Irrational Exuberance: Replaying SWAT 4

By Jim Rossignol on September 29th, 2008 at 10:31 pm.


A couple of weekends ago Alec and I got together with some journalist chums and dragged computers and a folding table into our friend’s lounge. It was the JournoLAN: a tea-and-biscuits PC hookup in an editor’s comfortable home. In there we mucked about installing patches and discussed the error messages being displayed by a desyncing instance of Supreme Commander. We also played SWAT4. It was incredible.

I’d previously enjoyed SWAT4 when I played it at review, but the attention paid to the multiplayer section was reduced to a couple of distracted lunchtimes in a noisy magazine office. To my disappointment, we never really got to grips with it. This time, however, we were determined to get stuck in, and the co-op takedowns were absolutely riveting.


We started off with three people, and, remarkably, everyone was able to instantly understand their role in badguy-bundling SWAT patrol. I remembered the game being intuitive and easy to handle, but nevertheless it felt exceptionally comfortable, quite unlike so many similar games in the squad-based tactics genre. Here we leapt in, understood how to blow open doors or handcuff crims, for immediate results. There was only the most limited about of flapping about or getting lost on the way to the next moment of tension. In fact – now that I dwell on the notion – the ease of play really does seem unlike early games from the “kill terrorists” genre of door-popping squad-action games. SWAT4 is a balanced, polished game. One that can proudly sit alongside any other shooter you can care to mention, because its ambitions are small, and it really works.

Anyway, we began with some tough assignments. An armed robbery gone awry in a convenience store, some terrorists in an office block. You know the kind of thing. I love the brief intros and vague details on the assignment: realistic to a fault. One of the tactical maps is even hastily inked onto toilet paper – improvised in the chaos of armed men doing crazy shit. SWAT 4 is packed with these kinds of details. We charged in, blasting doors off their hingers, gunning down perps, gassing and stunning the occupants of bank vaults and underground car parks, shouting, shooting, and handcuffing everyone.

A while later the rock ‘n’ roll club stumped us. Tenacious and randomised badguy spawns left us reeling, and so after a couple more failures (with all three SWAT team members ending up MAN DOWN on the dancefloor) we moved on to one of the most entertaining single levels of any game: The Fairfax Residence. This psychopath’s suburban dwelling is representative of the soup of detail that Irrational poured into this game. It’s a believably shitty domestic environment. From decaying pumpkin lanterns on the front porch, through to the messy, stained innards of the house, it’s a superb, understated piece of design. The low, grim ambient music, the mild comic interlude of the serial killer’s angry mom, and the final (potentially non-violent denouement) of the arrest, all added up to a brilliant ten minutes. And that’s all it was: all it needed to be. Reassuringly, SWAT4 does not try and overplay its assignment, or make this more than it was. We were busting into a house to take out a single target: a lone nut-job who had a girl in his basement. Compared to the other, tougher assaults versus numerous armed assailants, it was a fantastic change of pace. There felt like there was nothing lazy about this game. They’d gone all out to build something with variety and surprises.

An even better (and far more predictable) change of pace was when our friend Mike joined in on his laptop. With a fourth person in the gang we took some time out to randomly shoot each other with tasers, and watch the weirdly rigid jerking contortions that your team-mates suffer when struck with 10,000 volts. It took a while to get unfunny, and Mike’s character spent plenty of time spasming. Each time we agreed to focus back on the task at hand, a taser would go off, and a SWATdude would crumple, twitching. Once that was over we started with the choking, debilitating pepper-spray. It was the joke that kept on paralysing.

We loved the non-lethal weapons. In fact, we were all relishing how different this kind of game is as a shooter. Capturing people, making them stand down rather than die, came as an excellent challenge. This is heavily dependent on SWAT4′s shout button: you shout at people to get them on their knees. It’s not only a great idea, it works brilliantly in the context of the world: more pumped, aggressive people are less likely to respond to your “POLICE HANDS IN THE AIR!” yelling than those who have been gassed and electrocuted, or those who are simply terrified. A quadruple “GET DOWN, NOW!” All four of us pumping the yell as we burst into a new room.

