SWAT 4 came out in 2005, but I didn't give it a try until this last week. Considering it was tactical squad action, by Irrational no less, I should've jumped on it sooner, but in the end it took some buzz on the Games forum to prod me into action. Nicely, it was available on Direct2Drive for 19.99, so I snagged it on the online and revved it up. Let me tell you this: it's a damn good game.

The gameplay can be extremely satisfying. When you mirror under a door, stack up your guys for entry, breach, toss a flashbang, order your squad to clear the room, and end up with half a dozen perps and civvies in cuffs with no officers injured, the feeling of accomplishment is tangible. I played on Hard mode from the start, so I went non-lethal the entire game to give myself the best possible chances at a high score. I never killed a perp the entire game, and it was great to walk through a level near completion and see all the sociopaths in cuffs, ready for a trip down the river. It's something akin to the badass sensation when walking through a room after a huge firefight in, say, Max Payne, with all the dead baddies, bullet holes and blood as evidence of your victory. In SWAT 4, though, the fact that you managed to get everyone out alive, that the enemy is restrained while you're still in control, makes the victory that much more enjoyable. Some of the guys you go up against are psychos who would probably relish being martryed in a blaze of gunfire, and I loved denying them that satisfaction. Sorry bro, you won't be meeting your maker any time soon. Unless your maker resides in Block D of the state double max, that is.

The environmental art and level design was really great, too. It's clear that this game wasn't made using the concept of tiling left over from the old school of 2D games, wherein the art team makes a set of textures and objects labeled "Lab," "Factory," "Office," etc and shuffles them around to fill the space. No, each level in SWAT 4 is clearly created as an individual setting, and boasts little setpieces throughout each. Entire catalogues of knick-knacks and detritus was created for the auto repair shop, the convenience store, the cultist hideout, the software developers' offices, the research lab, and so on, and there was hardly any overlap between each level. There were effects and textures that were used once and only once, such as the single spot in the hotel level where the sprinkler system had been triggered, or the one room in the tenement level that had been burned out and all the surfaces were varying states of blackened ash, or the halloween decorations and lawn ornaments found outside the suburban house, or the cars in the mechanic's garage that had been broken in to, or the helicopter that hovered outside the hotel's construction zone, and on and on. The sheer volume of visual content in each environment really amazed me, and gave me the feeling of spaces truly lived in and occupied before my team arrived. How could SWAT 4, a PC-only game by Irrational, have the time and buget to create so many great and unique environments? Really incredible.

The level design is excellent too, and fits perfectly with the central conceits of the game's design. Each time one plays a mission in SWAT 4, the locations of the perps and civilians are randomized, the player can choose from multiple entry points, and any combination of equipment. Complementing the open-endedness of the game's various elements, the levels themselves also offer a huge variety of paths through which to navigate and clear the space. Almost all rooms have at least two exits, and there are always multiple sets of ramps or stairs with which to ascend or descend floors. As I became familiar with a particular level, I would begin to decide on paths that I found to be more effective, but movement in any direction was an option at any time. Clear from top to bottom? Bottom to top? Through the second floor conference rooms, down into the lobby, through the security center, to the basement to clear the vault, back up to the first floor to clear the teller's booths, upstairs to clear the executive suites, then finally a sweep of the first floor cubicles? Sure. Methodical, impulsive, backwards or forwards, the player's avenues through each space is entirely up to them. It's great.

The single player game can get frustrating, though, and quickly. Frankly, your squad is very effective half the time, and pretty damn stupid the other half. They will walk into the line of fire after one of their own has been cut down, clunk flashbangs off the back of their squadmate's head, blindly charge into the far end of a room that hasn't been gassed yet, blindly open and walk through unchecked doors when you tell them to fall back because it's the shortest route to the player, walk in front of windows that hostile bullets have clearly been flying through, during an open and clear will stand right in front of a door that's being covered by a gunner on the opposite side even though the door's been mirrored and they should know where the shooters are, passively wait for an armed, staggered suspect to recover so they can get shot, and just generally be much too eager to dive into the middle of an open room filled with gun-wielding maniacs. I spent most of the single player campaign learning how to get around the failings of the AI. When the player basically has to learn your AI system and figure out ways to fix it, you've got a problem. About half the time you can't simply order a Sting & Clear command because your squad will open the door right into the line of fire and get wasted, or will drop the sting about seven inches inside the doorframe and completely fail to subdue anyone in the room. When I have to manually pull my squad back, open the door myself, toss a grenade myself, and then order the squad to move and clear, losing valuable time while any stunned enemies recover, your squad AI is not working effectively. When I have to personally plug half the enemies with beanbag rounds because otherwise my squad will just stand there and wait for them to recover before subduing them, your squad AI is not working effectively. I loved the squad when they were helping me out. I hated them when I had to babysit. The fact that each downed squadmate only costs you 2 points out of 100 on your final mission score indicates that the designers realized just how common downed squadmates were. When losing a squadmate costs me 2 points, and unauthorized use of deadly force on an armed suspect costs me 10, I know the system's got a problem.

