SWAT 4 Preview - First Look at Gameplay, Graphics, Mission Building

Join us for an exclusive look at the next SWAT tactical action game from Irrational.

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Tactical shooters, which attempt to realistically model weapons and squad tactics, are only for those crazy military-weapons enthusiasts who subscribe to Soldier of Fortune magazine, right? Not at all. Thanks to new games on the PC and consoles, the tactical shooter has become more accessible and a lot more popular. And Irrational has every intention of keeping things that way with SWAT 4, the next game in Sierra's classic squad-based police action series. We recently had a chance to take an exclusive look at this promising game and have much to report.

SWAT 4 takes place in the gritty confines of a fictitious American city.
SWAT 4 takes place in the gritty confines of a fictitious American city.

Let's get this out of the way first: SWAT 4 won't be a story-driven game that follows the careers of a few doe-eyed rookies as they gradually get more hard-boiled and eventually become too old for this kind of thing. Yes, the game will have a career mode--its four primary play modes will be career, training, instant action, and quick missions--but it won't follow a story so much as put you through a series of varied and increasingly challenging missions. Like in the previous games, you'll receive a before-mission briefing and use an equipment screen to arm your squad and choose your points of entry (all missions will offer at least two points of entry, if not more). You'll also choose your team's weapons loadout from a selection of the finest modern-day firearms, including assault rifles, submachine guns, and many varieties of sidearm.

SWAT 4 will realistically simulate bullet ballistics, tracking each round as it emerges from the muzzle of a gun, travels outward, and strikes its target. The game will also use the Havok physics engine to model its objects, so you can expect to see environments where "cover" isn't really cover. The game will physically model the thickness and density of environmental objects, so glass bottles will shatter and office chairs will teeter and then collapse when shot, and hiding behind sheet metal when a perp has an AK-47 trained on you will be a good way to add some extra holes to your body. With this in mind, you may want to consider taking full-metal jacket ammo in favor of jacketed hollow-point ammo if you know you'll be up against armored opponents or in enclosed areas with hard surfaces. Fortunately, SWAT 4 currently doesn't model bullet ricochet. Irrational currently feels that realistically modeling ricochet in enclosed spaces would cause many players to accidentally injure their own characters and their teammates, or even accidentally take down enemies--and the developer would prefer that all kills be made with skill, rather than subject players to the frustrating possibility of losing a teammate, or a mission, as the result of a random glancing shot.

You'll also be able to carry a number of miscellaneous items with you, and different character classes will have certain equipment and abilities by default--for instance, demolitions experts will come equipped with charges for blowing open locked doors. You'll even be able to use wire and helmet cameras that have picture-in-picture displays in real time. Since you'll play as an officer in a four-man police squad (known as an "element"), you can actually split your element into two groups, hook both groups up with a helmet camera, and then direct the entire mission from a stationary spot, simply using the cameras to give orders.

If you like, you'll be able to adjust the game's difficulty settings to include more-stringent victory conditions, like being able to win only if no officers are wounded. But unlike in other tactical shooters, there won't be any focus on character abilities or advancement (so you won't be babysitting the one character who will just barely gain enough experience points or prestige to advance a rank, get access to better weapons, or whatever). You'll instead focus entirely on the missions at hand with the officers you're assigned, spending all your prep time getting your weapon loadouts and entry point right. Interestingly, though the game's career mode will have about 14 substantial missions, its quick mission mode will let you edit existing maps by placing additional enemies and hostages in them and changing the difficulty and victory settings. Irrational expects that these edited maps, along with the game's cooperative online multiplayer modes, will really help give the game longevity, especially since you'll be able to lay out a mission however you like and then save it and trade it with your friends.

As befits the game's urban setting, there are plenty of dark passages and interiors to clear.
As befits the game's urban setting, there are plenty of dark passages and interiors to clear.

Irrational is also adding an all-new, highly streamlined, and completely optional context-sensitive interface. This is in addition to the classic SWAT 3 interface, which was extremely flexible but was found to be overwhelming by many beginners. Newer players will be able to take advantage of the all-new interface, which automatically pulls up a context-sensitive command based on what you're pointing your weapon crosshairs at. For instance, if you point your weapon at a door, the default action "open door" will appear onscreen, and you can simply press the space bar to order your team to execute the command. You can also right-click any environmental objects to pull up a menu with even more options, so, for example, locked doors can be knocked down, blasted with charges, pried open with wedges, or worked on with a lock pick, among other things.

