GAMING GREATS #6: SWAT 4 & “The Stetchkov Syndicate” (2005)

Who made it?: Irrational Games (Developer), Vivendi Universal Games/Sierra Entertainment (Publisher).

Genre: First-Person Shooter.

Platform: PC.

Format: CD-ROM.

Release date: 8th April 2005 (UK).

I’ll admit it – very few FPS games flick my switches. I’m not saying there aren’t any good examples, but most of them are lacklustre war games like Call of Duty, Halo and Battlefield. I’m not saying the mechanics are flawed, or that the games aren’t stunning to look at, nor am I saying that they don’t provide great online multiplayer. It’s just that most of these titles have crap single player campaigns. Out of all the popular war sims, Halo is the most original, despite its fetish for macho space marines. Halo has a compelling story and some cool weapons and vehicles. The Hollywood-style action sequences bordering on a Michael Bay film are impressive and heart-pounding, but then they usually are in this day and age.

I feel like every Call of Duty, Medal of Honour and Battlefield has been the same old shit. There’s no fun like we used to have in first-person games. The last time I had fun was the exception to Battlefield’s same old – Bad Company. All these games are boring repetitive shooters with no intriguing campaigns and are now solely centred on the online multiplayer experience, in which I, a veteran of the single player and split-screen multiplayer days, am completely alienated. There’s no choice in matters and I don’t even think you can split off from the mission, go rogue and join the enemy forces. All you can do is go around killing people. Maybe I’m just jaded after playing Resident Evil 4 52 times? Also, that “auto health recovery” is the bane of my game-playing existence. Where’s the skill in that?

Anyway, it’s these elements that put me off the genre. Again, there are exceptions such as Duke Nukem 3DSystem Shock, BioshockHalf-LifePortalNazi Zombies (yes a COD mini-game is more fun than the actual game), and SWAT 4. The latter is one of the unsung heroes of the FPS catalogue and one they should really bring back.

SWAT 4 is one of those half-forgotten gems; its graphics weren’t that great for the time, and it wasn’t a Call of Duty/Medal of Honour clone either. It was instead more of an answer to Rainbow Six, a series which I’ve had little contact with ever since the first one on the PlayStation made me puke at the terrible visuals, which were a serious downgrade from the PC release. The title was released in 2004 as a squad-based FPS strategy game. The player took control of a leader of a SWAT team consisting of Red Team and Blue Team (combined to make Gold Team), along with two snipers who you could take full control of making you feel like that SWAT team member who says “take the shot” in all those action films. The player would be given missions increasing in difficulty that would connect together through a loosely threaded plot.

Locations were extremely varied, and dare I say unique and exciting? Admittedly the unique ones were way too short, but they were cool enough for you to enjoy thoroughly.  They ranged from a Chinese restaurant to a creepy suburban house that slowly turned into a scene from the film Se7en, all the way to storming a hospital under siege from North Korean terrorists attempting to assassinate a South Korean diplomat.

These campaigns were completely customisable so that you could make your own missions, mixing things up a little. As well as online multiplayer for those who enjoy that kind of thing.

The awesome thing about SWAT4 is that you actually felt like you were part of a team, and the more time you spent with your team, the more you assigned personalities to your comrades, and the more you felt like they were your real workmates and you were really taking out hostiles in these environments.

Also, the game made you more excited about arresting criminals rather than killing them. The reward of taking down a crook by-the-book, without taking damage to yourself or your team-mates, is both challenging and exhilarating. Adrenalin pumps through your body as you lob a flash-bang and storm a room – yelling “Stop! Police!” – or unloading a bean-bag, or a taser round into the head of an armed thug. Far better than going in there just to kill the guy, although people used to just shooting and asking questions later WILL be penalised by the Chief of Police, and points will be deducted from your final score. Remember it’s illegal for an officer of the law to use lethal force unless a suspect is aiming a weapon at a hostage or an officer of the law, and you must also give prior warning. Which means you could be seriously injured or worse by carrying a lethal weapon. With nonlethals you can just enter a room and electrocute that sucker without warning.

On another note, the amount of control over your team-mates was pretty nifty: you can control your team in one go, or control the team separately, taking Red or Blue with you, and give orders to both through head-mounted cameras. This can be handy if you want to clear both sides of a room quickly.

Your primary weapons range from multiple SMGs, assault rifles and shotguns, as well as various ammunition (hollow-point and full metal jacket for rifles and handguns, slug and buck-shot for shotguns). On the non-lethal side, you get a bean-bag shotgun and a CS-Gas paint ball (awesome). Side-arms consist of a taser gun requiring a reload after every shot, and two types of handgun. These get you ready for any encounter.

