The SWAT series has changed form three times since its first release as Daryl F. Gates Police Quest: SWAT, a spin-off of Sierra’s recognized adventure brand. Tacking on Gates’ name to the title would add credibility, as the former Los Angeles police chief basically invented the whole SWAT (special weapons and tactics) concept and had a hand in the game’s design – though it ended up as some kind of one-man FMV adventure. SWAT 2 would take an isometric real-time strategy approach, introducing more of an action element to the game but also allowing you to control an entire squad. Finally, SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle would arrive after Rainbow Six established a new genre: the tactical first person shooter. Sharing similar design elements, SWAT 3 would still hold its own as a fairly realistic interpretation of these elite police units.
I played SWAT 3 shortly after I completed Eagle Watch, the first expansion for Rainbow Six. The inability to completely plan a mission beforehand made me extra cautious in my approach to the gameplay, because in SWAT you were dropped into a mission and had to deal with tactical situations as they happened – you were never informed of how many adversaries you were facing or their last known locations. The situations were often chaotic, and the civilians weren’t always being held at gunpoint – they would sometimes be running around just trying to get to safety, creating a highly distracting battlefield.
I liked that you were able communicate directly with the aggressors: yelling such things as “drop your weapon!”, “Stay down!” or “hands in the air”, sometimes causing them to open fire. Though they would occasionally comply, allowing you or one of your squad mates to approach and restrain them. It was an obvious movie-like interpretation of this kind of police work, but it allowed every mission to unfold in a believable manner, where not every guy with a gun in his hand was necessarily a threatening target.
Along with a new engine adapted from Irrational’s Tribes Vengeance, all of these elements are back in SWAT 4. Though where the game really impresses me is the interface. It fosters a completely seamless experience where the novice can issue “default” commands as the situation applies, or the experienced can delve deeper into the on-screen context sensitive drop down menu and issue a particular command to be executed. Moreover, the interface seems to be designed to let you sit back and let your team do all the work, allowing the player to effectively become the leader. The team AI is very adept in this regard – the only time a team member was incapacitated was because of my carelessness, after I asked them to run into a room without using proper breach and clear tactics. The enemy AI is also unpredictable – rarely will they immediately open fire, and this causes you to approach each possible hostile with caution instead of running nonchalantly through the mission, finger poised on the “Fire” button.
Though this is all seen through the eyes of a fan of SWAT 3; I would hardly call the mission selected for the demo exciting. This may be detrimental for prospective newcomers, and that’s a damn shame. In SWAT 3 and the first two Rainbow Six games, reconaissance and non-deadly force missions were always part of the package, conveying the message that to “win” doesn’t mean putting a bullet in the enemy. Though sound in their presentation of tactics, games like Full Spectrum Warrior and Close Combat: First to Fight are putting less of an emphasis on enemy apprehension or de-armament and instead opt for simple neutralization – adapting the aforementioned mentality of shooting first and asking questions later. It’s nice to know SWAT 4 is taking a more civilized approach, even though the game essentially revolves around the same “player versus the bad guy” model. I’m fully aware of what’s happening to the Rainbow Six series, so I’m glad that Irrational has taken care in trying to reproduce what made SWAT 3 so enjoyable. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the full version this April.