The Cat Lady opens with a woman deliberately ending her own life. It’s a violent and disturbing story about depression, suicide, suffering, and terrible violence.
It’s also a heartfelt and touching story about trust, hope, and friendship. But if you’re in a position where morbid and powerfully emotional stories about death, loss and despair could have an adverse affect on you, it could be a very rough ride.
Back in 1992, there was a game on the Amiga called Dreamweb. A point and click adventure game set in the near future, you played as a man plagued by vivid and disturbing nightmares, which wreck his emotional state and eventually have him convinced that he has to murder seven people to save the world. It was momentarily notorious for showing almost several pixels of sexual activity between two pink creatures, one or more of which may have been a human. It seems quite ridiculous now to think that it caused a minor media stir. After all, today we think little of games depicting graphic murder, and interrupting some frankly workmanlike sex in order to shoot a dude while he clutches a pillow over his tackle seems fairly pedestrian. The game over screen was pretty great, though.
But that’s an aside. My real issue with Dreamweb is that it wasted its potential. An emotionally disturbed man who comes to believe he must murder seven people to save humanity? Who regularly hallucinates, and abuses the trust of people he loves to get closer to his targets? Who despite everything, can never be sure whether he really is the saviour of humankind, or just severely ill?
Well, no. Dreamweb almost immediately made it clear that yes, it’s all real. And you use your girlfriend to get close to one target in the same way you use key on door, and then she might as well never have existed. It was a huge waste of an opportunity.
The Cat Lady came almost 20 years later, and finally took up some of that slack. It’s Dreamweb crossed with Planescape’s deathless protagonist. Dexter via The-Crow-except-not-terrible.
I ought to state my bias here. I’ve written about my life-long depression before. I’ve contemplated suicide. Several people I love very dearly have self harmed and attempted suicide. I am not an expert on mental health, nor on suicide, but let’s maintain some semblance of order and suffice to say that any game about either subjects is one that I will observe with a particularly critical eye, but will also be prone to take very personally.
The protagonist of The Cat Lady, Susan Ashworth, wants to die. She kills herself during the game’s introduction. It pulls no punches.
But death, apparently, is no more fair than life, and no sooner has our Susan left the world of the living than she’s punted straight back into it, only now she’s immortal, and charged with killing five people before she’s allowed to die for good.
These five people are described as “Parasites”, but on hearing their introduction, anyone who’s had a close run-in with a psychopath will find their breath shortening, their pulse quickening, their muscles tensing. It is an emotionally charged game. That opening death is no mere gimmick, nor is it the last suicide you’ll see, nor the last time the threat of the Parasites will set your nerves on edge.
Structurally, TCL is very simple. It’s a work of interactive fiction presented as a fairly basic adventure game, with the player controlling Susan’s movements and actions through seven chapters, solving simple puzzles and picking sometimes-meaningless dialogue options as she goes about her day.
There are many works of fiction that rely on shock value, on borderline voyeurism, or on the simple sadism of ‘torture porn’. On the face of it, The Cat Lady is about serial killers doing awful things and the protagonist killing them. But to lump it in with the Saws and the jump scare ghost trains would do it a grave disservice. Rather, the irredeemible cruelty of these people is used to give them a real, primal sense of tangible threat, and to give a guilt-free sense of triumph when you manage to turn the tables on them. Its gore and grotesquery serve not to titillate but to induce revulsion and anger, and their constant threat and unpredictable appearances (not to mention the nonlinear narrative) aren’t just a plot hook – they also convey the subtext of intrusive thoughts. In some respects, the Parasites are a metaphor. It’s never overt or crude enough to turn them into cartoon avatars of mental illness that you can kill to cure yourself, but it’s there, a faint shadow beneath the surface.
The psychopaths in question are the Hollywood kind – transparently monstrous serial killers, cannibals, bogeymen with carefully ironed shirts. They’re the tiny minority of psychopaths who also happen to be insane sadistic murderers, not the regular, non-lethal emotional manipulators most of us will fall afoul of at some point. I confess that I was hoping to see more of the latter, but that would make it a very different game. Indeed, the opening had my head spinning with the possible directions the story could take. The setup opens up doors for Susan to become the deathseeker, the heroic serial killer, a vigilante fighting cruelty over crime, the cosmic plaything, the supernatural who might just be imagining the whole thing. That it never fully commits to any of these narratives is a double edged sword, but it does manages to bring together elements of all of them into a mostly coherent whole.
