Have You Played… SWAT 4?

Whisper it – now the dust of assorted BioShocks has settled, maybe humble SWAT 4 is Irrational’s finest hour. It still seems strange that the studio behind magical undersea civil war had a crack a straight-down-the-line military sim before they visited Rapture. It’s precisely because more ambitious creative minds are in control of something that seemed destined for ordinariness that SWAT 4 works so well. It’s both a finely-balanced and extremely tense co-op tactics game and one that veers off into America’s darker waters.

Even nine years on, it feels imprudent to spoil SWAT 4’s lynchpin level. The sights it holds are unexpected and chilling, and in many respects foreshadows the world-building-through-environment that Irrational would excel at in the first BioShock.

To focus too much on the Irrationaliness would be to overlook how deft a squad game SWAT 4 is, especially in co-op. The need for precision, patience and strategy is absolute, especially in those levels where you’re required to take down foes non-lethally. Even outside of those levels, this is not a game about gung-ho violence, but about caution and awareness. Amazing, and not a little depressing, how rare that remains.

Unhappily, SWAT 4 remains unavailable for digital purchase. Hopefully someone will correct that soon. In the meantime, the second hand market is your best bet.


  1. Sp4rkR4t says:

    The games a true masterpiece and one that hasn’t even been challenged since. The world is in serious need of another SWAT game.

    • Ross Angus says:

      SWAT: The Line?

      • jonahcutter says:

        Considering the ongoing militarization of U.S. police services, that would be a relevant approach for a sequel to take.

    • Syra says:

      Genuinely one of the greatest games ever made. So good it killed the genre with a huge full stop. A decade later though, we could use a new challenger!

    • Shadowcat says:

      We don’t need another SWAT game. We need the source code to SWAT 4, so that the very few flaws could be fixed, leaving us with an almost perfect game.

      And heck, the Unreal engine licensing has changed hugely since then. I always figured the use of Unreal was a major impediment to source code releases; but maybe that’s no longer the case.

      I’d like to think that this was actually a possibility (whereas I have no faith that a superior sequel would ever be made in today’s market).

  2. unitled says:

    Nothing beats shooting paintballs of CS Gas in your co-op partners face before tasering them in the balls.


    This really is a gem. One of the things that is so good is that it puts you on a knife edge of tension every time you go into a room… You ‘fail’ by shooting people, but sometimes there’s no choice as they are about to kill hostages or (worse) you.

    Some incredible levels in there, including some utterly horrific bits that actually explore the things PEOPLE do to each other than pulling out cartoon bad guys.

    Oh, and the random element of each level (they move hostages and criminals around each time you play) means you always get a fresh experience, and every single door has a surprise behind it.

  3. sinister agent says:

    SWAT 4 is the best. THE BEST. It’s easily one of the most interesting, well-crafted, and plain fun games ever. I mean, they got basically everything else right, but the command interface alone would put it in front of basically every tactical shooter ever. And the AI is so brilliantly unpredictable, it makes every single attempt at every mission tense and exciting. The only thing that comes close is SWAT 3, which is about as good, but is also different enough to not quite fit the same mould.

    The first two are terrible, mind, don’t bother. Shameless self-plug for summary of the series: link to lonelymushroom.com

    • Asokn says:

      I just wanted to let you know that I read your summary of the SWAT series and found it really enjoyable, so thanks for taking the time to write that.

      • sinister agent says:

        Cheers! It was fun writing it. Well, except for the part where I had to play the first two. Really, really not worth a moment.

  4. Jiskra says:

    My favorite FPS of all time. I have been doing levels over and over trying to subdue all criminals without killing anyone. This truly is a gem.

    • Moni says:

      I’m trying to think of a list of first person shooters where you can yell people into submission.

      So far I have this and Skyrim.

      • spacejumbo says:

        You can add Payday 2 to your list.

      • Smigulp says:

        This! Was so fun shouting at everyone until they just gave up, I never really played anything like it… Too bad I’ve only played the demo (which is pretty damn awesome, recommended for anyone who wants to get a taste of the game, spent hours on it).

      • The True Turrican says:

        Also Judge Dredd: Dredd VS Death.

