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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Timely Review of SWAT 4

I've never been a big fan of first-person shooters. I thought that Wolfenstein 3-D was pretty cool, but when the original Doom came out and garnered a whole bunch of critical praise, I honestly did not see what all of the hubbub was about. I purchased Doom, but did not especially like it that much. A friend of mine summed things up pretty well when he said "Doom is like Nintendo Duck Hunt with demons". I was positive that the whole FPS thing was a fad that would burn itself out; after all, 1993 was the same year that F-15 Strike Eagle III came out, followed closely by Wing Commander III, and between those games, Civilization, and Star Trek Judgment Rites, I was darn sure that the FPS craze (what was called in Ye Olden Tymes "Doom-style games") would end in short order.

Flash forward 13 years, and now it is more noteworthy when a game isn't a FPS. The popularity of FPS games has outright killed some genres, including adventure games, flight simulators, and space-combat games. Other genres like turn-based strategy are only now beginning to recover. I can honestly say that I really did not see that one coming; To me, FPS games disregard all of the advantages of the PC as a gaming platform, emphasizing mindless and linear action (shoot the monster, find the key, solve the jumping puzzle). So, up until 1997, I stubbornly resisted the FPS onslaught. Until, that is, the release of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. The original Rainbow Six and it's sequel Rogue Spear had it all: Incredible graphics; a visceral "you-are-there" atmosphere; one-shot, one-kill realism; a deep, engaging, and replayable single-person storyline; authentic weapons, tactics, and equipment; and fun multiplayer battles. Rainbow Six was the shooter that both sim and strategy gamers had been waiting for. It definitely opened my eyes to the possibilities of first-person shooters, and got me to grudgingly admit that maybe there was something to this whole FPS thing, after all. Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear are two of my all-time favorite games. As a died-in-the-wool Rainbow Six fan, I picked up R63:Raven Shield the day it was out. I enjoyed Raven Shield a great deal, but I felt that it was missing some of the spark that had been in the previous two games: It had a weaker storyline than the first two games, and continued the proud R6 tradition of the goofy AI that will just stand there as you pick them off, one by one.

Rainbow Six has produced four sequels and a host of expansion packs, as well as a spin-off series of sorts, Ghost Recon (another classic tactical FPS). The only realistic competitor from outside of UbiSoft has been the last two Sierra SWAT games, SWAT 3 and SWAT 4. The fourth installment of Sierra's SWAT series, SWAT 4, was released a little bit after Raven Shield, so at the time I didn't bother. However, subsequent Rainbow Six games have been critical flops, so when the critically acclaimed SWAT 4 showed up in the Wal-Mart bargain bin several months ago at a low-low price, I picked it up.
At first blush, SWAT 4 and Raven Shield are very, very similar. The first-person perspective and the interfaces are virtually identical. However, there are some key differences. First, there's no mission editor. You're given a sketchy map of your target zone, given some objectives (which tend to change, a nice touch), and sent in after the bad guys. This is probably more representative of how a real rapid-response SWAT team would operate, but the lack of R6-style gocodes especially is rather jarring. The weapons selection (featuring generic replacements for the H&K weapons ;)) seems to be fairly representative of nonlethal, light, and heavy weaponry. I didn't really miss Raven Shield's extensive collection of small arms, which in principle shouldn't be needed in a police situation anyway (although as a Stargate fan, I did miss the P90). Interestingly, to complete several of the missions you have to be carrying at least one nonlethal weapon (pepper-spray or a taser) to ensure suspect compliance and complete the mission. Second, I felt that although it was easier to issue your team commands in SWAT 4, it was a lot harder to control your other team members. You can't simply jump from teammate to teammate (which is more realistic, so I won't carp that much about it) but since there's no mission editor you can't use R6-style gocodes to control timing, which makes simultaneous entry kind of annoying. Third, each mission is completely random. Unlike the Rainbow Six series, the position of the AI opponents in single-player changes every time you run a mission. This small change vastly increases the replay value of the game and makes it much more interesting and realistic; on the other hand, I actually like the "practice makes perfect" approach taken by Rainbow Six; in R6, by the time you have a strategy that works, you really feel like you've accomplished something. The flip side of that statement is that, like Wing Commander, it's much easier to simply drop into a mission in SWAT 4 than it is in Raven Shield. Fourth, the AI in SWAT 4 is a vast improvement over Raven Shield's: AI opponents react to what happens around them, seek cover, and converge on your location. The superior AI is probably the biggest single reason to buy this game. Fifth, there's no overarching storyline. Although this was criticized by some reviewers, I felt that the completely unconnected stories were pretty representative of the kinds of missions that a real SWAT team would receive in an actual city and pretty realistic--supervillians are pretty rare things here in real life, after all.
SWAT 4 has a lot going for it: Beautiful graphics, tense missions enhanced by superior opponent AI, and a real sense of atmosphere; the inclusion of the 911 calls in the pre-mission briefings is a nice touch. I recommend it for all fans of of the tactical FPS genre. However, I personally feel that Rainbow Six 3 was a more entertaining game, and I can't help but wonder just how good R63 could have been if the enemy AI in R63 had been like SWAT 4's. I am now hoping that in the future there will be a R6 sequel that combines the strategic elements of R63 with the opponent AI of SWAT 4. Until that point, we'll just have to run through SWAT 4's missions again...


  1. An excellent review, excellent, even though adventure games are definitely not dead... ;)

    Cheers B7G Possum!