Proving that there's room for innovation even in a crowded genre, SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle enters the squad-level combat arena armed to the teeth with unique features and killer gameplay. Though the game suffers from a few design flaws and a complete lack of multiplayer capabilities (at least initially), it still has what it takes to challenge Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear for supremacy.
Set in Los Angeles of 2005, the game puts you in command of a SWAT team faced with mounting terrorist activity. It seems that every insurgent group worth its salt has come to LA to stir up trouble during the days preceding the signing of the historical Nuclear Abolishment Treaty. Your job, over the course of 16 missions, is to root out these radical elements, protect the civilians and dignitaries who stumble into their path, and bring your team back in one piece.
The gameplay is unique among squad-level games in that you command your troops on the fly and not just from tactical maps. While the Spec Ops games offer this feature, in SWAT 3 it actually works well and is absolutely essential for mission success. As each crisis arises, you are given a thorough rundown of the situation from Metro command. The location, any hostages, and expected opposition are all outlined in the game's excellent briefing screens. You can check to see what each notable enemy and hostage looks like so that you shoot and protect the appropriate people when the time comes. There's even a timetable of terrorist demands for some of the time-critical missions.
After your briefing, you select appropriate gear for yourself and your team. The weapon selection is limited but more than sufficient. Each trooper in your unit is equipped with tons of extra equipment, like CS gas canisters, flashbangs, all-in-one "toolkits" (which are handy for unlocking doors and disarming explosives), and an Opti-Wand. The Opti-Wand is a tiny mirror on the end of a 48-inch stick and is particularly cool because it lets you see around corners and into rooms before entering. Each trooper also has a hefty supply of handcuffs, which you'll need on every single mission.
That's because SWAT 3 isn't just about taking the bad guys down. More often than not, you can coax the perpetrators into surrendering, at which point you must cuff them and radio in for your backup forces to come pick them up. In fact, you must do this frequently; since you can't always tell who's an enemy and who's not, you typically have to cuff and cart off everyone you encounter. Of course, this is for your protection as well as theirs, and it adds a unique element to the gameplay.
The only problem with the cuff-and-cart requirement is that, as the squad leader, you must personally radio in every single pickup request. Even if you kill or arrest every bad guy on a given level, your mission is still not done until you radio in a pickup request for every single living perp. While having to do this is probably realistic in some sense, it can become overwhelming on the later, far more chaotic levels, especially because you need to radio in all the requests yourself.
It's little problems like these that collectively keep SWAT 3 from being the hands-down champion in the squad-level action genre. However, it has bigger problems, like a complete lack of multiplayer support. Sierra claims that a multiplayer add-on is coming very soon, but it's almost unthinkable that the game could have been brought to market without it. The holiday buying season is undoubtedly responsible, which is too bad because SWAT 3 is one game that begs for a multiplayer option.Even so, SWAT 3 has plenty of good points that help compensate for the omission of multiplayer support. For instance, the graphics are spectacular and arguably the best in the genre. Character models are incredibly lifelike and even have eyes that blink and dart left and right. The motion-captured movements are similarly realistic, and the textures are outstanding. Each level in the game is equally well rendered. Environments like the church, bank, and convention center are amazingly detailed - and daunting, because they have tons of doorways, rooms, and objects for terrorists to hide behind. For sheer immersion, SWAT 3 clearly has the competition beaten.
The game's interface is also excellent; it has a transparent inventory overlay that lets you select a new SWAT toy without ever taking your eyes off the action. You can easily order your squad members with an unobtrusive menu that sits neatly in the upper corner of the screen. Even better, you direct each order with your reticle. In other words, if you want a team to breach and flashbang a room, you point at the doorway and issue the command. The interface and command system gives you near-total control of your troops, even in the heat of battle.
But SWAT 3's most impressive feature has to be the amazing artificial intelligence employed by friend and foe alike. The terrorists in the game are a formidable bunch who react to all manner of situations. Some will come running at the sound of gunfire, while others will go look for help. Others will investigate blood spots on the floor or opened doors - but each acts differently from the rest. The same goes for your squadmates, who act according to their uniquely predefined personality setting. Some will rush headlong into danger, while others will proceed with caution. And regardless of their style or orders, the computer-controlled troopers in SWAT 3 are easily the best and most effective teammates you could ever hope to have on your side. They carry out your orders efficiently and oftentimes better than you could. You'll still see the occasional logjam on stairways in this game, but nothing that halts gameplay for very long and certainly no mission-ending catastrophes caused by bad pathfinding.
Unfortunately, the game has a bad tendency to loop audio, mostly on quips coming from cuffed bad guys. It can be incredibly annoying, and it often takes extreme restraint not to put a virtual bullet in these perps' chatty little heads. The audio also falters when you have to make numerous reports in a short span of time. For example, on one level you must rescue a number of hostages in a TV studio. If you radio in too many reports too quickly, you'll hear a stuttering, overlapping barrage of acknowledgements in reply. And unlike in Rogue Spear, you automatically fail your mission if you die - you cannot switch to your next squadmate. Even if that's realistic, it can be frustrating on the larger levels when the very last terrorist gets a bead on you before you can squeeze off a round.
However, even with its minor failings, SWAT 3 is impressive. It's a crying shame that it shipped without multiplayer support - and it would be a bigger shame if Sierra adds that support later at an additional cost - but the game that did make it to store shelves is a very good one.