One of my main fixes for the SWAT 4 system would be a command that set the aggressiveness of your squad. I can understand my squad being hesitant to shoot a suspect when the squaddie in question is wielding an assault rifle-- killing a suspect without definite justification is a serious charge. But my squad seemed to follow the same over-cautious aversion to firing even when wielding the non-lethal beanbag shotgun. There are no points deducted for hitting an armed suspect, or an unarmed suspect or civilian for that matter, with the beanbag shotgun. I can't tell you how many times one of my squaddies went down because they hesitated to fire a beanbag at a guy until he was already pointing a gun at them. Personally, as soon as I saw any armed suspect, hostile or not, I would yell for submission while simultaneously hitting them with a beanbag round. No penalty, and now I'm in control of the situation. If they didn't go into the 'dropping gun' animation immediately, I'd hit them with more bags until they did. If I let them get the drop on me like my teammates did, I would have died... well, as many times as they did.

This is where aggressiveness settings come in. If I could have told my squad, all armed with non-lethal weaponry, to "Shoot on Sight," their survival rate would have been much, much higher. Every potentially dangerous suspect would have been hit and stunned as soon as they were spotted, giving my squad the upper hand. This would also be of use to players who simply want to clear a level as quickly as possible. Telling their assault rifle-equipped squad to Shoot on Sight would essentially make you a SWAT hitsquad, which could be incredibly amusing. Similarly, maybe a player wants to basically go solo, but keep the squad with him as pack mules to carry grenades and help tie people down. The "Hold All Fire" command would keep your squaddies from firing anything at anyone unless under direct order from the player. "Shoot on Sight," "At Your Discretion" (the standard procedure used in the game,) and "Hold All Fire" commands would have made my SWAT experience go so much more smoothly.

Along these lines, my squaddies would sometimes refuse to follow my orders if they were "in the middle of something" at the time. Sometimes this succeeded in getting them killed. For instance, say there is a stunned perp who's still holding onto his weapon. I have emptied my shotgun of beanbag ammo, so while I'm reloading I tell my squad to hit the perp with a taser. My squad replies they are busy--busy covering and yelling at the armed suspect, that is-- and refuses the order. Meanwhile, the suspect recovers from being stunned and shoots half my squad.

I expect my squad to give my direct orders top priority. If I tell my squad to toss a grenade into the far corner of the room, I want them to hop to it even if their AI thinks they have something more important to deal with. I decide what's most important to deal with, damn it, and if my orders do get my squad killed, then at least it's my own fault. SWAT 4 needs Drop Everything command structure. If there are armed suspects staggering around, and I tell my squad to toss a grenade into the next room, they need to drop everything and go grenade that room, not stand around staring at some dizzy suspects for no reason. When the squad hears the player's voice, they need to Drop Everything and follow that order.

The biggest change comes last. I think that SWAT 4 would benefit greatly from the addition of a Pause & Direct interface. There were times, during an intense encounter, when opening and navigating the command interface cost me too much time and got my squad killed. When I see a hostile recovering from stun, and I want my guys to hit him with a taser, I have to open the command window, scroll to Deploy..., scroll to Taser, and confirm. What does this delay simulate? My character stuttering? I knew what I wanted to tell my squad approximately three seconds before my character gave the order, which in a dangerous encounter can be the difference between mission success and mission failure. The player should have the option in the game settings to have the game pause each time they open the command window, and there should be a separate button to pause at will. While paused, the player can do absolutely nothing but access the command interface, and the last command chosen before unpausing is issued immediately upon exiting pause state. While giving commands in realtime usually worked, there were times that the clumsiness of the interface got me killed, which is never a good thing.

Failure should always be the fault of the player, never the game. I felt that the AI's passiveness against hostile targets, occasional refusal to comply with my orders, and inability to take all commands instantly, caused me to repeatedly fail because of faults in the game's design, as opposed to faults in my input. I believe my proposed changes would iron out the kinks in the SWAT 4 experience, and turn it from a game I was impressed with, had lots of fun with, and frustrated me time and time again, to a game that was a complete joy to play from start to finish.

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