For her part, Susan is much more realistic. She doesn’t have Hollywood Depression (symptoms include being a bit sad, complaining a lot, and being an attractive young woman holding her head in her hands) nor does the game suggest her feelings could be vanquished overnight. She is severely depressed, and genuinely wants to die. The news that she’s now immortal, and later, the fact that she’s done brave and impressive things, don’t magically make everything okay. On the face of it this might seem dissonant, but to anyone familiar with depression, it’ll be all too close to home.
Then there are the Parasites-as-concept, and the paranoia their existence brings. If you’ve tangled with a psychopath, you already know that when someone gains your trust and betrays it, you question everything and everyone. Your dearest friends are suddenly cast in the light of suspicion and fear. It drives you to mistrust everyone when you need someone to reach out to the most.
Both these aspects turns the game into two stories – there’s Susan the paranoid, miserable hermit, and Susan the hero, but they’re both the same, and that’s kind of the point. It’s a horribly violent game of death and mutilation, and it’s a sweet and simple game about pain and friendship. Neither would be very interesting on its own. It’s the weird juxtaposition of the two that makes the game interesting, and also hits so painfully home. Depression isn’t consistent. It’s not the same behaviour every day. It’s smiling to hide how terrible you feel, it’s doing great things but hating yourself anyway. It’s feeling emotional equivalence between saving someone’s life and your neighbour being mean to you. It’s Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.
And that’s where TCL is truly great. Susan, openly calling herself The Cat Lady within an hour of playtime, in a scene straight out of superhero fiction, represents an immortal avatar of righteous vengeance, and at the same time, a vulnerable, lonely, desperately unhappy sufferer. She can do something wonderful, and then come home and want to die.
If you’ve been there, you’ve been there. But even if you haven’t, I can see it being pretty powerful, because the game isn’t only about her. From your first interactions, it’ll be clear that Susan’s being dragged into the world she tried to leave, and one way or another is going to have to deal with that. Just because you can’t die, doesn’t mean you can live, and by the end of the game you’ll be past merely trying to stop the Parasites, and faced with the question of what comes after they’re gone, when you’re suddenly mortal again. There’s one long scene in particular, a sudden oasis of calm and slightly dull normality in the middle of all that drama and carnage, that’s the most important scene of the game simply because it presents hope, in a form that requires no magic, superpowers, or unavailable resources.
It’s not without its problems. The story falters in the middle. The animations are crude and repetitive, and the game almost lampshades a few times, deliberately moving the camera away from the action because those animations were too complicated or expensive. A few characters sound like they’re delivering their lines by telephone, and while the voice acting works for the most part, there are a couple of performances that fall woefully short, and even the good ones falter, often at the moments that should be the most dramatic.
I don’t blame the actors, who with one big exception do a decent job – it seems like a simple budget constraint more than anything. In fact, that’s characteristic of most of my complaints about the game. It’s clearly constrained by available resources. There are also scenes and characters who are unconvincing or a little too ambiguous, with one of the Parasites in particular making little sense, and meeting a very dissatisfying end, and some characters’ reactions to events left a lot to be desired. It’s a real test your suspension of disbelief.
Its weird art style sits uncomfortably at first, and its music sometimes feels a tad too dissonant – notably the sudden lyrical pieces, which frankly were a mistake. It shifts abruptly when scripts are triggered, which is most jarring during dramatic scenes. Nonetheless, it achieves a lot with what little it does have available. Both sound and graphics come into their own in establishing the tone, and Susan’s present state of mind, with her monochrome flat a stark contrast to the vivid colours seen when fighting the Parasites, and most of her time at home accompanied by rain on the windows, interspersed with angsty whinge rock and the unwelcome intrusions of telephones and too-loud knocks on the door.
It goes without saying that The Cat Lady isn’t a game for everyone, and may even be divisive among people who’d be interested in its subject matter. Its impact hinges on few characters and sometimes shakey performances, and its inconsistencies and rough edges might be too much for some to swallow. I could definitely understand if either puts you off, but even if I’d given up after the first hour, I’d still rank it as one of the most memorable and emotionally affecting games I’ve ever played.
First Person Shooters have been a mainstay of video games since their Doom clone ancestors overthrew the tyranny of the platformer in the mid 90s. While the form has developed enormously in just about every regard since then, and genre-bending has become practically mandatory since Deus Ex etched itself into the minds of a generation in 2000, the pace of innovation has slowed drastically in more recent years, and there are few examples that deviate from the concept of “shoot all the dudes to win”.
