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Playing these older tactical shooters nowadays makes me sad because they really don’t make them like they used to. Arma 3 may be the closest thing we have to a modern tactical shooter with a single player component. I think the first three Rainbow Six games and even the original Ghost Recon brought the genre to public attention but things have drastically changed over the years. Both Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon are not what they used to be and multiplayer focused gameplay seems to dominate the video game market today. Rainbow Six 3 for the PC may be the peak of the tactical shooter genre but SWAT 3 is easily my favorite. I can remember playing it for the first time and even though it doesn’t really hold your hand, I never felt overwhelmed by the mechanics. Rainbow Six 3 gives you the ultimate freedom of choosing and equipping your team, planning out your team’s actions, and then executing that plan with the hope that you complete the mission without anybody on your team dying, including yourself. I’ve never been good at any of that and I think that’s why SWAT 3 is more the game for me. You still need to think tactically but there’s no real planning. You think on your feet and need to approach every doorway, corner, and stairwell with caution. SWAT 3 has incredibly smart and even unpredictable AI that’s just unmatched, even in games today, giving it immense replay value. It was one of those games where you can see how much care the developers put into it.
SWAT 4 was the inevitable sequel released in 2005. Developed by Irrational Games and published by Sierra Entertainment, SWAT 4 may be the better known game of the two and does include some revamped mechanics and new features that are truly welcome. An expansion pack, The Stetchkov Syndicate, was released in February, 2006 and included new missions, weapons, and features that improved the experience even further. For this review I will be covering the SWAT 4: Gold Edition which includes both the main game and the expansion as well as a few mods that I feel are well worth checking out – the H.S.M. Enhancements Mod v3.0, the SAS Mod v1.1, and the SWAT 4 Remake Mod v1.3.1. I should mention that these mods do require the expansion to be installed. Now I know there are a ton of other excellent mods out there, of course, but these are the three that really stood out for me. Because I’m not into multiplayer I didn’t even attempt to try it here so this review will only cover the single player aspects. From what I understand some players still manage to get online games going and I hear the multiplayer was some great stuff back in its day.
SWAT 4 includes several modes to play through including Career, Instant Action, and Quick Missions. After launching the game for the first time you may want to play through the training course to familiarize yourself with the controls and mechanics. The Career mode is the single player campaign complete with thirteen missions. The Stetchkov Syndicate expansion includes seven additional career missions so you get twenty missions total. Instant Action throws you into the most recent mission you played through and Quick Missions are missions that can be created by the player in the Quick Mission Maker using the existing maps from the career missions. These custom missions can be saved into a mission pack that can be shared with others and can easily be installed. The Career and Quick Mission mode is really all I need in a game like this. Thanks to the randomized enemy and civilian placements and the various customization options for creating custom missions, there’s enough replay value here to keep you playing for a very long time.
From my experience, you wouldn’t play games like this for the storyline and as far as I can tell, the SWAT 4 career has no story. The Stetchkov Syndicate career includes the fictional Stetchkov crime family as the antagonists and that seems to be the only real attempt at connecting missions together but it’s far from an actual storyline. Most missions are unrelated, especially in the main SWAT 4 career, and require you to neutralize suspects as well as complete other various objectives like rescuing hostages and defusing bombs. Mission briefings will detail what your objectives are but sometimes additional objectives are added during specific missions. Right off the bat you can tell SWAT 4 is set somewhere on the East Coast of the United States. I never really read the manual so I have no idea if it contains information on the setting but apparently the game takes place in the fictional East Coast city of Fairview. It’s supposed to be an amalgamation of several eastern U.S. cities but when listening to some of the mission dispatches, you would immediately believe it’s New York. I mean they downright say New York locations like The Bronx and Staten Island. In one mission you can clearly see the word “Brooklyn” on the wall and even when restraining suspects, your fellow officers may make a comment about Rikers Island, an infamous New York City prison. I don’t know why the developers decided on a fictional city and then add direct references to real-life New York locations. Maybe it was originally supposed to be set in New York and then they decided to change it at the last minute, I don’t know but they definitely nailed that New York feel. I was born and raised in New York state but I can definitely spot a New York City native based on their accent and the accents of your team members and even your commanding officer are definitely New York, I have no doubt. Speaking of accents, the voice work is well done for the most part. It’s as good as it can be for a game like this that has no real story. The voice work of the commanding officer who provides mission briefings sounds believable as does your fellow SWAT officers during gameplay. Unlike SWAT 3, your guys are a bit more social this time around which gives them a bit of personality. During a mission, they’ll occasionally make comments about the current situation and sometimes joke around with each other. There’s no real character development or anything so don’t expect to get attached to any of your team members and even if they go down during a mission, they will never actually die and instead are just incapacitated so you’ll never have to worry about losing guys permanently. Ambient music is also present and sometimes it just sounds borderline creepy. When it kicks in during certain situations it really heightens the sense of tension. None of the music is truly memorable, at least for me, but it does a great job at keeping you on edge.
