First-person shooters are generally pretty forgiving in terms of combat. Usually you can take a few rounds and still live, or you've got a generous health bar along with plenty of health packs to pick up along the way. And then you get to SWAT 4, last year's ultra-realistic and highly-challenging first-person shooter. In SWAT 4, not only do you have to worry about one-shot kills, but often you're not supposed to use lethal force unless you absolutely have to, which makes an incredibly dangerous job even more difficult. And that's the appeal to the many fans of SWAT 4--this is a game designed for serious first-person shooter fans. And with the upcoming release of SWAT 4: The Stetchkov Syndicate expansion pack, you can expect even more of the tense, realistic action that you've come to expect.
We've been playing with a near-complete version of Stetchkov Syndicate and checked out many of the new levels and features to be found in the expansion. And we've discovered that the developers at Irrational Games weren't kidding when they said that this was going to be a tougher game. The Stetchkov Syndicate might be thought of as a graduate course for SWAT players, because the emphasis in the expansion is on larger, more challenging levels, along with enemies armed with some serious firepower.
The expansion takes its name from the crime syndicate attempting to get a foothold in the fictional, generic American city of SWAT 4. Being a vast criminal enterprise, the Stetchkovs are flooding the streets with automatic weapons, and drug abuse and crime are on the rise. You once again have to lead your four-man Special Weapons and Tactics team in seven new missions to once again defeat the criminals, rescue the civilians, and save the day. Be warned, though, that this won't be easy.
The levels in Stetchkov Syndicate, we've found, present some pretty difficult tactical challenges for you to overcome. For example, there's a subway station level that's a maze of rooms and tight corridors, as well as wide open platforms that leave you exposed to gunfire. Then there's the Seller Street Auditorium, which is reminiscent of the night club level found in SWAT 4, but it's tougher, as there's a big, multi-level stage area to clear, along with a warren of backrooms, offices, and storage rooms to move through. Or there's the Department of Agriculture level, which features a dimly lit office building that's got a gaping hole in the middle of it that looks like it was caused by an explosion. The hole exposes several floors at once, which means that you can pick off criminals above or below you.
To assist you, there are several new weapons and pieces of equipment that you can draw upon in the expansion, such as night vision goggles and an ammo pouch, which will let you carry more bullets. However, the one new ability that we really like thus far is the melee attack, which is incredibly useful in finally getting those stubborn hostages to get down on their knees so you can restrain them. In SWAT 4, you had to rely upon the rapidly-depleted pepper spray canister or yelling at a civilian until you were hoarse for them to get down (and, in some cases, you had to shoot them in the leg before they got the message). Now all you need to do is punch them a couple of times, and they'll be compliant.
We also like the new "hold" command, which is used to issue a pause with your orders. Basically, you can order an element or the team to enter and clear a room, but now you can tell them to wait until you give the go code. This way, you can position one element at one door to a room, and the second element at another door, and then coordinate a simultaneous takedown of the room from different directions, thus immensely improving your odds of success. All you need to do is hold down the "Ctrl" key while issuing the order, and then tapping the spacebar key to give the go code. There are all sorts of other neat new features you can experiment with in the expansion. There's a "no armor" feature that lets your team members eschew body armor, which means that they'll move a lot faster and be able to pick locks and restrain people quicker, but at the cost of being incredibly vulnerable. At least with body armor, you can absorb a hit or two to the chest before going down.
There have also been some big improvements with multiplayer, though we didn't get a chance to experiment with these as we had no one to play with. Still, the details are enticing. Multiplayer now supports up to 10 players, double the number of SWAT 4. That also means that cooperative mode supports 10 players, so you can have two five-man SWAT teams working in tandem. There are also new multiplayer modes, as well as a co-op quick mission maker, so you can create custom missions on the fly. Voting is now supported in multiplayer, and there is built-in voice-over-IP support, so you can talk with your team in real-time. All you need is a microphone and you're golden.
The Stetchkov Syndicate looks like it's going to be a solid addition to SWAT 4, and it looks like it will challenge you in single-player, as well as provide plenty of variety for multiplayer. So everything looks great, and the game is pretty much in the final polishing stages before it heads out for release in late February or early March.