Simple shooters are fine, of course, but have their limits, and if thought about for long enough lead to some awkward philosophical and ethical ponderings. Just how justified is it, exactly, that this generic avatar of player action is allowed to rampage around another oil refinery, New York subway, or plane of existence, gleefully annihilating every living thing in sight? After all, even the real people we charge with fighting our wars or policing our streets would be hard pressed to explain a body count half of that of a typical FPS. Real police, and even soldiers, would much rather their antagonists simply stop shooting at them and give up.
Fortunately for me, and for you too unless you like completely pointless posts, there’s a whole series of games that confront this exact discrepancy.
The “blazing guns” cover is an outright lie.
SWAT, or to give its full clumsy title, Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: SWAT, was spun off from Sierra Entertainment’s maddeningly fussy Police Quest series of the late 1980s. These were adventure games based on real (US) police procedures, and were comprised almost entirely of design decisions so cruel and hamfisted that they might as well have come round your house and called you a useless prick.
However, the Police Quest games did have the distinction of being designed by real police officers Jim Walls and (duh) Daryl F. Gates, and it’s this authenticity that explains much of the appeal to its fans, although personally I would prefer the even more authentic police experience that would result from lunging wildly at a constable. I am not a fan.
If you enjoy hating people you’ll love this guy. He’s a total dickhole.
A common trick in Sierra’s adventure games was to punish you the player at every turn for any deviation from their set list of actions, leaving zero room to take the slightest chance. As a hypothetical example, chasing a suspect to a fork in the road might give you a choice between going left, going right, or checking the ground for footprints. In a Police Quest game, whichever direction you chose would be wrong and result in a game over screen, until you checked for footprints first, even if they led in the direction you chose first.
Distressingly, this very notion was ported faithfully to the first game in the SWAT series, released in 1995 as an FMV interactive movie, before everyone had realised what a god-awful format that was for anything.
For those lucky enough to live in ignorance of these interactive movies, they consisted largely of watching grainy video clips broken up by point and click screens, and apparently dug writers and actors from the same lead-lined trough as Hollyoaks, then spent an hour or two gently concussing them. SWAT was no exception, although the acting is unusually competent for the genre. That is to say, you couldn’t simply replace the actors with life-sized crayon drawings without losing something.
The guy on the left, meanwhile, is the safest guy in the game.
The player takes on the role of a new recruit to the Los Angeles SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team, condescendingly referred to as “pup”. You’re introduced to some of the ranking officers, given a few speeches, and then take part in several training excercises while waiting for a call-up. You’re also expected to read up on SWAT procedures for entry tactics, radio discipline, proper escalation of force, and so forth. But most of the time you’ll be training.
It’s not very good. It’s awful in fact. The first SWAT game combines the awkwardness and tedium of sitting through mandatory FMVs (you’re even chewed out by your boss if you attempt to skip some of these – the game takes itself as a serious simulation, so you’re not skipping a cut scene, you’re some idiot cowboy walking out of a life-or-death briefing) with the horrible all-or-nothing procedural puzzles of the Sierra back catalogue, with a horrific UI thrown in for good measure. While the training rifle ranges are relatively forgiving, the punishment for the slightest mistake or hesitation in a mission is either instant death or dismissal.
Worse still, it’s often unclear what exactly you did wrong, even if you’ve read all the relevant training documents. I repeatedly failed the first mission for saying “Level one side two”, indicating that I was on the ground floor, left side of a building, when it was a bungalow, so stating the floor I was on, while accurate, was considered enough of a deviation from the script to cancel out everything else I said, causing my CO to call me a twat and leaving me sat there helpless until I failed the mission.
Or until I passive-aggressively let the inevitable happen. Get ’em, Gladys!
Every mission is like this. It’s killed stone dead by a terrible user interface and rigid adherence to the One True course of action, punishing you mercilessly at every turn, but seldom explaining why. Worse still, this is during the highlights of the game – call-ups comprise maybe half an hour of play in total, with the rest being endless repeats of the same training excercises, and a brief but quite pleasant section before some missions where you’ll question witnesses and relay information to your boss.
Most of the time though, you’ll be repeatedly training, and while there is a little variety here (you can cross train as a marksman, which I’d recommend simply for the sake of variety), it’s neither challenging or fun.
Get used to this view, is what I’m saying.
Having said all this, I do have a strange sort of respect for SWAT. It’s clear that authenticity is its single priority, and SWAT teams surely do spend most of their time training. The campaign is extremely short, but does make some effort to randomise outcomes should you be mad enough to play it through again. The attempt at immersion is fairly strong, and while simple, the brief sections where senior officers applaud or criticise your efforts are quite convincing. The confusion and anger from fellow officers if you fart around would be excellent if they weren’t so inevitable thanks to the horrible controls, and there’s a wealth of information in the training/background sections, giving a brief history of the SWAT outfit, a summary of its goals and principles, and some details on its methods. It’s surprisingly interesting, although admittedly this may only be in contrast to the game itself.