When it comes to the mission locations in SWAT 4, the amount of detail put into the environments is staggering. Not every location or building you infiltrate is spic and span and the environmental details do a great job at creating believable real-life locations. For example the second mission location, Fairfax Residence, shows that whoever lives there is clearly not a fan of spring cleaning. Clothes and garbage are everywhere, a plunger is just left sitting in the toilet, and the house may be susceptible to mold thanks to the water dripping from the ceilings of tunnels dug out in the basement. The person living there is clearly a deranged killer and that becomes obvious after entering the basement and seeing newspapers everywhere and cameras next to lights shining on dirty mattresses. These types of little details are constant throughout the entire game and it’s obvious from the get-go that Fairview is depicted as a much more grittier place than SWAT 3s Los Angeles. Things like furniture and other objects will show obvious signs of age, areas with dirt and other shit on the ground will be flooded with roaches, and graffiti is everywhere. Locations will also show obvious signs of trouble like blood on the floor and walls, money scattered around, furniture that’s fallen over, broken walls, and this is all accompanied by some excellent sound work. Things like civilians screaming in fear, injured NPCs groaning as they lay on the floor, the sounds of boiling… whatever in a drug lab, noises from arcade machines, and during some missions you can hear the sounds of muffled gunshots and chaos. It all helps to add to that feeling of tension and all it comes together really well.
There’s no denying that SWAT 4 is much darker in tone than SWAT 3. As I said earlier, Fairview feels very gritty and instead of only dealing with terrorists and gang members, you’ll have to rescue hostages from a disturbed killer and you’ll even come across the burial site of children in the basement of a building in the projects. Yeah, there’s some dark and even disturbingly realistic scenarios. There are, of course, the more traditional missions like thugs taking civilians hostage at a convenience store, armed robbers at a diamond center, and terrorists with bombs at the Department of Agriculture building.
Starting a Career in SWAT 4 is pretty straightforward. Unlike SWAT 3 where you had more options when creating your officer and choosing your squad members, in SWAT 4 you don’t really get to customize anything about your officer other than give him a name. After naming your officer the career begins and you are now an element leader, leading a squad of five team members – Reynolds, Girard, Fields, Jackson, and yourself. Before each mission is a briefing where you can learn about the situation, see a map of the area, choose your entry point, and more importantly, choose your equipment. Each officer is equipped with a primary and secondary weapon along with tactical and breaching gear. Commanding your squad is a big part of the gameplay and during a mission the team as a whole will be identified as gold but you can split up the team into two smaller teams of two, identified as the red and blue teams. You can command them to breach doors, restrain NPCs, and throw grenades, and as long as they have the equipment to do as they’re told, they’ll do it. The Stetchkov Syndicate introduces the hold and initiate commands. These commands are one of the biggest additions of the expansion because you can issue hold commands to both teams like having them prep to clear separate rooms or the same room from different doorways, and when you initiate the command both teams will infiltrate at the same time. It’s very cool to see when executed flawlessly. You can toggle the viewports of each team member so you can see what they see and even take control of an officer from this view to neutralize suspects or even command them to do something else. Snipers are provided in several missions and they will always be in fixed locations but you can toggle viewports to take control of them at any time. They will alert you when a suspect is in view and that’s when I would normally take control of the sniper and eliminate the threat.