Once the guffaws had subsided the game took on a different tone. We’d started a scenario in “Taronne Tenements”. It greeted us with the hollow-windows of grim housing projects and a near-imperceptible rumble. Having skipped the briefing, the damp-swollen walls, scrawled with quasi-religious nonsense, gave us a good clue as to the theme: cultists gone weird. On peering under the first door with our opti-wand, we were ambushed from behind by a rifle-wielding hobo. He tumbled down in the yard outside the rotting apartments, and we traced his steps back to a second door, to bust our way inside. We were already thankful we’d packed SWAT4′s automatic firearms, rather than our non-lethal pepper and electricity weapons of choice. The weirdos were packing.

We bagged another scabby crazy in the hall and then swung into the kitchen, flashlights strobing. Something dark and dead was in the fridge. Flies too. Nasty emanations from the whole place. The superb low-frequency soundtrack wrapped everything up in an unsettling wash of distant, unhappy noise. Hackles were rising, and we lost ourselves in our deepening response to the game.

Then there something peculiar ahead: little lights on the walls. They were stars. The plastic green-yellow fluorescent glow-in-the-dark stars that kids have above their beds. It was a trail. They led in gentle arcs down to the stairwell. And then down the stairs. We stacked up on the doorway and the lead used the optical wand to look under the door. Multiple cultists, armed. We described their locations and then we blew the door. We flashbanged the room and fired in from the stairwell. It was fast and violent. And over.

We moved into the room to see what the cultists had been defending. The path of little glowing stars continued, following the wall down to some candles, and to scrawled farewell messages above heaps of dirt. Tiny graves.

And that was the potential in games all wrapped up in a twenty-minute arc: goofing around in slapstick stupidity, giggling at awkwardly spasming avatars, soaring down, stumbling into the unexpected, horrible, bleak moment that had been so deliberately left there for us to find…. There was a bit of nervous laughter at what we’d seen, and it was all quickly swept away by another scenario, some more noisy gunplay, another electrocuted Mike.

But something stayed, and SWAT4 left a hazy crater. We’ll be playing that one again, and soon.

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92 Comments »

  1. DoomMunky says:

    I love this game, but have never played the MP. The fact that you can do so co-op (and this excellent write up) makes me want to try it, and soon.

  2. Mogs says:

    “You caaaan’t dooOoooo thiiiIs!”

    “I’m an OoOooOOoOold man!”

    “Nothin’ but bullies!”

    Classic.

  3. Gordon says:

    Yes. I love this game. Keep coming back to the career every now and again.

  4. Alec Meer says:

    SWAT 4 is bestest. Even though I had to hack a bloody ini file to make it widescreen.

  5. Petethegoat says:

    “Pol-ice!”

    Many good times. :)

  6. Dr Snofeld says:

    There is no greater thrill in this game than a perfectly syncronized and performed entry and takedown. We would spend several times longer planning our entries than actually performing them. The tension increased with the knowledge that neither enemy positions nor numbers were fixed – they could be anywhere…

  7. Albert says:

    We always play this game multiplayer, when I hook up with my gamerbuddies. Played it the first time 2 years ago, I think, and it just gets better and better.
    Player 5 guys, really focused on the game, just playing and playing and playing, and then, suddenly 86/100 points :D That’s the kick, the reason to plays this game for so many hours.
    Just get this happy feeling of ones I killed a hostage, ruining a perfect mission, and got burried in empty cola cans by anoyed buddies.. :D

  8. nabeel says:

    Fantastic game. It really was a pleasant surprise to realise what kind of design lay behind the game, being more than just a shooter or a tactical SWAT game. There was the unpredictable random element of the enemy placements, and the very deliberate and crafted design of the environments, and the versatile set of tools you were given to complete the missions with. Irrational know exactly how to orchestrate mood and craft atmosphere and they do it excellently here.

    nabeel

  9. Heliocentric says:

    A game where shooting the bad guys is failing. Where every life is worth something.

    A game where if you turn you back on a corner you can die in a second. I want swat 5, Bioshock 2 can wait.

    The expansion pack has a grenade launcher, peg someone in the head with a flash bang for maximum effect.

    Another thing is melee. you can hit people with anything, even the optiwand.

  10. james b says:

    awesome game…are they making more…?

  11. JonathanStrange says:

    SWAT 4 really is an excellent game, brutally realistic to the point you’re not even supposed to shoot the enemies and yet still damn fun and an all-round intense experience.