    • Syra says:

      That was amazing until you realise all you need is a pepperpaintballgun and all your guys with beanbag shotguns, so you jsut gung-ho into a room spraying paintballs at faces and telling your guys to go in blazing too. Granted on the later levels where the perps have gas masks and body armour this becomes a hellish risk

      It’s so delightfuly unpredictable though.

  5. Keasar says:

    One of the best co-op games of all time. So many good memories of breaching rooms, spraying people with paintball guns filled with pepper, tasering a friend in front of doors that a terrorist just opens and proceeds to shoot them in the face (I am still sorry! D:)

    I weep every day a little that this game isn’t available on GOG.com or Steam while Swat 3 is.

    • Press X to Gary Busey says:

      Even in the demo people were actually coordinating (somewhat) in the PvP multiplayer. The VIP mode (or whatever it was called) was loads of fun with with both sides gassing and pushing you around if you had the (un)fortune of playing as the target.

    • Jeeva says:

      Ack, me too. Some day, perhaps! Or is it in the hands of some dead-and-buried publisher?

  6. zontax says:

    You’re in my way sir!

  7. padger says:

    Best Irrational game imo. If Bioshock had been more like this it’d have been the best game ever…

  8. yabonn says:

    Sssso, I should buy it, even if all my “fascism sim” bells are going off?

    • sinister agent says:

      It is pretty much the opposite of HOORAH KILL ALL THE BADDIES. You’re penalised for killing people even if they’re shooting at you. On higher difficulties, there are levels where you can fail for shooting a fully armed and armoured terrorist – not instantly fail, but be told after the mission that shooting that guy was indefensible.

      SWAT 3 went further in some regards, although gave you far fewer ways to subdue people without killing – several scenarios in 3 aren’t about terrorists, but about ordinary people caught up in tragedies or mistakes. SWAT 3’s on gog, also, so a lot easier to get hold of than 4 (although the latter works just fine on Windows 7, with the standard “not all systems are the same” disclaimer). They’re extreme danger police sims, not Hero Cops Shoot The Bad Mans.

    • unitled says:

      I think it manages to avoid this by making the criminals on the various levels unquestionably bad people (but not to a cartoonish extent; these are people who have all committed real crimes). You’re never called upon to violently break up a greenpeace sit-in, for instance!

      And actually, while it can be a little simplistic to reduce your performance in maintaining the law to a simple number, the game incentivises you to play through causing as little harm as possible. Killing all the bad guys is certainly a way to go through it, but your ideal solution is to handcuff everyone (civilians included) so everything can be sorted out without anyone getting hurt.

      In a way, the game made me appreciate how difficult those life and death situations for law enforcement officers can be. You’ve got a very short time in which to make a decision, and the lack of things like ‘save points’ forces you to live with the decision and any consequences.

      • Grizzly says:

        The final level has you defending people who do research into STEM cells (which requires embryos) against terrorist who obviously don’t agree with embryos being used for research. These are the morally least questionable enemies in the game.

    • Distec says:

      If any depiction of law enforcement sets those bells off for you, then I guess stay away.

  9. Maritz says:

    This and its expansion pack are the best co-op fun I’ve ever had. Oh for another one of these, or another proper Rainbow 6 game.

  10. Colej_uk says:

    One of my fav games. They really need a digital re-release, preferably with updated resolutions and wot not. I think I preferred it to rainbow six due to it’s emphasis on not killing people- you are after all police, not military spec ops like every other tactical game.

    • David Bliff says:

      It would need Steamworks integration or something similar – it runs on Gamespy right now.

  11. G-Lord says:

    Still one of the best co-op games, even though one of my friends just couldn’t stop harassing the civilians.

  12. int says:

    As an element: breach, bang and clear!

  13. Cinek says:

    I have a better question: Have you played SWAT 2?

  14. empty_other says:

    When my pal heard SWAT 4 was coming, he told me “What, you havent played SWAT 3? You have missed out on something!” So me, him and another friend played SWAT 3 for a couple weeks. Stacking up on doors, doing proper tactics and stuff.. Awesome game.

    Then, when SWAT 4 was released, we were all equally disappointed.