I really don’t know anything about the rules and procedures of a real life SWAT team but I would imagine their ultimate objective is to preserve life. That’s what SWAT 4 attempts to simulate and it does a good enough job. Along with the various rifles, shotguns, and pistols you can carry, SWAT 4 introduces some less lethal weapons that are meant to neutralize rather than kill. The less lethal shotgun will fire beanbag rounds, you can also equip a pepper ball gun and a taser. The automatic weapons have different firing modes like burst, semi, and auto, and when choosing your weapon you can also choose the ammo type. Buck rounds is the standard ammo for shotguns and the 12 guage slugs is more effective against enemies wearing body armor. Most of the other guns come with standard JHP or full metal jacket rounds that are also able to pierce through body armor. The Stetchkov Syndicate includes some new equipment and weapons, both lethal and non-lethal, that need to be unlocked by completing missions. The grenade launcher one of the new standout weapons and can fire batons to incapacitate suspects, CS gas, or flashbang grenades. Speaking of grenades, in addition to the weaponry are grenades like stingers filled with small rubber balls along with flashbangs and CS gas for disorienting suspects.
To aid you on missions are different types of tactical equipment. The OptiWand is by far the most useful and if you don’t have at least one team member equipped with this then I think you’re playing this game wrong. The OptiWand is used to mirror under doors to see what’s on the other side and can also be used to see around corners. It’s an extremely useful tool. For me, door wedges seem to be the most useless. They will stop doors from opening and closing and I guess if you know the locations in and out they may be more useful. I only played on the Normal difficulty mode, and still got my ass handed to me quite a few times, but maybe door wedges serve a more useful purpose on the higher difficulties. Pepper spray is another useful tool to bring with you, especially if you don’t equip a non-lethal weapon or taser. Some civilians may not comply to your commands so you may need to whip out the pepper spray to get them to put their hands up. Melee attacks are introduced in the expansion so you can always just punch them if they don’t listen. Lockpicks are used for unlocking locked doors or you can always blow through them using the breaching shotgun or C2 charge. The Stetchkov Syndicate comes with a bunch of new equipment. Lightsticks can be used to mark locations you’ve already visited or even light up dark areas. If you equip the new night vision goggles it renders the flashlights, that are clearly visible and attached to the weapons, unusable which seems odd. Not that I would use both the night vision goggles and flashlights at the same time but, realistically, it doesn’t make sense. I guess that’s the idea, though so the developers decided to not let you use flashlights if you have night vision goggles, or it’s a technical limitation. The ammo pouch enables the wearer to carry additional ammunition for their primary weapon. Unfortunately, you can’t equip different armor types however the expansion apparently lets you wear no armor so you can move faster as well as pick locks and restrain people quicker, although I never found the option to do this in the career mode.
Most of the gameplay mechanics in SWAT 3 have been carried over into SWAT 4 and the end the result is mostly positive. You can still walk, run, crouch, and lean, however you can no longer move while leaning. Not being able to move while leaning is kind of a big deal and I think that’s my biggest issue with the gameplay. If I play cautiously, having to stop and lean all the time to see around corners becomes tiresome but just running into certain rooms unprepared can be stupid and since the suspects can be quick to react, you can die almost immediately upon entering. It’s probably the reason I used the OptiWand so much. In SWAT 3 your AI officers would lean around almost every corner but unfortunately, they don’t do that here. The user interface is much friendlier and now there’s a command button to issue commands to your team members quickly without having to fumble through menu options. You can also bring up a menu interface if the quick command button doesn’t show the command you want. For example, point your crosshair at a door and the quick command is usually to move and clear so you may want to bring up the menu and select flashbang and clear, gas and clear, or maybe mirror under the door if you think there’s a threat on the other side. I kept the menu interface command assigned to a mouse button and it’s just so nice and easy to use making SWAT 3’s command menu system feel clunky in comparison. Shouting at NPCs to get them to comply is still necessary as is reporting everything back to TOC, which stands for Tactical Operations Command. Once an NPC is restrained you must report it to TOC. Kill a suspect, report it to TOC. An officer goes down, report it to TOC. However, this time around, when incapacitated or restrained NPCs are reported, they’re not rescued when you leave the area and will remain where they are until the mission is complete. Securing weapons also returns and whenever a suspect is neutralized or restrained they normally drop their weapons so you’ll want to make picking them up a habit. During the career mode, you can replay any mission already completed and NPCs are always randomly placed so each playthrough is never the same.
