Why ‘SWAT 4’ Remains a Shooter That Compellingly Plays Against Type

Irrational’s pre-‘BioShock’ shooter, re-released this month, still feels unique for its genre, although the subject matter has become more controversial.

|
Jan 30 2017, 4:00pm

It was all going so well. The majority of the perps were cuffed, weapons secured, kneeling on the filthy linoleum floor of the Quik Fuel. The hostages were safe and we were wrapping up. There was just one target left at large. Unfortunately, a door opened at the wrong time has the unintended side effect of bouncing our flashbang back into the middle of my five-man team. The lucky criminal seizes the opportunity. We're all dead.

Many games are designed to make the player feel powerful. Titanfall 2 puts you in command of a colossal mech, while Doom invites you to tear off a demon's arm and beat him to death with it. SWAT 4's digital re-release, appearing on GOG.com on January 24th after years spent AWOL in the gaming ether (aka restricted to those with the original disc from 2005), has come at a perfect time to topple the infallible protagonist so popular in the current FPS climate.

SWAT 4 casts the player as the tip of the spear held by the longest arm of the law. The task ahead of them: resolution of a series of dangerous situations, with the minimum loss of life. While it's far from the first police procedural game, itself a part of the long-running Police Quest series (dating back to 1987's In Pursuit of the Death Angel), I still regard SWAT 4 as a zenith for the, I suppose, sub-genre within which it sits. Many others have followed in its wake, but none of them have nailed that same feeling of actually being the police quite like this.

Header and all SWAT 4 screenshots courtesy of Activision.

And yet, it's not the easiest game to recommend. In the years that have passed since SWAT 4's initial release, militarization of police forces in the US has increased dramatically—in 2015, 90 percent of American cities with populations over 50,000 had their own SWAT teams, four-times the figure of the mid-1980s. More recently, Craig Atkinson's 2016 documentary, Do Not Resist, painted the police as an "occupying army". 

"Being Swatted" has also found a sinister gaming relevance in recent years. While the FBI has used the term to refer to the hoax calling of a SWAT team, or at least a police response unit, on an address where there's zero cause for alarm since 2008, in 2014 a developer of Destiny had police show up at his house as the result of a call claiming that there was a hostage situation. There was not. In 2015 The New York Times ran an article outlining how Swatting had become a real concern for streaming gamers, focusing on Counter-Strike streamer Joshua Peters' live interruption by a wrongly called SWAT team, who initially make him and his family lie on the ground, at gunpoint. They'd received misinformation that Peters had just shot his roommate.

There are some moments in SWAT 4 that cut a little too close to the bone, and for some, it won't be a comfortable game to play.

There are some moments in SWAT 4 that cut a little too close to the bone, in light of what's played out in the very-real news in the years between release and revival. There are scenes of pepper-spraying hostages who won't assume a position, and the bleak routine of seeing a squad-mate shouting at a corpse to surrender. And for some, it won't be a comfortable game to play, for all of its mechanical triumphs. 

Real-world concerns have shifted its depictions of elite police officers operating at their peak to parallels with incidents where people in those very positions have reacted wrongly, with tragic results—and they go beyond the names that make the international nightly news. Jason Westcott, 2014. Donnell Thompson, 2016. These fatal shootings of innocent people almost feel countless, and it's natural that many will be resistant to playing a game in which you are the person making the call: to shout out demands, to step back and reconsider, or to go in with guns raised and eager trigger fingers. 

But this is a game that treats its violence with respect, and presents it consistently as the very final course of action in any situation, when all other options are extinguished. It also lets you know when you've gone too far, and punishes you accordingly.

One of the reasons SWAT 4 works so well is that you're not an infallible "hero", at all. You're remarkably fallible. If you don't get taken out by a criminal, you're just as likely to be sent back to the start of the level by your end-of-mission debrief, which summarizes everything you got right and wrong before awarding you points and a rank. Fail to call in a status report, fire at an enemy without shouting a warning, or simply forget to pick up a firearm dropped by someone you've cuffed, and you'll lose points. Mess things up enough to drop below the points threshold dictated by your difficulty level, and it's time for a do-over.

Shooting people here really feels like failure.

SWAT 4 was produced by Irrational Games, and the Boston-based team managed to tap into what made Sierra Northwest's SWAT 3 of 1999 tick before adding their own touches over the top. What the preceding game achieved, so rarely for shooters of the late-1990s, was real, meaningful weight in its violence. Unloading a weapon felt like a last resort, as its impact on the situation was irreversible.