    Theres a lot of small details it did wrong, but the one i remember the most clearly was that in SWAT 3 you had a lean key which you used while going around corners to minimize exposure. In SWAT 4 you couldnt lean and walk for some reason. So the safe way to get around a corner was to stop, lean, stop, lean. Its a small thing, i know. But i remember there was more reasons, i just cant remember what.

    • briangw says:

      I was actually going to bring up SWAT 3. I still think to this day that it was a much better game than 4 for all of the points you made.

      • Shadowcat says:

        My biggest issue with SWAT 4 compared to its predecessor was to do with multi-player:

        In SWAT 3 you always had a full-sized squad, regardless of how many players there were — friendly A.I. filled out the extra slots, and if a player died while there were still A.I. slots in action, they got to take over that character.

        In SWAT 4, there was no friendly A.I. in co-op play. If you only had two players, you had a squad of two officers — and consequently you were doomed.

        If I could have changed one thing about SWAT 4, this was it. I still love the game, but it ruined an incredible co-op experience for smaller numbers of players.

  15. DanMan says:

    The game I was hoping BF:Copsline would be a heir to. Maybe the next Rainbow6 will be close. But then again, UPlay is a thing.

  16. Haborym says:

    Hm, I played a demo of either this or 3, and I played a teeny tiny bit of 2. 2 was rather awkward if you ask me.

  17. DrollRemark says:

    I loved 3, LOVED it, and was very tempted to get 4 now I have a new PC, but it’s not digitally available? I thought I saw it on Steam recently. Humbug. :(

    • Uttan Lurze says:

      What really bums me out is that it was available digitally once upon a time. Maybe on Steam? Certainly on Direct2Drive where I purchased it. But I’ve never been able to re-download it from GameFly after this switch. So I “own” it, but can no longer play it. :(

      • David Bliff says:

        It’s almost certainly in rights hell. It was Sierra-published and who knows who owns the rights to the franchise. Though surely someone should be aware of the money to be made with a relatively-quick repackaging with widescreen support and netcode moved away from Gamespy. It couldn’t actually be that hard to update the game, especially since I recall widescreen functionality was possible just by messing with some config files.

        • kevmscotland says:

          Fairly sure Activision-Blizzard own the rights after sierra merged with blizzard and activision merged with them.

          If they ever make another, expect it to be Call of Duty: Cops.
          Sierra has recently been reborn however:

          link to sierra.com

  18. Lars Westergren says:

    I haven’t , but now I really want to.

  19. P.Funk says:

    In the process of packing up my room to move last night I found some decade old PC Gamer mags. One had a review of SWAT 4. Ironic to find this article up today. Apparently it got a 79 % which earns it a “Good”.

    Turns out this was also the issue that had me gushing over a preview of the as yet unreleased Company of Heroes and secured my intentions of buying Silent Hunter 3 thanks to its 90% review.

    Other scores include, Psychonauts at 90%, Empire Earth II at 94%. Helluva thing having a flashback to a time when apparently the X52 was a new piece of tech.

    • Hex says:

      I don’t think ‘ironic” means what you think it means, Alanis.

  20. Perkelnik says:

    Bought original years ago, the game is awesome.
    Does anybody know whether it works on Windows 7 x64?

    • sinister agent says:

      It works flawlessly on mine (CD installation. I might have a fixed exe, it’s been so long since I installed it that I can’t remember). Still a bit slow to load though, surprisingly.

  21. JiminyJickers says:

    I only ever played SWAT 3, I would love to play this one but have never seen it on sale anywhere.

  22. Agricola says:

    One of my favorite co-op games. Back in the days before Steam and broadband connections were commonplace, me and a mate were always looking for good co-op fps’s to play during our 2 man weekend “LAN Parties” in my spare room!
    SWAT 4 was one of the few that really ticked all the boxes. Every level was so tense and the requirement to NOT kill everything in sight really made it so engaging. Also the randomized enemies. We never really mastered it and the later levels would have us starting from scratch endlessly, due to some mess up one of us made. It made for great arguements!
    Would love a new SWAT to play with my mate on Steam these days. It wouldnt be quite as fun, but id give it a go!

  23. Paul.Power says:

    My main memory of this game is playing multiplayer and us all yelling “TRAILERS!” and “WHERE’S THE VIP?”* at each other. Good times.