SWAT 4 includes four difficulty modes which can be selected before starting each mission. Each difficulty requires you to achieve a specific score or higher in a mission to deem it a success. Easy requires no points, Normal requires fifty, Hard requires seventy five, and Elite requires ninety five points. Playing on higher difficulty modes means you really do need to be careful because any wrong move could mean life or death or negatively affect your score. For example, unauthorized use of deadly force is a penalty I acquired often which will subtract points from your score. Unless the suspect is aiming the gun or shooting, he’s not really considered a threat, and shooting him will result in this penalty. If he doesn’t comply to your command and becomes aggressive forcing you to shoot him, then that would be authorized use of deadly force. I think that’s how it works anyway. This penalty alone is an example of how the game really pushes you to use non-lethal weapons, at least until you can master using firearms appropriately. On Easy and Normal using lethal or non-lethal weapons isn’t that big of a deal but on Hard and Elite, if carrying a lethal weapon, you’ll want to really be sure you should take the shot. What makes it harder is that the suspect AI can have quick reaction times and if you’re not careful, you can be put down easily. Things like reporting events to TOC, reporting downed officers, and securing weapons all add to your overall score and obvious things like harming civilians or injuring an officer go against your score. If you manage to kill a civilian it’s an automatic mission failure just like when you die.
The Quick Mission Maker and the custom missions themselves are the real meat of the game for me. When creating a mission you choose from a set of customization options like the objectives, which can be the map’s campaign objectives or from a list of provided objectives like rescue all civilians, avoid officer injuries, things like that. You can, of course, select the map itself. In the expansion you can still choose all of the maps from the original game which is really awesome. You get to select archetypes of civilians and suspects, the amount of them, you can set the amount of resistance to comply orders, and what primary and backup weapons the suspects will carry. You can choose to have them carry specific weapons or any which means the game will randomly choose weapons for them when starting the mission. You can choose a loadout for your squad members or choose to select the weapons for them at the equipment screen. There’s all sorts of other options like setting a time limit to complete the mission, skill levels of suspects, difficulty modes, entry points, and when you’re done with all that you can save it in a pack along with other custom missions. Neither the original game or the expansion come with any pre-made quick missions but I did obtain a mission pack online years back when I first obtained the game. It may be an official mission pack from the developers although I could be wrong since I don’t remember where I downloaded it from. I think it would have been nice to have a few quick missions available after installation just to introduce players to the mode so they have some idea what it’s about.
I think it’s safe to say at this point that SWAT 4 is a great game but it does have it’s share of problems. The AI was exceptional in SWAT 3 but I can’t say the same for SWAT 4. The AI is great, no doubt, even better than most games, even today, but it does have several problems. SWAT officers will occasionally get stuck behind walls and they won’t restrain anybody on their own anymore unless commanded to do so but overall you can rely on them to watch your back. They will still keep their guns pointed at NPCs in view, shout at them to comply and they’re pretty good shots. They still get in your way every now and then but they show a good amount intelligence. Officers in my command were always going down but I think that’s more of a problem with my tactical skills since I suck at games like this. It’s the suspect AI that has more problems than the officers. For the most part they do alright. They move around, flee when in danger, and react quickly to situations. Although sometimes they do really stupid shit like one suspect may come in guns blazing only to be killed and others may come charging in from the same location and the end result is normally several dead suspects. Sometimes officers and suspects end up in a clusterfuck and just stand there for a bit before somebody would take a shot. Other times I would shoot a suspect and they wouldn’t move or I was at a close enough distance that a suspect should of heard my shouts to comply or reacted in some way but for some reason they didn’t see or hear me. That kind of stuff can pull you out of the immersion but luckily, it doesn’t happen all the time.
