons and tactical items. This time some of them are team specific. For starters, SWAT gets the Colt accurized rifle for sniping and a 40x46mm grenade launcher for taking out suspects with less-lethal rounds at a distance, while the suspects get the likes of a 5.56mm light machine gun. We have taken time to carefully balance multiplayer so that you can play well-matched rounds with each side having different equipment, but we did put in an option that allows all of the weapons to be available to either team.
Included in the tactical gear are night-vision goggles, an ammo pouch that can be equipped to hold additional ammunition, lightsticks for marking cleared rooms, and a no-armor option in multiplayer that allows for faster character movement but obviously makes the player more vulnerable.
New to the expansion pack is weapon and equipment progression. In other words, you don't get all of these weapons and gadgets at once. Now, you have to put a little time in and earn them. Each new mission comes with a new weapon or gadget that is best suited for the trouble ahead. Once you have that weapon it is yours to keep. You can equip it and take it into any of the new missions or even go back and replay the previous levels from the expansion pack or the original game.
GS: What environments are planned for the missions in the expansion? The core game already took us to several gritty, mostly urban locales, like offices, houses, a garage, a convenience store, and others. Will these new levels perhaps be larger than the existing levels? And will we see any graphical enhancements in the expansion, and will these carry over to the core game?
PP: The expansion pack uses the same modified version of Unreal 2 that the original SWAT 4 uses and brings with it all the innovations that Irrational Games added, like normal mapping.
The Stetchkov Syndicate takes place in the same city as before, so we stayed with the urban look but added all new locations. Irrational does grim and gritty very well and you will see that same attention to detail in all of the new levels, like the drug lab and the halfway house. Some levels, like the subway, were designed to be much larger in order to take advantage of the new weapons like the Colt accurized rifle and the grenade launcher.
GS: Can you explain the new smash-and-grab multiplayer mode? We know that it's a competitive mode that lets you go head-to-head against other players, but what are the rules and what is the goal?
PP: Smash-and-grab is kind of a variation on our popular VIP mode. The primary objective of the suspects is to grab a suitcase that will spawn in a random location within the level. They must carry it to an exit point within an allotted amount of time. The player carrying the briefcase will not be allowed to utilize primary weapons and will be forced to move no faster than the walk speed. The rest of the suspects must cover him and make sure that he gets to the exit point.
The primary objective of the SWAT officers, of course, is to prevent the suspects from getting the suitcase to the exit point. While it is possible to stop the suspects with the briefcase by killing them, it is more advantageous to arrest them. Not only will it humiliate the suspects, but each arrest will take 30 seconds off the time remaining.
The test team is having some serious fun with smash-and-grab, especially with the built-in VOIP. I can honestly say this looks to be the best mode we've had yet!
GS: On the flip side, it sounds like the number of players in cooperative multiplayer missions will be increased to 10, which suggests that the levels will have a lot more bad guys to cope with the large numbers. Is this the case, or will the game adjust to the number of players who are online? Also, will players be able to take on existing missions from the original game with up to 10 players in co-op, or would that be too unbalanced?
PP: Ten players in co-op really is twice the fun. You can decide to split the team into two groups of five and enter at different entry points, or you can take all 10 through the front door.
To address the question of difficulty we have expanded the quick-mission maker to include co-op. Until now, the quick-mission maker was only available for solo, single-player missions. With the new quick-mission maker, players can now chat together before a mission and change variables, like how many enemies and civilians are in a mission, what kind of weapons the enemies have, which objectives are available, and more. This provides almost limitless replayability of all the missions, including those from the original SWAT 4.
GS: Finally, is there a theme or a goal for the expansion, other than simply providing new content to SWAT 4? For example, will this be a "tougher" set of missions geared for veteran players, or an expansion to emphasize some facet of gameplay, such as co-op? If so, how will this emphasis be carried out?
PP: The game will be tougher. As with any expansion pack, the game has to start at a level close to where the previous one left off.
By and large, we wanted to make sure that we offered enough new content and cool new features to make fans happy (including all of us making the game). Too many times an expansion pack is just a few more missions and maybe a new gun or two, and it winds up being disappointing. That's not the case with our expansion pack. Besides all of the things already mentioned, there is a whole host of things that I haven't even touched on, such as new artificial intelligence behaviors that have people grabbing a gun if you don't cuff them right away. There is a new command that gives you the ability to stack and simultaneously execute orders for both red and blue teams. And melee combat is now available to get people to comply. In terms of technical improvements, there are improvements to the server browser, as well as stats and ladder tracking.
If we focused on one theme, it was to "make the game fun." I believe The Stetchkov Syndicate is a lot of fun and I hope that all of you that buy it when it comes out early next year think so, too.
GS: Thank you.