    I remember the multiplayer was pretty good too, VIP mode was an interesting twist on typical team vs. team gameplay when idiots weren’t fouling it up with teamkilling. But Co-Op was where it was (and still is) though, online worked quite well and when you had a ventrillo or Teamspeak server in the background and all your buddies on there with you, it was incredibly fun.

    Good times, good times. I’d love Irrational (I’ll always call em Irrational) to make another, but I know that’ll never happen.

  12. Gabanski83 says:

    I keep wishing for a new SWAT game using the Unreal 3 engine. As awesome as SWAT 4 is, it’s still got room for polish.

    It is an awesome multiplayer game, though. I need to buy this again (the first disc snapped the last time I went to install this, sadly).

  13. dartt says:

    More games should let you shoot people in the nuts with a beanbag gun.

  14. Heliocentric says:

    I want a swat game where the greater building is modeled allowing for a dedicated sniper who can move about in the building across the road or camping down on a roof top.

    Unreal 3 prettiness could suit swat as long as it was done in moderation. but a sniper using a grenade launcher to fire gas grenades through the windows, or perhaps simply spotting for the swat team. Also, missions with a risk of hostages being executed.

  15. Funky Badger says:

    Go-go-Gadget-Amazon-Impulse-Buy!

  16. MisterBritish says:

    Every time I play this I think how great an XCOM flavoured tactical FPS would be; breaching a UFO with C4, flashbangs, then sprinting in with stun sticks for live specimens while being covered by team mates.

    Still, every departure from the core XCOM game has been dire, so maybe it better stay in my head.

  17. Pavel says:

    One of the best LAN games ever. Has to be played with Stetchkov Syndicate (expansion) though.

  18. Feet says:

    SWAT4 on LAN or SWAT4 plus TS is brilliant. Used to play this alot inbetween CSS matches with my clan.

    There’s this one level, I forget which, it might have been from the expansion pack, but if you shoot holes in the pipes that surrounded the corridors a little gush of water would squirt out under pressure. And it would keep going. And then you’d do another. Two gushes of water squirting out across the hall under pressure. I called to my squadmates to check it out. Pleased amusement that such a detail existed in the game was shared. And then you’d go full auto on the pipes and run along the corridor, and all of a sudden the whole damned place is covered in these little gushes of water squirting all over the show. Queue 10 minutes of running up and down corridors, Benny Hill esque, shooting at the pipes and just laughing a whole damned lot. We only stopped because we ran out of ammo. ¬__¬

    Marvellous.

  19. Heliocentric says:

    set up door explosives, chase perps towards the door, detonate it, you’ll often get a non lethal takedown that way. ^_^

  20. MisterBritish says:

    Oooh, maybe a Dragon Age-type system, where you could zoom out from first person to the traditional isometric and queue up complex manouvers.

    I really want this now.

  21. AlexW says:

    Never say never. Quickly, to the e-mail client! If enough people annoy Levine and co. enough for long enough you may just get another game. I would instantly buy this game, as I am a sucker for realistic shooters.

  22. teo says:

    I picked this up quite recently and I loved it. I haven’t had a chance to try co-op though

    BUT, you should really try Sheriff’s Special Forces mod. It makes the shooting a ton better, adds a few new weapons and doubles the amount of maps.

    Just beware that if you don’t have the SWAT4 expansion installed you can’t use versions higher than 2.2. It shouldn’t be too hard to find though. But really, try it

    edit: remembered one thing I hate about this game. Trying to find the last terrorist running around, or trying to find a gun you missed somewhere. Especially when you’ve been shot in the leg and walk slow as hell. I’ve wasted 20+ minutes after having cleared out a level chasing after stuff. It’s NOT FUN

  23. Andrew says:

    Playing SWAT4 co-op with a bunch of internet acquaintances is right up there with my best ever multiplayer experiences.

    Particularly when we decided to Endurance-run the entire game in one night. Oh boy.

  24. Bhazor says:

    “Every time I play this I think how great an XCOM flavoured tactical FPS would be; breaching a UFO with C4, flashbangs, then sprinting in with stun sticks for live specimens while being covered by team mates.”

    Oh I am so erect at the thought of that. Bear in mind who keeps talking about a new X-Com game. Certainly I’d rather the team try this idea and it fail than just playing a safe straight sequel.