Cover Me

Irrational is being very meticulous about tactical maneuvers like breaching doors in SWAT 4 because of how critically important and carefully choreographed they are in real-life police work. Tactical shooters have always offered the intriguing prospect of leading a squad of autonomous teammates into battle, but many of them have come up short in artificial intelligence. In previous games, instead of carefully sneaking through corridors, teammates get stuck on walls, and instead of standing clear of doors that are being opened, they stand right in front and get shot by enemies lying in wait. The developer has very carefully coded specific AI routines to make sure your buddies actually take their proper places around a closed door while preparing to open it. We watched several door breaches in action, and in all cases the team stayed smart and out of harm's way.

The AI will use appropriate caution and tactics when dealing with doors.
The AI will use appropriate caution and tactics when dealing with doors.

Similarly, you'll also be able to use the real-world tactic of calling on snipers, who will arrive at the scene before you do and set up in strategic points. While you can't move the snipers around or actually play as them (or carry a sniper rifle into a mission yourself), you'll have the option of calling snipers to fire on any perps who wander into their crosshairs. You'll also be able to temporarily take control of any stationary sniper guns you come across to pick off any exposed enemies.

We had a chance to see two different missions in action. One mission took place in a cramped apartment occupied by armed thugs. After carefully scouting out the garage using the enhanced Opti-1 camera (which lets you see around corners), we watched as a squad made its way through the dim corridors, blew open doors, and exchanged fire with hostiles in brutal, staccato firefights.

The other mission took place at night in the suburbs, and required the squad to enter the home of a suspected kidnapper, around whose house coeds had been disappearing. We watched the squad rough up the suspect's mother, an old woman in curlers, demanding a peaceful surrender (all enemies will have a morale rating--the higher the rating, the less likely they'll surrender) and then eventually pulling out the old Taser to put grandma down. Utilizing excessive police force on civilians will detract greatly from your final mission score, and using lethal force on civilians will usually cause you to fail a mission outright.

The squad then descended down a stairway, past a scratchy radio that blasted the voice of a sobbing woman--the mother of the most recently disappeared college girl--unnervingly throughout the room. The perp was waiting in the dank basement with a shotgun, but the SWAT team was able to get the drop on him and free the coed, who was tied up. This particular criminal apparently liked making plaster casts of his victim's faces and bodies before disposing of them, and just as the mission wraps up, the squad members look around the basement and express their disgust at the rows and rows of plaster masks, the stacks of crinkled photographs, and the old newspapers strung up on the walls.

Irrational is trying to up the ante on great-looking graphics by not only using the latest graphics technology, but also by focusing more on artistic features and specific choices for locales. As general manager Ken Levine puts it, SWAT 4 will "attempt to create mood," working to foster the sort of tension that characterizes thrilling cop movies like Se7en. This emphasis will take the form of dynamic lighting and weather effects--according to Levine, it'll never be a nice day in SWAT 4. You'll be fighting through rainstorms outside and dimly lit passages inside. And unlike tactical shooters that try to re-create the international flavor of a novel by Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton, the game won't take place in Rome, Paris, Shanghai, or any other exotic locale. Instead, many of SWAT 4's missions will take place in what art director Nate Wells describes as "nasty, run-down, Euro-trashy locations"--bleak, densely packed urban and suburban locales that will hopefully help communicate the gritty realities of close-quarters combat when you're that thin blue line. The game itself will take place in a fictitious northeast American city.

The game features excellent graphics, including impressive lighting and shadowing effects.
The game features excellent graphics, including impressive lighting and shadowing effects.

At this point in time, SWAT 4 looks excellent and supports all the major DirectX 9.0 graphical features, including normal mapping, soft shadows, and Pixel Shader 3.0 effects. We watched the game running with all the settings turned up, and nothing seemed to slow down in the least, even when bullets, plywood, and bodies were flying through the air. The game will also feature a dynamic soundtrack that will change depending on whether your team is engaged in battle or is carefully making its way through a level.

Surprisingly, the game is currently in a beta-test state--most of the content is complete, and Irrational is now testing the multiplayer in-house. If the developer can make good on the potential we've seen, then SWAT 4 will be an impressive-looking, accessible, gritty, and action-packed tactical shooter with a mission editor and co-op to boot. The game is scheduled to ship early next year.

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