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.