    Also the Fairfax mom is pure extreme.

  25. Ergates says:

    Played a bit of SWAT4 with the the State bods a few years ago. Mucho fun and hilarity. The Co-op missions are intense affairs, but the competative maps (e.g. rescue the VIP, or whatever it was called) are just fun cubed. Theres just something inherently amusing about capturing one of your opponents, handcuffing them, then repeatedly tasering them. AND IN THE GAME TOO!.

    Win.

  26. Mr_Day, Pioneer of Yawning Indignity of Man says:

    Best multiplayer SWAT 4 moment for me was on the suburban house mentioned above.

    I was checking another room, team mate found old lady and tried for a non lethal takedown. She was – stubborn.

    For 5 minutes, all I could here from this room was:

    “GET DOWN, ON THE GROUND!”

    *zzzzZZZZZAP*

    “Oh, you brute!”

    *zzzZZZZZAP*

    “Oh, my heart…”

    *zzzzzZZZZAPP*

    “You big bully”

    With teammate shouting over TS in hysterics: “She just won’t comply! Can I shoot her yet?”

  27. The Shed says:

    We had a big lansesh a while back, and this occupied a bit of our time, although we were in the mood for more fast paced action- UT2K4, Alien Swarm, and OpFlash kept us going almost all night.

  28. Andrew says:

    Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

    Oh God that Radio Chatter boxout still makes me giggle like a mad thing. FUCKING HELL MIKE.

  29. Mike says:

    I got a few facts wrong though, thinking back. Hilarious night, though.

    Also, the Radio Chatter boxout is transcripts from actual Teamspeak rips. We played the whole game through in one night, starting at around 7pm and winding up quite dazed at something like 2am.

  30. graham says:

    Having just turned 31 the only thing I could think of as a pressie was ‘this gaming life’. I’m just a few chapters in but having read this post I’m fearing this might one of jims final posts before he gets fired and end up being a journo for a police force monthly newsletter…..that was your real dream all along.

    great article about a great game but now im feeling nostalgic

  31. Shadowcat says:

    The thing I really REALLY wish SWAT 4 had is a SWAT 3 feature that they inexplicably failed to include (at least AFAIR).

    When playing SWAT 3 co-op, you specify the size of your team, and the A.I. plays the excess team members. If a player character dies, they take over an A.I. character.

    This means that (a) it’s entirely feasible to take on the bigger missions with only two or three players, and (b) players don’t get left out if they die early on.

    SWAT 3 is probably the better co-op game, for this reason alone.

  32. Cigol says:

    I seem to have fonder memories of SWAT3, especially its AI – but SWAT4 was as good a sequel as you could hope for. Just look at Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six *sigh*

  33. dhex says:

    i know this makes me kind of a jerk, but i could never play any of the swat games; it’s a teeny encouragement of a problematic trend in american law enforcement.

    /wetnap mode off

  34. Magnakai says:

    What a brilliantly crafted game. Probably my favourite co-op moments ever.

  35. Nick says:

    The magnums vs research centre was epic.

    “Each time we agreed to focus back on the task at hand, a taser would go off”

    This is very familiar =)

  36. ascagnel says:

    Every time I play this I think how great an XCOM flavoured tactical FPS would be; breaching a UFO with C4, flashbangs, then sprinting in with stun sticks for live specimens while being covered by team mates.

    Still, every departure from the core XCOM game has been dire, so maybe it better stay in my head.

    MisterBritish, you may be right on the money. Irrational, né 2K Boston, is rumored to be working on the XCOM franchise, and their last independent work was SWAT4. Bringing the two together sounds exactly what you’re talking about, although I fear that the suspense provided by the turn-based model will be lost in the move to real-time first-person.

    Off-topic: Everyone should check out the free UFO: Alien Invasion. Its a clone that gets just about everything, with the notable exception of destructible environments.

  37. Ging says:

    SWAT 4 led to some, frankly disturbing conversations at our local Pizza Hut – I think we scared a number of families with our talk of taking out tangos with multiple headshots and the “accidental” shooting of hostages in limbs when they wouldn’t get out of the way…

    Ultimately, we got quite good at it, so we enforced the rule of only taking less lethal weapons – things became challenging if we came across t’s wearing both gas masks and kevlar vests!

