When it comes to tactical action there has been two companies that have really hit the mark in the past few years and that is THQ and Ubisoft with Full Spectrum and Rainbow Six respectively. For years before however it was Vivendi and Sierra who ruled the roost with their accurate games based on Police Life ranging from adventure games to SWAT 3, a game where you lead a crack SWAT team through Los Angeles. SWAT lay dormant for a few years before Irrational picked up the rights in what seemed like a double deal with Tribes Vengeance. It's time for the police commanders amongst gamers to come out in force and see just how well Irrational has done with the franchise.
One of the more interesting facets of the game is that there is not a single storyline holding it all together. Rather it is a set of missions which don't intersect at all. This was an interesting move but it has allowed Irrational to explore many different scenarios ranging from petty criminals through to crime bosses who make your tasks all the more difficult. As a character, you have no name, but have recently been transferred from LAPD to the Fictional town of Fairview where the game is set. This is the only link back to SWAT 3 in terms of the storyline, which fans of SWAT 3 may see as a disappointment.
The game is played from a first person perspective and very much mimics the style of Rainbow Six from Ubisoft. You, as the leader, command four other SWAT members throughout a variety of missions. Here is where the first disappointment with the game shows itself and that is the lack of variety in the missions. It is obvious that Irrational wanted the ultimate SWAT simulation but it would have been nice to see mission objectives other than rescue hostages and kill or arrest enemies. There is another problem related to the mission structure and this is inherited by how SWAT actually works. The missions themselves are quite quick to finish. Get in, get out, mission over. However it's not all bad for this quality PC game.
What Irrational has retained is what made the last game a success, the incredible realism. This is a result of the consultation with real SWAT officers. Compliance is still very much a part of the game (yelling "Freeze! Police!" before firing is a must) and you are ranked on how well you follow police procedure in reporting downed hostages, downed SWAT officers and downed enemies as well as, of course, not firing before being fired upon. It makes the game interesting. The truth is you can breeze through the game not worrying about compliance, but that is not what the game is about, it's about the realism and completely dismissing it can lead it to be seen as a much worse game than it is. The game enforces this with the difficulty levels. On each level you have to gain a certain number of police points to pass, other than easy where the game lets you continue on even if you shoot your own men.
One of the most standout features however is the AI. They are some of the smartest crooks you've ever come up against in a game and will challenge you. They will run if you outnumber them and hide for an unexpected ambush. The realism factor is also apparent with your units and yourself not exactly bullet proof and one or two well time shots can take you out. The game's difficulty escalates ten fold each time a man goes down, making keeping your mean alive the number one priority.
You also get a variety of technology to use such as cameras on each elements helmets and wands that let you look under doors. They don't seem to have been as well implemented as in Rainbow, but it does seem more realistic. The controls also aid in making the game easier to play with the right mouse used in a context sensitive environment. For example if you right click on a door you can flashbang it, while right click on a hostage, you can handcuff them.
When the game is complete multiplayer offers quite a few options to play with online and off but the coolest thing to play around with is the mission makers. There is two, the first of which is a newbie friendly in-game generator where you choose how many hostages, what map, how many enemies etc and can even give it a storyline. The other map maker is based on the more complex Unreal ED but this can create maps with new textures levels and pretty much change the game entirely with the right modding team.
Visually the game is very impressive and you don't need a high end PC to get the most out of the game. The character models are highly detailed and animate well via skeleton animation (units limp after being shot in the leg for instance) and the levels are interesting to play with settings such as a fuel station and security computer company. It is the sound effects that really create atmosphere in the game however. With 911 calls available for some missions, and a briefing by your commander it really gets you in the mood to play the game, but that's not all - if the person in the 911 call describes where they are, it makes it easier to find them for a rescue. Interestingly if you don't listen to the 911 call the location appears to change, making the game quite dynamic.
SWAT 4 truly is one of the best PC games for 2005 so far. We may only be in April but what Irrational have done with the previous game really has worked well and made the game more usable for people new to the series while keeping the hardcore fans happy with the elite difficulty.