Immersion is one of the things a tactical shooter like SWAT 4 needs to have to keep me interested. Whenever an NPC is injured they will limp around and if you’re injured, you may be limping yourself, simulated by losing the ability to run. This game does include ragdoll physics because that was the thing back when this released, however the animations can be really glitchy like body parts rapidly shaking for no apparent reason. Also, the reload animations are really stiff but overall the animations are rather well done. SWAT 4 does not include any in-game vsync option so screen tearing is present. I was able to combat this by forcing vsync through the NVIDIA control panel. The Stetchkov Syndicate expansion does include vsync as an option however, with it on, the framerate would occasionally stutter which becomes annoying so I disabled vsync and used the NVIDIA control panel again to force it. After that it ran smooth as butter. I only experienced one crash and that was during my time with the expansion. Other issues are minor like sometimes my commands wouldn’t register, there’s some clipping here and there, and with the in-game vsync enabled in the expansion, the music would repeat certain sounds for some reason. I wasn’t sure if it was just the way music sounded but after turning off the vsync in-game, it never happened again. SWAT 4 was released in 2005 and does not include any widescreen options so I had to manually enter the resolution in the game’s configuration files. Unfortunately, you can’t adjust the field of view.
As excellent as SWAT 4 is, like with any good game, players think of all new ways to improve the experience and that’s where mods come into play. The first one I want to review is the H.S.M. Enhancements Mod v3.0. This mod adds five brand new locations along with new skins and new weapons, most of which are only used by suspects in the vanilla game. Some weapons have been renamed and some primary weapons have been made available as secondary weapons like the less lethal shotgun for example. When choosing weapons you can also see their stats like accuracy, fire power, recoil, and reload time. The weapon zoom speed has been increased and the zoom was disabled for specific weapons like the taser and pepper ball gun. The recovery rate of reticle blooms was also increased. Adjustments were made to ammo counts, damage output, and the mod even changes up the grenades a bit. The flashbang is now a multi flashbang grenade and now you will be affected by CS gas which is really annoying unless you have the proper headgear equipped. Yes, new headgear is introduced that provide different types of resistance. The mod does not include a penalty for unauthorized use of deadly force which you may or may not like but now you can take a shot at a suspect without worrying. It kind eliminates some tension because being careful with your shots to avoid killing anybody is a key aspect of this game and with it gone, you don’t need to get suspects to comply and can just shoot them instead. Other changes include AI adjustments, new sound effects, and other little things that you may not notice right away.
The new maps include an apartment complex, two restaurants, a power plant, and a farm. They are exceptionally well crafted, intricate, with excellent texture work although every map after the first seems a bit too large for my liking. I usually ended up backtracking through entire maps to find missing suspects or civilians in the vanilla game and it just seems more tedious now in the new maps. But that could also be because I haven’t quite memorized the layout of each map which would probably be helpful. Some of the new headgear is reflected by seeing through goggles or a riot mask during gameplay and I get it, it’s supposed to be immersive, but it just ends up being distracting. The goggles in particular really limit your view. Another problem I noticed is that sound effects were missing for some of the new weapon reload animations. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe they’re just not working or the creator simply hasn’t implemented them yet. I did notice that guns would occasionally get stuck in mid-air and the game did crash once in the middle of a mission.
The next mod I want to review is the SAS Mod v1.1. I believe this mod is based on the British Special Air Service, abbreviated SAS so some things you’re used to may be a bit different now. Tasers and pepper spray were removed so unless I equipped a non-lethal weapon, I resorted to punching civilians that didn’t comply. There’s new skins and several new weapons available and the modelling and texture work of everything is outstanding. Everything looks clean and well designed and it all fits in nicely with the existing assets. The new headgear is nice but this mod, too, makes you look through goggles during gameplay and again, it’s supposed to be immersive and just ends up being distracting, at least for me.
The “readme” file for the SAS Mod indicates you can equip and use frag and smoke grenades now, however I was unable to do so in the single player modes. These may be exclusive to multiplayer, I’m not sure. I noticed you won’t die as quickly now, at least on the Normal difficulty, since suspects aren’t able to one-hit kill you anymore. You can still die pretty quick if you’re not careful but combat is a little more forgiving now. For a more immersive experience, some elements have been removed from the HUD and you can no longer see objectives in the pause menu. You can only view how many events were reported back to TOC. This alone can keep you on a edge all the way through a mission since you may not be sure if you’ve completed an objective or not. You’ll probably want to make sure you study the briefing information so you know as much as you can about the situation before going in. There other minor changes like gang members being less accurate than terrorists with weapons and apparently new commands like being able to check if the door is locked without trying to open it, although that doesn’t seem to appear during single player gameplay. I’m wondering if that, too is a multiplayer only feature.