SWAT 3 was a high-pressure mix of tense periods of waiting and brief explosions of no-options-left combat, its focus on the busywork of being an officer in such a position. But it never felt boring, or by the numbers. Its sequel took that atmosphere, that itchy drama, and the moment-to-moment mystery, and improved the immersion as befitted better technology. And it set the stakes higher, with memorably intense scenarios playing out, taking some truly dark turns along the way.

There's no overarching story here. The missions ask you to breach and clear nightclubs, Chinese restaurants, and banks across the fictional East Coast city of Fairview, each one completely unconnected. And yet exploring these environments reveals incredibly thoughtful touches from developers that certainly could have gotten away with less.

Nobody is expecting a horror story when moving into a tenement block on another seemingly routine operation. But soon enough players uncover a doomsday cult with a penchant for dabbling in explosives. As progress is made towards the basement, you find the recently dug graves for the murdered children of the cult. That this is sold as a police procedure simulator, first and foremost, the discovery of such a scene is completely blindsiding.

It's environmental storytelling like this, dedication to the details, which would be fed into Irrational's next shooter, BioShock. In my opinion, SWAT 4 and its Stetchkov Syndicate expansion have actually aged better than the undersea horrors of what came next. Sometimes these touches are a little on the nose, like seeing a serial killer's lair wallpapered with newspapers reporting his crimes. But each detail adds to the believability of the game's fictional city setting.

Believing that Fairview is a real place in the real America is key to the SWAT 4 experience, because by taking the role of a police officer—not a Battlefield Hardline-like badge-wearing commando, but a law-abiding team leader who is having every action dissected back at base—you're committing to protect the city and to fulfill the final objective on every mission: "Bring order to the chaos." Most of your time will be spent putting plasticuffs onto people, reporting the status of everything to the command team outside, and trying to make sure nobody gets shot. But when conflict happens, it happens fast, and it's where SWAT 4 instantly distinguishes itself as a classic.

Your "best" course of action is also the one of greatest risk.

Opening fire on people here really feels like failure. In many tactical shooters of both then and now, the tension ratchets up as you creep around, and the combat acts as a release valve. But in SWAT 4, the pressure doesn't ease off—every time you fire a gun, you've just escalated the situation, quite possibly making it worse.

Killing a suspect, in the "best-case" scenario, will award you zero points at the mission's end. Shoot a suspect who is surrendering, fleeing or doing anything that isn't pointing a gun at someone else aggressively, and it counts as an unauthorized use of lethal force. Do this even once on the harder difficulties, and you'll fail the mission.

Which means your "best" course of action is also the one of greatest risk. You need to convince a suspect to surrender, which can involve shouting at them, or even hitting them with a mouthful of CS gas. But these actions can be difficult to execute when said perp is pointing a shotgun at your face—and one blast from it will instantly kill you.


There are other options, of course: the stinger grenade, which pelts people with rubber bullets; a non-lethal Taser; or even a paintball gun filled with PepperBalls. But, again, these criminals don't exhibit the kind of restraint that you're supposed to, and taking it easy on them can so often be your undoing.  

You learn to hit every room like a whirlwind, not allowing the enemy time to take up arms with any purpose. Bust open a door, throw a flashbang, shout down anyone who even thinks about raising a barrel. SWAT team sights are trained on enemy extremities, in the hope that nobody needs to leave in a body bag. And yet, I can certainly remember screaming my own frustrations at both human and AI squad-mates who've put a perp down hard before I could get a word in—and I know, now the game's available again, I'll do the same.

Whether you do, too, comes down to your personal feelings on SWAT 4's depiction of police forces at the forefront of life-and-death situations. The world of 2005, the landscape into which this game was first issued, feels like a long time ago. There were fatalities at the hands of US police forces back then, of course—but the 15 documented incidents of 12 years ago pales beside a genuinely staggering figure of over 1,000 in 2015. (For further comparison, there were three fatal police shootings in the UK in 2015.)

But what I will say, again, is that this shooter understands that shooting isn't actually the best course of action, in the vast majority of cases. That felt unique in 2005, and it still does in 2017. Which is, for me, reason enough to rediscover it, whether you're a tactical shooter fan or simply somebody who likes to see popular genres playing against type.

Follow Jake on Twitter.