It paints a portrait of the SWAT outfit as very much a policing one, repeatedly emphasising that their and your purpose is to save lives, not kick in doors and kill people. Indeed, the first time I shot someone (well, aside from a confused old woman when the game pissed me off), I was placed under investigation, even though it was a clean shoot and saved the life of a hostage. I didn’t resent this at all, and it’s handled professionally by the NPCs. This is done well – SWAT and their ilk aren’t there to kill scores of cartoon villains like in other games, but rather, as in real life, to train for 300 hours so they’ll know how to exhaust every possible option before firing a shot at anyone.
In explaining what SWAT is and does, and what it’s not, the game is quite a success. Everywhere else, it’s terrible.
Of course, I can’t recommend anyone plays SWAT, as even if you’re interested in police procedures, it’s nearly 20 years out of date and can all be found online now anyway. It’s a frustrating game in a clunky format, sunk completely by plain bad controls, interface, and feedback. The acting and writing is merely okay too, so there’s no comedy value to be had either (although hurling a flashbang at the confused old woman did make me laugh a lot more than I should probably admit). It seems that 1995 agrees with me too, as the game was not a great success.
“You think reading the manual is enough, kid? Ha!”
Have you ever had a weird ‘twang’ in your neck?
So what happened next? Well, nothing for a few years. Developer-publishers Sierra had a lot on their plate at the time, including a bid to break into the Japanese market, a sale of the company and subsequent restructuring by CUC International, and the release of crap-but-profitable Phantasmagoria, which perhaps put SWAT’s lukewarm reception into a rather poor perspective.
Along with just about everyone with a functioning cerebrum, Sierra wisely dropped the FMV format and released a follow-up in 1998 under the name Yosemite Entertainment.
Still carrying the Police Quest name, SWAT 2 nonetheless moved radically away from both its FMV and adventure game roots, instead presenting the player with an isometric tactical strategy game. Rather than playing a specific character, the player takes on a more abstract commanding role, tasked with selecting, training and equipping a team of SWAT officers over a series of linked missions. There are some puzzle-like elements involving communicating with suspects over killing them, again emphasising the life-saving aspects of the operation, and you’re rated based on the number of live suspects and hostages you get safely out of a mission. Each officer is rated on various weapon skills, as well as miscellaneous abilities like dog handling, explosives, and medical know-how. Training and equipping anyone costs money, and this must be managed over the course of the campaign.
There’s also a counterpart in the terrorist mode – this is a full campaign, only here you take on a commander in a charicature of some kind of extremist hippy cult, bent on a campaign of terror and destruction because THE MAN is keeping them down and hemp is like, totally a superfood, dude. Naturally, terrorists are not penalised for killing, but they’re poorly equipped and trained, and their options more limited than their lawkeeping enemies’.
Their profiles are wonderful, however. Whiteboy Jesus Squad: Assemble!
It all sounds quite promising, doesn’t it? The concepts are sound, and the campaign structure could have worked well, but unfortunately SWAT 2 is utterly ruined by bad controls and a terrible interface. Better than its predecessor’s, admittedly, but the faster-paced nature of the missions render the control problems far more serious. The interface is almost entirely mouse-driven, with simple, vital actions such as firing a gun requiring that the player drag the mouse across to a menu, click a gun, then drag back and click the target, and then repeat the process if they want to do something other than stand still and shoot all day.
Want to arrest a guy, but then he opens fire, so you have to shoot? Well, you’ll have to move the mouse back to your gun, then move it back to the suspect… you’re in the open and want to take cover before he shoots you? Welp, you’d better unselect your gun again, then click into cover, then select your gun again, point at the suspect and shoot… but wait, did you leave the “arrest” icon ticked? Because now instead of shooting, your officer will run back into the open to arrest him. It’s pretty close to unplayable.
Can’t see anything? Get used to that.
The tiny graphics make line of sight difficult to judge, and combined with the fairly primitive animations, leave the mission areas lacking any interesting features or character. The terrorist campaign is a welcome addition and is delivered with humour, but feels under-developed compared to the more varied Good Guys one. Player voices are adequate, but flat and unmemorable, and the sound effects are similarly bland. Finally, the AI might as well not exist, so dependent are your team on your constant clicking.
It’s far too cumbersome to effectively control a single character, so carrying out the kind of co-ordinated maneouvres either side relies on is an excercise in futility and soon invites an RSI. It’s not even the kind of micromanagement that fans of early Rainbow Six titles would enjoy, as forward planning is kept to a minimum. Indeed, the overall impression is of a game that’s built like a 2D Rainbow Six, but is controlled like a poor man’s Syndicate.
