SWAT 4 Hands-On - Single-Player
We battle our way through some of the early single-player missions and discover how realistic the action is in this tactical shooter.
The SWAT series has a long and varied history in gaming. The series launched a decade ago as sort of a puzzle-solving simulator with Police Quest: SWAT. It then evolved into a real-time tactical game in 1998's Police Quest: SWAT 2. The following year, the franchise evolved yet again into an excellent first-person shooter with SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle. And after an aborted attempt at another sequel, the series went into hibernation...until now. Irrational Games, developer of last year's Tribes: Vengeance, is now hard at work with SWAT 4, a realistic first-person shooter that emphasizes using real police tactics in order to neutralize a situation. We've been playing around with the early version of the single-player campaign to see how the game is coming together.
In SWAT 4, you'll lead an elite police SWAT team through a variety of real-world missions, from executing high-risk warrants to rescuing hostages, as well as other situations that require more firepower than what a regular police officer carries. But while you'll carry military-style weapons and equipment, as a police officer, you're expected to only use force as a last resort. Your job is to serve and protect the public, and it's always preferable to arrest criminals so that they can face justice rather than just shooting them. This means that if you go in guns blazing like you would in a military shooter, you could very well lose the mission.
The single-player campaign will be fairly easy to get into. After a quick tutorial that will get you up to speed with all the latest SWAT gear, including weapons, non-lethal grenades, breaching charges, and an optical camera that lets you peek around corners, you'll dive into your first mission. At the beginning of each mission, you'll be given a briefing of the tactical situation and some background information on the suspect or suspects, as well as the opportunity to listen to the initial 911 call, if one was made. This can provide valuable information as to what to expect inside. You'll also be given the best available map of the premises (anything from a quick sketch to detailed schematics, depending on the location), as well as a choice of possible entries into the property. For example, you may want to send your team through the front door, or you can try sneaking in through the back. You'll also receive mug shots, sketches, or photos, if they're available of the suspects, as well as any civilians known to be inside, though in some situations that information is unknown and unavailable.
After the briefing, you will be able to select your team and equipment. You'll lead a five-man SWAT team, made up of you and a couple of two-man elements. Each man will carry a primary and secondary weapon, tactical gear, such as flashbang grenades, gas grenades, and door wedges (to jam a door shut), and breaching charges. Generally, each man in an assault team carries out a specific role. Assaulters carry the heaviest weapons, mainly the Colt M4A1 Carbine, whereas close-quarter battle specialists are armed with a compact submachine gun, which is easier to wield in tight spaces. Your breacher will usually carry a tactical shotgun while your scout will carry a silenced weapon, allowing him to quietly take down anyone who might pose a threat. Finally, the team pacifier is armed with non-lethal weapons, such as a pepper-ball gun, which can neutralize threats without killing them. You can also choose from a variety of different ammunition types, which can be important depending on the threat you're facing. The two primary ammo types are jacketed hollow-point rounds, which are useful against unarmored targets, and full-metal jacket rounds, which can penetrate armor. To make things easy for you, there will be a number of saved loadouts that you can select, or you can customize your own loadouts and save them for future missions.
Once your SWAT team is equipped, you'll be dropped into the mission itself. We played through the opening missions of the campaign, and they're about as gritty and real world as they come. The first mission is set in and above a dingy Chinese restaurant. You have to serve a high-risk search warrant and stop a weapons deal from going down. Since there are civilians around, you have to be extra careful to keep the situation under control. While you have complete control over your own character, you can command your team members simply by placing the reticule on an object and holding down the right mouse button. A context-sensitive menu will pop up, and you can use the mouse wheel to scroll through your options; release the mouse button and your team will execute the order. So, if you place the reticule on a door and then click and hold the right mouse button, you can order your team to simply open the door and enter the room. Or you can order them to open, bang, and clear, in which the team will throw a flashbang grenade in first before entering the room, and so on.
Serve and Protect
Since you command two separate elements, you can also split up your team. Simply hit the Tab button and you'll toggle between control of the whole team, the blue element, or the red element. This way, you can tell the red element to clear one room while the blue element clears another. And if you want both elements to storm the same room from different doors, you can order each element to stack at a door. You can then call up a window that displays the helmet cam of the distant element, and by hitting the Caps Lock key, you can take control of that element remotely. Then all you have to do is give the command to both elements, and they'll storm the room from different directions at the same time. This will be useful for situations when you know that there are hostages and suspects. By storming the room from two directions at once, you can increase the odds that the suspects inside will be knocked off balance, allowing you to detain them. The remote window is also useful for seeing what the team sniper is looking at. While the sniper isn't a member of your assault team, he can provide updates on suspicious people if they walk into his view. By hitting Caps Lock, you can take control of the sniper's weapon, which is helpful if you want to make sure you take down the right suspect, though you won't be able to move him or enter the building.
To deal with the first mission at the Chinese restaurant, we deployed one element to cover the alleyway to the side of the restaurant, while we led the other element through the front door. We immediately encountered various patrons and staff workers, and by hitting the action key, we ordered them to get down on their knees so we could cuff them. Standard SWAT procedure is to detain everyone inside a building first, and then figure out if they're innocent later. We quickly encountered trouble, though, when we located one of the suspects and he raised his weapon, despite our commands for him to drop it. In these situations, you'll have justification to open fire, though once again, you'll have to be careful of any civilian bystanders. In this case, we managed to take the suspect out without hitting any of the restaurant staff nearby. We then cleared the rest of the building, arrested the other suspect, and located the illegal weapons inside. Our performance was then evaluated, and it turns out that points were deducted for mistakes we had made. We still passed, but it's possible to fail a mission if you use excessive force or if civilians are killed, so you will be penalized if you run-and-gun haphazardly. The game keeps track of your performance at each difficulty level, so you can play a mission again and try to get a higher score. And one thing that we noticed is that the game does randomize the placement of bad guys and innocent bystanders, so even if you're familiar with a level, it has the potential of unfolding a different way every time.
The game's artificial intelligence is fairly strong. Your SWAT team will use appropriate tactics for each situation. Order them to blow open a door, and they'll stack up next to it. One will plant a breaching charge and detonate it. As soon as the door is open, another team member will throw in a flashbang, gas, or stinger grenade, and as soon as that detonates, they'll charge into the room, weapons at the ready. If they see someone, they'll order him or her to get down on the ground with hands in the air. Meanwhile, innocent bystanders present a challenge, as they can panic at the sound of gunfire and get in your way. And suspects can display cunning behavior. If they realize they're outgunned, they may turn and run, which forces you to have to hunt them down.
Like Irrational's last game, Tribes: Vengeance, SWAT 4 is based on the Unreal engine, though it looks like it has been heavily modified to render very detailed and gritty interiors. We battled through run-down houses, dimly lit night clubs, and a convenience store so far. The character models and weapons in the game look great, and the animation is smooth and natural. There are also lots of little details to appreciate, like the way splinters of wood fly through the air after a breaching charge goes off, or the smoke that lingers afterwards. In terms of system requirements, the developers are aiming at a 1GHz CPU and a 32MB GeForce 2 card as the minimum configuration, but if you want to enjoy all the eye candy, you'll need a more powerful machine. With its combination of excellent graphics and tense, realistic gameplay, SWAT 4 looks very sharp at this point, and we're looking forward to playing the final version of the game. We'll keep you up to date with details. Expect SWAT 4 to ship this spring.
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