On the tactical side of things, you had your grenades (flash-bang, CS-Gas and the Stinger aka rubber balls), an opti-wand (fibre-optic wand) for looking under doors and around corners, door wedges to stop criminals from escaping, and pepper spray – for those pesky hostages that just won’t do as they’re told. Oh and for tied-up criminals that mouth back. Hey, police brutality? This is a true SWAT simulator! You also get a breaching shotgun for a quick route through doors, or send a guy flying across the room unconscious with a handy charge of C2 explosive. Maybe not the gentlemanly thing to do, but it’s hilarious.

The one thing most FPS players won’t enjoy is that the game actually gives consequences to injuries. Instead of just spraying red blood around your face that slowly gets wiped away, SWAT 4 gives consequential injuries to the arms, chest, head and legs. If your legs get damaged you’re going to be slowed down, as you’re practically dragging along your shredded leg(s) wondering why you haven’t just collapsed with agony, but hey, you’re tough right? Or say you get shot in the arm… well your aim is going to be all over the place! Shot in the head? Hopefully that bullet got lodged in your Kevlar helmet and is just going to affect your aim slightly due to the disorientation, instead of traveling into your brain and just plain out killing you.

No, auto-recovery isn’t here my friend – you actually feel the danger around every corner, unlike modern titles in which you feel fine taking on twenty bad guys in one room so long as you’ve got some cover.

It isn’t all happiness and sunshine though. I do feel that the game has one fault that I cannot ignore, and it is highlighted in Noah Antwiler’s (The Spoony One) playthough of the game. It is the constant fact that your team-mates are always telling you that you’re in their way, leading you to pump your fellow officer with a full clip of lead – with fatal consequences for not only Officer Reynolds but you, as your team call you out as a rogue cop and violently murder you. Still worth doing once I guess, if only to relieve frustration at your childish comrades who seem to prioritise childish matters such as who is in whose spot over securing an area of armed psychopathic criminals.

Oh and some of your cop buddies can be absolute idiots: they’ll drop a flashbang or a stinger grenade at their feet rather than in a room, leaving you blinded and/or unable to move for a few seconds which could mean success or failure in some situations.

I should also mention the expansion pack, titled “The Stetchkov Syndicate,” which manages to feed your hunger for some extra missions and maps, along with some improved enemy AI. Enemies not only “fake out,” dropping their weapons like before, but they also attempt to pick up their guns if they are not handcuffed or you and your team-mates have their backs turned. This brings an added touch of realism.

On the police side of things you have a new arsenal that is unlocked as you slowly progress through the stages, from new weapons to ammo pouches and night-vision goggles. These provide you with some new ways of experiencing SWAT 4, even allowing you to take these weapons and items into missions found in the original game! Oh and did I mention you can punch criminals, pesky hostages, and heck even your own team-mates now? There’s even hand tasing in the expansion.

The graphics and lighting were upgraded slightly. While not a major improvement, it is a noticeable improvement, especially if you replay old levels with the new graphical settings.

The Original:

Gameplay:  A refreshing game that makes you think first before acting. The only true downside is the “you’re in my way sir” comments and some idiotic teammates on occasion. It’s a breath of fresh air and an antidote to Call of Duty for sure.  8/10.

Graphics: The graphics weren’t all that great even for 2004, but they do their job and don’t make you want to remove your eyeballs. Everything looks like it should look. Animations are relatively smooth and the Havok physics engine improves the aesthetics of the game, although SWAT 4 has occasional glitches that make everything run in slow-motion. 6/10.

Story: It’s pretty barebones with the main effort going into mission briefings. But the game doesn’t mess around with cut-scenes, which for this type of game would have been terrible. So despite the lack of story, this game requires its absence to truly shine. Although it could have done with more of your team-mates commenting on the environment. 7.6/10.

Multiplayer: When people are online with a game this old I’m sure it’ll be an enjoyable experience: ?/10.

Expansion

Gameplay: Lots of little changes that make enough difference to give it a 9/10, unfortunately the “you’re in my way sir” problem is still there so it can’t get anywhere above that.

Graphics:  An improvement that pushes the game to a 7/10.

Story: This expansion has a story that almost feels like a television series, with the full extent of the criminal network revealed in a thrilling climax at the Stetchkov hideout. But again the story is absent enough not to get in the way. 8.8/10.

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About Andrew Cooper

Andrew is a screenwriter an freelance journalist. His favourite films range from 'Citizen Kane' all the way to 'Jaws: The Revenge' depending on mood and alcohol consumption. He is a great fan of the video game industry with a wide range of favourites. He also moonlights a s a ninja for hire.
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