Swat 4: compliance is your only option

[Blue team ready for breach and clear]
SWAT 4 successfully integrates a fluid interface, real time tactics and a completely believable simulation. And like its predecessor, it’s a welcome change from the tactical shooters that typically let you shoot first and ask questions later.

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.

World of Warcraft big in Europe

Over the weekend I learned of Gamma Fodder’s wholesale plunge into World of Warcraft. Though I was basically labelled as the dealer of some hyper addictive drug, I can’t blame him for wanting to try it out.

Interest in this game doesn’t seem to be letting up: the European launch press release cites sales of 280,000 copies last Friday, with 380,000 by the end of the first weekend. Not suprisingly, the official site for WoW Europe warned of choppy seas ahead, as the account creation site was out of order like the North American release, with players experiencing wait times just to be able to get into the game. I find it a bit concerning that Blizzard’s European team was not able to foresee this kind of response with so much evidence to support the tidal wave of new users that would hit its servers at launch. Though things appear to have settled down it doesn’t negate the fact that they were once again unprepared.

I’m not sure if this is a global sales tactic by Blizzard, where they firmly establish that their product is unplayable so that new users are deterred, but it’s not working. People flock to this game with blinders on, eager to drink the sweet, sweet nectar of an MMORPG that is actually fun to play. I fully acknowledge this as indisputable; World of Warcraft injected into every MMORPG fan’s mainline exactly what they were looking for – when they can play it. Though when gamers continue to line up for the high-population servers only to have to wait or trudge through a lag-crippled session, it calls into question the reasoning of the gamers themselves.

Due to its level of accessibility and favourable conditions for short game sessions, I plan on getting into World of Warcraft eventually. However at this time I’m finding it more beneficial to observe this growing community from the outside. It seems to me that the game still revolves around a discrete model of “Player vs. Everything”, where inter-player communication and cooperation is almost unnecessary. As it stands, World of Warcraft could operate interchangably as a locally-run game. To me, the Battlegrounds are simply something they’ve been dangling in front of players to convince them that they’ve made the right decision. These are tactics SOE used when Star Wars Galaxies first launched. The Galactic Civil War was going to change the way people played the game, making Galaxies a true representation of the war-torn universe shown in the films. Though this never happened, and instead the development team pushed out a space expansion while they tried to alleviate the more important class balancing and changes to the combat system, because that’s what the players wanted.

After just over two months, it’s impossible to predict how World of Warcraft will weather the test of time. I know first hand there is plenty of material in the game to keep players busy, but there are only so many quests you can throw at a player before they start realizing that what they do has little effect on their surroundings. Indeed, waiting while a quest “boss” respawns is enough to remove me from a game world that hinges solely on a player’s desire for more experience. Those that have fallen in with guilds have had better experiences in community building, but is the game world deep enough to secure long term interest? For the sake of the players, I’d like to see Blizzard use World of Warcraft’s success to build something worthy of its name and not simply rely on its short-term addictive qualities. It’s obvious Blizzard can get players to jump in. The real test will be to see if they stay there.