Last year, SWAT 4 quietly established itself as the preeminent tactical shooter on the PC. It was a beautifully executed game that effectively captured the tense and stressful job of being an elite police officer. The newly released Stetchkov Syndicate expansion pack builds off of that solid foundation, offering more difficult scenarios, thanks to more aggressive and unpredictable artificial intelligence. You'll also find the expected array of additional weapons, a new multiplayer mode, and cooperative play for up to 10 players this time.
If you're reading this review, you're probably already familiar with SWAT 4, as The Stetchkov Syndicate requires the original game to play. For those who aren't familiar with the game, the primary difference between SWAT 4 and other tactical shooters is that you're required to protect life (including the lives of suspects) as much as possible. You're awarded the most points for arresting suspects without severely injuring them, and you're penalized big points for unauthorized use of deadly force. Just like a real police officer, you must use careful judgment about firing your weapons. The basic gameplay in The Stetchkov Syndicate doesn't differ much from the original game. You are still the commander of a five-man squad, with your four subordinates split into two pairs. You'll use fiber-optic cameras to peek under doors and around corners, bust into doors with breaching charges, and toss nonlethal grenades into rooms to stun suspects as you try to arrest them.
The Stetchkov Syndicate gives you a few new tricks to take into the field in the form of new weapons and tactics. Over the course of the campaign, you'll unlock a variety of new equipment. New guns include a submachine gun modeled after the real-life FN-P90, a Colt accurized rifle, a grenade launcher, and even a stun gun with two shots and longer range than the Taser from the original game. You'll also be able to deploy glow sticks to mark off rooms that you've cleared, as well as use night-vision goggles. Suspects can arm themselves with a light machine gun, a new machine pistol, or even a .50 caliber handgun. The expansion pack now lets you issue delayed orders, much like in Rainbow Six. This is useful for rooms with multiple entry points, as it lets you stack your four-man element on one door and issue a go code while you break into the other door. You can even split your element into pairs and have them each break into a separate door at the same time. There's also a new punch command that you can use to subdue stubborn civilians or suspects into being zip-cuffed. This is actually useful, because if you ran out of nonlethal munitions in the original SWAT 4, you were sometimes required to shoot civilians in the leg in order to get them to submit.
You'll need all these new tricks, as the suspects in The Stetchkov Syndicate seem to be more aggressive and unpredictable than ever. You'll have to use overwhelming shock, such as a well-tossed flashbang or a hail of pepper balls from an air gun in order to get these suspects to submit. Some even require you to follow up all that with a shock from a stun gun before they'll drop their weapons. Suspects are also more apt than in the original game to run away into other rooms or charge into the room that you're in. This makes things more tense and requires you to pay closer attention to the blueprints of the building, so you can deploy door wedges at key exits to manage the movement of suspects. As you can imagine, The Stetchkov Syndicate's missions can be difficult at times, but since there are only seven missions in the campaign, experienced players should fly through it in a few hours. It's still a fun ride while it lasts though, and you'll do everything from the usual high-risk arrest warrants in drug labs to disarming bombs and rescuing hostages in a government office. The missions are also just as replayable as in the original game, since suspects and hostages don't spawn in the same places every time you load a mission.
The Stetchkov Syndicate adds additional value in the multiplayer area, with a new game type called smash and grab. In this mode, suspects square off against SWAT members as they try to pick up and move a briefcase from one area to another specific area before a timer runs out. The SWAT team tries to prevent this by killing or arresting suspects. Arrests will knock off a big chunk of time from the game timer. This new team-based game type is pretty interesting, but cooperative play is still the heart of SWAT 4 multiplayer. This time, around up to 10 people can participate in a co-op game over LAN or online, and you can design your own quick missions for co-op play based on any of the seven expansion pack maps or the original SWAT 4 maps. Built-in voice over IP support makes coordination even easier. Online play is acceptably smooth, but reported network latencies are still higher than we'd like them to be. Our other primary complaint is that suspects' skins look far too similar to the SWAT members' skins, so accidental team kills are more common than they should be, at least until you get used to looking for the subtle differences. Those are just minor complaints, though, as multiplayer Stetchkov Syndicate is pretty solid.
The Stetchkov Syndicate, like its predecessor, looks and sounds great. The lighting and shadows are well done, requiring you to use tactical lights or night-vision goggles in a lot of areas. The character models look really detailed as well--at least those who are wearing tactical vests, as they have all kinds of grenades, weapons, and accoutrements hanging off of them. The only problem comes when the bullets start flying, and that's when the frame rate takes a noticeable nosedive on midrange systems. The frame rate problem is noticeably worse in single-player than it is in multiplayer, but it's still quite playable. There are also excellent sound effects for weapons, and the voice acting is pretty impactful when you're yelling at suspects or civilians to surrender. Dynamic music spools up when the gunfire starts or when a grenade goes off. The mixing seems a little more sloppy here than in the original, but it doesn't detract too much from the overall presentation.
If you can't get enough SWAT 4, then The Stetchkov Syndicate should definitely sate your thirst for new content. We do wish there were more than just seven missions, but at just under $20, we can't complain too much about the value. Tougher enemy AI, plus the other additions to the game, make this expansion pack easy to recommend to anyone who loved the original.