    * unless you are the VIP, in which case you say things like “Where am I?” “Uh, how do I get out of here?” and “Don’t you dare shoot me!”

  24. Heliocentric says:

    FML to the knee is my preferred “Less than lethal” option.

  25. thedosbox says:

    This is one game where in addition to holding onto the original disks, I’ve kept multiple ISO’s in case something happens to the originals. A GOG edition would be lovely.

  26. Philopoemen says:

    SWAT3 was the reason I became a cop (well, not really, but it certainly didn’t hurt), and the main reason I ended up trying for and getting into my force’s tactical unit. Real life missions both more exciting and boring at the same time. And my SWAT3 TGOTY multiplayer shenanigans stood me in good stead.

    I was a bit put off initially by SWAT4 – it didn’t have the same flow of SWAT3. And the timing wasn’t great as it was more like work than work. I’ve recently reinstalled it – need to find a decent multiplayer community.

  27. buzzmong says:

    Swat 4’s a brilliant game, still just about works in mulitplayer as well.

    Tasering your friends when they’re least expecting it is endless fun :D

  28. JustAchaP says:

    I need to finish the game but I need a new dvd drive XD

  29. DelrueOfDetroit says:

    Hmm.. I will have to keep an eye out for this getting a digital release.

  30. El_Emmental says:

    As silly as it may sound, I think Overkill (Payday series) would be the right devs for a spiritual sequel to the SWAT series: Payday 2 is basically SWAT4: Bank Robbers Edition.

    I mean, it’s made of:
    – small heavily-coordinated squad
    – choosing every bit of their gear depending on their plans
    – with a pre-planning map and various intelligence informations
    – with optional assets
    – on map with randomized elements (room locations/guard position/door locked or not)
    – with a more rewarding, much harder non-lethal option (stealth for PD2, no wrongful use of lethal weapons in SWAT4)
    – that involves carefully investigating the level, to locate and neutralize threats without being detected by the other foes
    – with unreliable hostages to manage (only properly secured with zip ties)

  31. bobbobob says:

    Mark down another one for preferring SWAT 3. I played the first few missions on 4 and I was upset that they didn’t seem to follow a story line (SWAT 3 did loosely – something about a sports thing, or a UN meeting. I forget). It really took something away from it for me and removed my push to get through the later stages. Still a great game overall and there’s something about these games that wasn’t present in similar ones like Tom Clancy’s R6.

  32. seabass83 says:

    Really enjoy this column, especially the articles on:

    SWAT 4, SMAC, Blade Runner, Xcom Apoc, Darwinia… pretty much the most memorable games I played way back in the day.

    I’d love to see (if not already covered!): Sacrifice, Battlezone and Syndicate Wars

    They really don’t make them like they used to

  33. Shadowcat says:

    I always remember this one co-op game of SWAT 4. There were three of us at the beginning, but my squad-mates got picked off fairly early on, and I decided to see how long I could survive for. I was carrying exclusively non-lethal weapons — my favourite combination of the ‘baton’ ammo for the grenade launcher, and a stun-gun (both huge improvements to the non-lethal arsenal, provided by the expansion) — and although both are powerful options, my ammo was strictly limited.

    I don’t remember if I was initially more casual (expecting to die with no support), but after a few take-downs I found I was taking the mission very seriously; and the tension was ramping up — not only for me, but also for my friends who were viewing my actions on their own screens.

    The game seemed to turn into a mix of SWAT offense, and Thief-like stealth. Room by room I took them down. Eventually the batons were gone — put to maximum advantage; I’m not sure I missed even once — and then all I had was the stun gun — much better than the taser; but even so, I knew that every charge had to count, because after that I had nothing.

    It was my greatest SWAT victory ever.

    I can’t remember if I literally expended all of my ammo or not, but I think I was within one charge at best. I do know that I’ve rarely felt such an accomplishment playing a game.

    Although ultimately it wasn’t a very co-operative mission, it ranks among the best experiences I’ve had in a co-op game. SWAT 4 is awesome.

  34. HumpX says:

    As maligned as the multiplayer game was, Tribes 3 single player, which was also done by Irrational, was quite good.