  38. rusmas says:

    A great game indeed! Does anyone know how it compares to Rainbow Six: Vegas 1 & 2 as a die-hard co-op experience? People speak highly of them, and I speak highly of this one :)

  39. ETPC says:

    That mission with the cultists honestly got to me. I couldn’t help killing everyone after I found the graves.

    Goddamn, I need to play it again.

  40. Ging says:

    rusmas: it’s far more intense than the either of the vegas titles, purely because of their more arcadey nature. You can survive far more punishment in the R6 games than in SWAT, so the tension level isn’t as high.

    Attempting to get a “perfect” score out of each stage puts levels of pressure on your team far beyond anything that you might find in R6!

  41. Muzman says:

    Good stuff. Didn’t this get a fairly lukewarm reception at first though? It’s a bit more streamlined than SWAT 3 but not to any detrimental effect I thought. Otherwise it is, as said, a very nicely put together game. There needs to be more yelling in games. Guns are supposed to be mostly about the threat of violence (although I did get annoyed by hauling out the non lethals for uncooperative suspects all the time when a rifle butt to the ribs or bitchslap button would have been much quicker. Perhaps I should stay out of the force)

  42. James S. says:

    The Canadian military was sufficiently impressed to build a substantial mod of SWAT 4 for train, Canadian Forces: Direct Action. The links to it seem to have gone down, though, not sure why.

  43. Jiive says:

    The thing that really made Swat 4 for me was the way that the 10-David dispatch guy hesitated in responding when you stumbled across the cultist grave site.

    Swat 3 was flawless and Swat 4 was really good.

  44. Saflo says:

    This sounds neat. I can’t even recall hearing anything about the SWAT series since the second game, which I am apparently alone in liking.

  45. ngc248 says:

    This was one of my favourites in multiplayer … One of the awesome things in MP was the amazing number of camo variants that you could choose for your uniform

  46. Aftershock says:

    Oh man, this is just spectacular with 4 mates at an internet cafe.

    Just as we get out of the van, we shoot each other with pepper spray, so everythings blurred, then flashbang, so we can’t see at all or hear, then hit each other with the tasers, so we can’t move. Then we start shouting.

    All this noise attracts some dude with a gun, who promptly guns us all down.

    Absolute fucking gold.

  47. Ian says:

    I really like SWAT 4 in small doses. I could never sustain my play long enough to finish it and I sadly never played the multiplayer as nobody I know plays it and I think it’s definitely for playing with mates.

    Great game though. SWAT 5 would be more than welcome. :)

  48. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    SWAT4 was made of pure, unadultered win. There’s similar takes on the cover/sneak/fire/whoa genre, but nothing quite like it. And nothing quite better than it. Even the titles I’d place alongside it in terms of near brilliant execution or suspense-filled moments are either plagued by some issues or in some ways can’t be compared in full (like Hidden and Dangerous 2).

    However I am not a fan on online play. Well, that is a lie of sorts. I enjoy the concept, but rarely managed to have a good online gaming session with someone, barring the Quake 3 shootouts with a friend who was teaching me the ropes in it, and the ocasional trudging around some Turok title in a desperate attempt at trying to justify my then-outdated Voodoo graphics card.

    On the other hand, I’m quite undecided on how to judge multiplayer games. Try as I might, I can never seem to consider them to be the actual game. Unless it’s an online-specific game, most games tend to go into the singleplayer campaign with online modes. And the modes themselves feel so out of context – even if they can be enthralling for other reasons but still, worlds apart.

    Also, is it just me or have comments in RPS suddenly rocketed? I go away for a few hours and it’s WHOANELLYALMOST100PERARTICLE.

  49. MacBeth says:

    How To Play:

    1. Complete all the scenarios, being glad just to make it through, spent shell casings and dead perps on all sides
    2. Realise they want you to do it without killing anyone
    3. Look uncertainly at the non-lethal weapons
    4. Learn how to command your squad properly and take away all their proper guns
    5. Enjoy beanbagging people a little bit too much (q.v. most entries above)
    6. Get a healthy proportion of perfect scores, to immense satisfaction
    7. Give up on doing the final levels without having to kill anyone, and retire gracefully from the game for a while, until you are tempted back