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. pepper says:

    This game is epic when playing in a LAN. I play this from time to time with a few friends all day long! Offcourse, we mostly play COOP. The other mode’s are OK, but not as fun.

  2. Adam Hepton says:

    I hadn’t ever heard of this game before someone commented about it on an article in here a few months ago – and it was enough for me to track it down. Went into town at lunchtime, and found it in Gamestation’s used section for 99p. Was told at the till it was Buy one, get one free, and being a cheapskate went back for another looksie to find something else, and on second look stumbled across Swat3 in the same deal. Swat 3 and 4 for 99p. Win.

  3. Mike says:

    R6 Vegas and Vegas 2 both do the core co-op mechanic extremely well, and they are more streamlined and accessible than SWAT 4, just by virtue of their modernity. There’s no sense of story and revelation within the missions though, even in the campaign co-op, which is what SWAT does so brilliantly. Also, no non-lethal weapon hilarity in R6V.

  4. teo says:

    Using nonlethal force on the final levels is just stupid. Yes you CAN do it, but we’re talking terrorists with assault rifles and body armor. Shooting paintballs at them isn’t the most clever thing in the world

  5. Dr. Quincy says:

    Put it on Steam!

    And the expansion.

    Please, Acti-Blizz! Or whoever now owns the rights to old Sierra games.

  6. Heliocentric says:

    Get a swat pack up on steam. Even the old X com style games. I’d happily buy the games again. Better yet gog or impulse it, publishers get all of your out of print games on digital distribution. Don’t you like money?

  7. Dr. Quincy says:

    Amen, sister.

  8. subedii says:

    What’s sad to me is that there probably isn’t ever going to be another game in the series, people are just too afraid of making a hardcore tactical shooter, especially without “rebounding health”.

    Odds are that were the series to be resurrected, it would go the way of Rainbow 6 and Ghost Recon before it, heavy arcade bent for the sake of accessibility but losing out on all the tension and raw fun that something more like a simulation can really give you. People call R6 a tactical shooter and I can’t help but be sad for how awesome the series used to be. I’m sure it’s really well received, but in my mind, it’s just another FPS series now.

    Squad-level tactical shooters were brilliant, and SWAT 4 may very well have been the last and one of the best of it’s kind. I hope some indie developer someday can snap up the franchise and put it to good use. Whilst Levine and Co would be a nice choice to have, I suspect they’re too busy with other bigger name titles to focus on a niche game like this.

  9. Dreamhacker says:

    “TOC to Entry-team, you guys are a disgrace! Head to debriefing, now!”

  10. El_MUERkO says:

    I used to play quiet a bit of online with friends, multiplayer vip escort was always good for a laugh

  11. wcaypahwat says:

    @Macbeth:

    pretty much my past experience with the game.

    picked it up again last week for au$10 a piece (about as cheap as you can buy a non-used game for around these parts) looking forward the some more good times and freaking out the neighbourrs with screams of “police! get on the ground!”

  12. MetalCircus says:

    I love this game. And it was so gritty in it’s own way. Too many times have I felt aweful about shooting a surrendered perp by accident, and reloaded the level out of sheer guilt. You really do feel like a bastard when you pump a bullet into his head while he cowers on his knees.

    Excellent game, and underrated.

  13. PJ says:

    hehe. I just recently reinstalled this on my PC. It’s still awesome, tho there are some bugs still present.

    GET ON YOUR KNEES!

  14. The Sombrero Kid says:

    brill game

  15. Bozzley says:

    I loved SWAT4. And if I could get it to work on my new Vista box I’d love it again. Erm, that come out wrong, I know what I meant.

  16. Gap Gen says:

    It is quite fun playing this like a normal FPS for shits and giggles (and getting a rubbish score at the end, natch). Especially when they down a squad member.

  17. Cuchulainn says:

    One of my favourite memories was playing one of the DM variants. You get a point for a kill but multiple points (>5?) for an arrest. I came running around a corner into a hail of pepper balls. Mate goes charging up to arrest me and gets caught up in his own cloud of pepper. I backed away and recovered before he did and arrested him :)

  18. Shamanic Miner says:

    On the Orthodox Cathedral level in SWAT3 your team mates would say “clergy spotted” instead of “civillian spotted” , it’s nice to see them make a distinction between the lay person and priests before lobbing in a flashbang :)

  19. Leeks! says:

    Things like this make me want to play games way more than any silly 8/10.

  20. Seth Burgess says:

    And I thought I was the only gamer in the world to love the SWAT games to bits (the third in my case – I still mutter “Go dynamic!” to myself more than is strictly necessary).

  21. I.Steal.your.gun.be says:

    This is THE reason why I don’t love Rainbow anymore. I loved SWAT4 because its highly accessible for normal players, unlike the old rainbow and it still comes with a large realism factor, unlike Rainbow 6: vegas, where you kill thousands of terrorist.

    I also loved the multilayer, one of the best balanced shooters i have played.

  22. Phil White says:

    I was disappointed to hear of Bioshock’s development because it obviously meant no immediate sequel.

    I think Kieron gave a very positive review for Eurogamer. I know it was one of his articles that convinced me to buy a copy (Gold was on Amazon for £20 by then).

    Yeah, I’d echo what most of you have said; it’s up there with Flashpoint in terms of apprehension. I was gutted when an old LAN friend moved to Australia before we could get some co-op in. I’d buy SWAT 5 for the consoles in a shot; especially if OFP 2 proves a let-down (very possible).

    A timely reflection, Jim.