At first glance you may think the SAS mod plays exactly like the vanilla game with only surface changes but there’s a lot more here. I think many of the features I didn’t experience are exclusive to multiplayer which is a shame but for all I know this mod could have been originally designed for multiplayer. It’s still great fun even in the single player modes and the new guns alone are worth checking it out.
Last but not least is the SWAT 4 Remake v1.3.1 mod. I think this is the most ambitious mod I’ve seen for this game in general. All of the textures have received an HD face lift, there’s tons of new weapons, lethal and non-lethal, redesigned existing weapons, new skins, head gear, and several brand new missions. Some of the new missions were actually included in the H.S.M. Enhancements Mod. The entire career consists of the original SWAT 4 missions, The Stetchkov Syndicate missions, and the brand new missions so this is pretty much everything in one package with a ton of new shit.
All of the texture work here is excellent. There’s even pop culture references scattered around like posters of actual movies and video games. There’s new sound effects, new muzzle flashes, gun scopes, explosion effects, lighting effects, and the mod even includes a riot shield that will repel gunfire. It’s all pretty great stuff. I was actually searching for a mod that added iron sights when I discovered the Remake mod and while this doesn’t have it, it comes close. Whenever you zoom in now, the screen will transition to a scope view.
One would think this is the ultimate SWAT 4 mod. For the most part it is but it also has the most problems out of the three mods I’ve reviewed here. First, let me just get this out of the way; some of the headgear in this mod will also obstruct your view just like in the other mods. Apparently, everyone thinks this goggle view thing is a good idea. If only they would give us options to toggle them on and off. Now for the issues unique to the Remake Mod. For one thing most of the new maps are just bland and not interesting. They lack a lot of detail compared to the vanilla maps. In the Police Department mission there’s several doors that look like they can be opened but they can’t, however, this mission in particular, you can switch out weapons with others found in weapon racks so that’s pretty cool. Clearly these missions were not finished because you can’t even order your officers to open, breach, or clear rooms and sometimes they won’t even move from the entry point. Another problem is that many of the new missions contain a large amount of civilians to rescue and they never shut the hell up. Thankfully, these problems are only with these new missions and everything still functions as normal in all the rest. We can only hope the problems are fixed in future releases because there’s so much potential here.
The Remake mod does have some significant technical issues. During my time with one of the new missions the game crashed. Every now and then ragdolls would just go insane, moving all over the place. Some of the environmental lights look kind of weird, like they flicker or something. It’s hard to describe. But would I recommend the Remake Mod? Absolutely. Just for the fact the new weapons are awesome to use and because the original SWAT 4 and the expansion are combined in one thanks to the career mode consisting of every mission.
I want to mention that I did attempt to try the SSF Realism Mod v3.2 however after installing it, a trojan was detected. My antivirus caught it but I wasn’t going to try playing it after that. I downloaded it from ModDB so maybe it’s just that file, I don’t know, but I didn’t want to risk it again.
So in the end, I think the ultimate question you may be asking is is SWAT 4 better than SWAT 3? I would say no. Sure, SWAT 4 looks better than SWAT 3 and improves several things like the interface and command system but I think the AI is a step down in some ways and other things like not being able to move and lean at the same time really make a significant impact. SWAT 4 is in no way a bad tactical shooter, in fact I would say it’s one of the best. Even though the AI has problems, it’s not downright stupid like in other games and the extensive amount of replay value to be had here is just another reason this is one of the best games in the genre. It’s one of those games with a serious following and even though I only covered three mods, there’s plenty more to check out. Maybe one day we’ll get a true sequel or at least a real spiritual sequel but with the trend of shooters leaning more towards the multiplayer side of things, I doubt we will see anything this good for quite some time. I would recommend this game to anyone so if you haven’t played SWAT 4 and you’re interested in the tactical shooter genre, I would say go find a copy and enjoy.