“POLICE! HANDS IN THE AIR!”
You get to hear that phrase a lot in SWAT 4. You and your squadmates will scream it several dozen times per mission. For once this isn’t because of a very limited number of stock responses a la the Elder Scrolls, and neither is it an amusing audio bug; instead, you want to be announcing your presence as loudly as possible when you enter a room. You want hostages to stay down, you want armed criminals to surrender, and most of all what you don’t want is to shoot a gunman without warning them first, because the SWAT series are the only games I’m aware of that have actual honest-to-god rules of engagement.
“POLICE! ON YOUR KNEES!”
SWAT 4 is a tactical shooter somewhat in the mould of Rainbow Six. It eschews Rainbow’s detailed planning elements for a contextual squad command system that mostly revolves around how and when to go through doors1, but otherwise it’s very similar: both you and the criminals you’re trying to apprehend can be killed by a single bullet, your accuracy is terrible if you’re moving at any pace faster than a shuffling walk and takes several seconds to recover once you slow down, and the enemies have very fast reaction times. The time window between a bank robber raising his gun and a bank robber shooting you dead is probably no more than half a second long, and this can be very awkward because technically you’re not allowed to shoot someone unless they’re pointing their weapons at either you or a hostage.
“POLICE! DOWN ON THE FLOOR, NOW!”
This is the key difference between SWAT and Rainbow. In Rainbow you’re part of a military counter-terrorist team, and as long as the hostages all survive the mission nobody cares what happens to the terrorists – some terrorists will give up and surrender once they see you coming, but you’re never penalised for executing them on the spot. No matter how complex the tactical planning segment is, the rules once you actually get in mission are very simple: there are a bunch of bad guys, and your job is to kill them and not ask them any questions afterwards. In SWAT, however, you’re a police officer leading a squad of police officers, and your job is (at least ostensibly) to preserve life wherever possible. This rather unfortunately includes the heavily-armed criminals, and so busting into a room and popping a cap in a criminal’s skull before he has a chance to react is rather frowned upon by your superiors.
“POLICE! GET DOWN!”
As a result SWAT has a rather unique emphasis on not killing bad guys. At the end of every mission your performance is scored out of a hundred. Passing a mission on Normal requires a score of 50 or more. You get minor deductions for getting shot, or having your squadmates get shot, or not reporting injured hostages, or not policing weapons that the criminals have dropped, but these are only a few points each. Shoot an enemy who wasn’t immediately threatening either yourself or a hostage, though, and you get 5 points deducted from your score. If you kill them (and you almost always kill them given the lethality of SWAT’s weapons) the penalty balloons to 10 points. You have enough latitude on Normal difficulty to accidentally kill a couple of people without following procedure, but on Veteran or Elite (which require 75 and 95 points to pass respectively) it amounts to an almost certain mission fail. And no matter what difficulty you’re on, if you just charge into a room shooting all and sundry you will fail the mission and have to do it all over again.
“POLICE! DROP YOUR WEAPONS!”
So you have to find a way to clear SWAT’s levels while following those restrictive rules of engagement: if an armed criminal is not directly threatening you you can’t shoot them. They don’t have any such qualms, unfortunately, and if you don’t tip the odds in your favour before they catch sight of you they’ll likely kill you stone cold dead before you have a chance to react. You need to take a different approach to combat that usually involves intimidating an enemy into surrendering, and therefore SWAT has a very interesting emphasis on non-lethal shock-and-awe tactics. Say you’ve got your squad lined up outside a locked room. You check under the door with your magical opti-wand and discover that there’s two hostages and two terrorists inside with their guns pointed at the door. If you just pick the lock and walk on in your squad is going to get massacred because the squad AI operates under the same restrictions as you do; they won’t even have time to call out
“POLICE! DROP IT!”
before the terrorists gun them down. However, one of the things you can do before a mission is choose your squad’s equipment loadout, and each squad member has two weapon slots plus a whopping five slots for non-lethal tactical equipment such as flashbangs, CS gas grenades, pepper spray, breaching charges, door wedges (which are far more useful than they sound), and there’s also non-lethal weapon options like tasers and beanbag shotguns. The pre-mission briefing will give you some idea of what weapons and body armour the bad guys have which allows you to plan accordingly2. In the scenario above they might have gas masks which would render the normally-reliable CS grenades useless, so you’d order your squad to breach the door (incidentally stunning anyone nearby), have them toss in a flashbang to stun and disorientate the room’s occupants, follow it up with a stinger grenade that fires out little rubber balls that further bruise bad guys without killing them, and then charge in screaming at the top of your lungs for them to put the guns down.