  23. malkav11 says:

    I really loved the first few levels of the game. Unfortunately the damn night club persistently defeats me. It’s such a large space, with so many people, and so many areas with multiple, often wide open, entrances and exits. Which means I can’t really employ the preferred method of methodically sweeping then spiking closed areas while keeping an eye on the one or two doors I haven’t already cleared.

    It also doesn’t help that less lethal weapons become increasingly less effective and the AI can’t be trusted with lethal weapons if you’re going for nonlethal takedowns.

  24. fanciestofpants says:

    Just recently re-bought this and forced my mates to play it Co-op. Many a grand old time.

    And yes, there was many a team-confunding tazerings. Or pepper balling, or bean-baggings(Bean bag your mates in the legs for lasting aggravation!)

  25. Shawn says:

    I play swat4 all the time, it was the first game i installed on my new pc 2 months ago. I reccomend the Sheriff mod, for the improved (much more agressive) AI. Plus it has some old swat3 maps – ah but it leaves me wanting ALL the swat3 maps. However I don’t miss that mission in the sewers searching for the bombs ARGH!
    Bozzley: I had trouble getting it to run on vista too, sadly the only way I can play it is by disabling or unplugging the network, so that rules out multiplayer of any sort :(

    In the end these games remind me what a terrifying job these operators must have in rl, how much balls does it take to burst into an unknown room and arrest armed gunmen using deadly force only if necessary? A big pair if you ask me, a very big pair.
    “Put em on safe and let ‘em hang, we’re done here.”

  26. Lorka says:

    Isn’t it wonderful? The Fairfax Residence remains one of my most memorable mp gaming experiences. Everything that’s different about Swat 4 proves Irrational’s under stated genius. The use of shouting – that human, real aspect of any scene of violence that’s so wierdly absent from mp gaming is just the tip of the iceberg for this brilliant thriller/shooter.

  27. IGpappy says:

    I can’t tell you how cool it is to hear people still psyched about SWAT 4! We had a blast making it, and even more of a blast testing it. Thank you for the compliments!

    Shawn Robertson – Lead Artist – Irrational Games/2K Boston

  28. Ian says:

    @ Lorka: It’s a hell of a level in single player too. I like the game anyway, as I said before, but that level is the stand-out moment of what I played of it. What makes it creepy is that so much of the house is empty but of course you keep going through your same routines just in case.

  29. Ging says:

    Shawn: We demand another (if not a SWAT 5, at least a game *like* it) – make it so!

    In fact, I wonder if the actiblizz merger has meant that the swat license is just sort of floating around in the great IP void…

  30. Ian says:

    RE: SWAT 5.

    And it must have quick time events and DRM to keep us all safe.

    Give the people what they want!

  31. Amp says:

    After reading about SWAT 4 I really wanted to play it again. Since last time I got a new computer and when I wanted to install the game I discovered that Vista 64bit does not play well with SWAT 4. It did not install properly.

    After installing it on a WinXp Pro 32 bit machine and copying over the files and the regedit keys it loaded of just fine. All was good until the GPU fan startet spinning like crazy. I looked at the fps and it rendered between 200 and 500 fps.

    I’m afraid of destroying the GPU playing the game like this. I have tryed searching for a framerate cap or limit command for the Unreal Engine 2.x but without any luck.

    Looks like SWAT 4 ends with Vista 64bit… That’s a shame, I really love this game and I was looking forward to playing it on a fast computer!

    If anyone has any experience dealing with this then please let me know, I tryed searching for help everywhere…

  32. ascagnel says:

    @Amp:

    I believe you can turn Vsync on in the menu, and failing that you can enable it in the Swat4.ini/Swat4x.ini files. It’ll limit your FPS to the monitor’s refresh rate (usually 60), and most games will actually run better and without tearing.

    A game like SWAT4 should run about that fast on a GF9800 or equivalent.

  33. pepper says:

    Shawn, Swat 4 simply is a great game once you get into it, and the experience playing it with a few friends and completing a mission successfully is something i haven’t experienced in any other game yet! Although the game cant be baught anywhere anymore, i looked on the internet for any retail stores, but none sell the original or the expansion. and the only website ive found said they couldnt deliver it…

  34. Shawn says:

    Its still for sale in NZ. Most of them are Gold edition (original + expansion)

  35. Amp says:

    @ascagnel

    Thank you so much for the tip. The vSync did the trick – capped at 60fps. It works perfectly! Smooth 60 fps with all settings on max and no crazy GPU fan noise. This is just great!

  36. ascagnel says:

    @Amp:

    Glad to help. If you’re trying to run it on a widescreen monitor, though, it doesn’t work all that well: http://www.widescreengamingforum.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=13368

  37. Funky Badger says:

    Bah. got this, can’t get a co-op game set up with my “friend” who’s also got a copy (although can join other games no problem). HELP!

  38. pepper says:

    Are you sure you both have the same version? Sometimes both copy’s have been distributed with a different version, i believe the most recent update is 1.1

  39. Amp says:

    @ascagnel

    Super thanks! I got the widescreen working prior to asking about the vsync feature. It plays great!

  40. Paul Moloney says:

    I very tardily played the demo and am impressed enough to buy the gold version (available through PlayTrade on play.com for around €13). At normal level, it judges the difficulty curve nicely; I had to replay through the level a few times before I nailed it, but never felt frustrated. I’m not usuall a fan of these squad shooters since some feel like exercises in anal retentive, but i like this one.

    P.

  41. Alikchi says:

    Thanks for this. Inspired me and my housemate to buy this and give it a shot. Turned a couple lame nights into fantastic ones. Really, thanks and kudos, sir.

  42. LOL says:

    SWAT 4 is a Sierra product, not a Steam product.