“You’re in my spot, sir.”
Alas, in practice it’s never quite as simple as this. First, flashbangs will only stun people who can see them – one of the reasons why CS grenades are a useful alternative is because they turn anyone in range into a choking, weeping mess regardless of whether they’re crouching behind cover or not – and so if there’s somebody hiding behind a piece of furniture or around a blind corner they won’t be affected by the bang. The room might still have somebody in it capable of shooting back. Second, CS grenades and flashbangs create an awful lot of smoke which impairs your vision and makes it difficult to distinguish between terrorist and hostage. Third, and most importantly, anyone who does get stunned by the flashbang is going to be stumbling around disoriented for a few seconds, but they’re not necessarily going to drop their guns – and remember, if they’re just holding them and not pointing them at anyone, you’re not allowed to shoot them. This is why you tend to give anyone who doesn’t immediately comply with the group of heavily armed men telling them to get down and drop their weapons a little bit of encouragement in the form of a 10,000 volt taser shot.
“GET DOWN, HANDS IN THE AIR!”
All of this takes place in the space of about four seconds, and it can be ridiculously confusing and intense as you try to figure out who has surrendered and who is still a threat. There was one encounter outside a bank vault where I’d thrown a flashbang down the stairs before confronting the robbers, except none of them would drop their guns. My SWAT teammates were screaming at the robbers to comply. The robbers were just screaming in general because they’d just been stunned and deafened. This standoff went on for a little while until one of them made the mistake of raising his assault rifle and was immediately gunned down. A second robber surrendered upon seeing his friend get dispatched by the firing squad, while the third scarpered back into the vault where he had two friends waiting; getting them out of there cost me most of the squad, and it was just a good thing it was the last area of the mission I had to clear.
“POLICE! HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!”
This sort of unpredictable baddie AI makes your job extremely difficult. When an enemy catches sight of your squad there’s a number of things they might do. They might start opening fire immediately. They might run away and hide to ambush you later. If you’re shouting for compliance, they might put their guns down. Then again, they might also pretend to put their guns down and then start shooting at the last second. Only one of these things authorises you to use lethal force (if they do the last one you’re probably dead unless an AI teammate took the hit for you). Runners are a particular problem in SWAT, with enemies bolting into parts of the level you’ve already cleared and forcing you to clear them all over again; this is why the tactical door wedges (and I still can’t believe these are a real thing) are so useful, since they allow you to block off areas of the map and keep enemies contained. Still, nine times out of ten if you do your job right, approach a map slowly and methodically and grenade every single room you can reliably clear a level with only minor flesh wounds. There’s very few actual bullshit deaths in SWAT; if you get shot in the back it’s because you got lazy and didn’t check a corner, and if you get shot in the front it’s because you did something stupid like running into your own flashbang or forgetting to reload your taser. SWAT is a game about walking around a building very, very carefully punctuated by micro-moments of action as you storm a room, where your own incompetence is usually what kills you.
I like SWAT 4. It’s a refreshing change of pace from modern shooters which demands a cautious and methodical attitude at all times. You creep, you don’t run; you spend a minute or two getting everyone into position and scoping out a door before sending everyone through; and if all goes well you can finish a level without ever having fired your gun. Mechanically there are some limitations in that the SWAT engine is built to do room clearance really well and everything else really poorly, but the level designers have been really clever with their scenarios and succeed in keeping things fresh and interesting all the way through. The contextual squad commands work really well despite making it very difficult to do a coordinated assault on a room from two different entry points, and the squad AI is… well, I just started thinking of them as the police androids from Almost Human, since they’re terrifyingly good shots and never break the rules of engagement but have precisely zero individual initiative, happily twiddling their thumbs thirty feet down the corridor because you forgot to give the Fall In command while you charge into a room alone and get shot to pieces. Unfortunately it’s rather hard to find these days since it’s not available on any digital distribution service, but if you can luck into a pre-owned copy – as I did — you’re in for something that’s quite unlike any other FPS I’ve played, and this alone makes it worth the hassle of acquiring it in the first place. An excellent game.