I can’t help but feel that it would have been far better served in turn-based portions. It would still be a little stale and underwhelming, but missions would at least feel manageable. As it stands, I really couldn’t recommend SWAT 2 to anyone, much as I respect the bravery of such a drastic genre shift. It’s a terrible game, and perhaps modern interface standards have rendered this judgement far harsher, but it’s just not deep or rewarding enough to warrant the time it will take you to get used to its quirks.
Terrorists fail due to player apathy. Poetic.
So what next? Well, onwards, to SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle! The third game in what was now a bona fide series of its own was developed by Sierra Northwest, another subdivision of Sierra, whose ever-changing structure and ownership in the late 90s could be the subject of its own migraine-inducing article. Released in November 1999, less than 18 months after SWAT 2, SWAT 3 took an isometric strategy game, and made it… a first-person shooter.
“Mans spotted! Shoot the mans! All the mans!”
No no, stop that. The pitchfork thing is just so passé, and more importantly, this was absolutely the right choice. Whether the transition was down to sinister executive types insisting that all the kids wanted in 1999 was another Half-life we may never know, but the result was a much better game, and as a bonus, one that was even more effective at delivering the message of “cops are supposed to save lives”.
Works in theory.
Again, the player is offered a campaign comprised of a series of missions. This time, however, instead of managing finances and training your team, you directly control the leader of a five-man “element”, and over the course of the campaign must earn the respect of your colleagues by completing missions and making smart decisions. Medals may be granted for particularly good performance, and better still, the campaign has a story, involving increasing terrorist activity in the buildup to a United Nations conference. Each mission also has its own story, with many being plausible real-life scenarios rather than dramatic showdowns with cartoon villains. Named civilians and suspects are common, with many unique character models appearing, often with a little backstory both for flavour and to indicate what to expect from them.
Mission briefings are interesting and should be listened to carefully, as they can clue you in on what to expect from a suspect. Missions are semi-randomised, with enemies, hostages and bystanders appearing in different places or numbers, and even attitudes altered – the suspect who shot you on sight once might surrender the next time. All this plus the necessarily limited first person perspective makes the game highly tense and far more unpredictable and involving than earlier games.
It’s remarkably humanising, too – a suspect could be a violent extremist with body armour and an AK47, or he could be a confused and frightened clerk in the midst of a tragic breakdown. I’ve a screenshot of a civilian I had to shoot once that still makes me feel sad and a little guilty every time I see it – I knew full well he wasn’t one of the terrorists, but he was armed and panicking, and the angle forced me to shoot him in the head to protect myself. The game acknowledged this as a clean shoot, too.
Pink shirt dude, I am so sorry.
Instead of the icon-heavy mess of SWAT 2, or the arbitrary context-sensitivity of SWAT, you now control your teammates with quick and simple keyboard commands, listed in the corner for ease of use. A typical mission will involve choosing an entrance to a building or area and methodically sweeping every corner of it for suspects, civilians, and sometimes specific equipment or evidence. While you’re free to use whatever tactics you see fit, you will soon find that SWAT’s standard procedures, as outlined to you by the game, are chosen for good reason – they work. Carelessness costs lives, frequently your own, and while the game is tremendously difficult, it’s mostly fair, and frustration is minimal as it’s almost always obviously your own fault for being reckless or letting a situation get out of hand.
You’ll use your optiwand (a camera on a stick used for peeking round corners) constantly, you’ll flashbang and gas everything that might even theoretically be large enough for a gunman, you’ll cover and be covered by a teammate constantly, and you’ll feel like a champion among mortals when you save the day.
The optiwand reveals a gunman lurking round the corner (top right).
Points are deducted for injured officers (who are also out of circulation while they heal up), lives taken, objectives failed, and frustratingly, for any bad orders you issue. The exact system is a little unclear at times, and it can be very annoying to come through a long mission that you thought went well, only for your reputation to suffer for some unknown calls that your team decided weren’t good enough.
Despite these complaints, it’s an excellent twist on the FPS genre, and even with its limited armoury and rather primitive shooting mechanisms, it remains one of the most tense and immersive games I could name. Being forced to consider gunshots as a very last resort transforms the experience. The fear when a door opens and an unknown man walks in is palpable, and the screaming and shouting as hostages panic and your team yell at suspects to surrender are more effective at establishing drama and excitement than any big budget explosion-and-cutscene fest. SWAT 3 does tactics well, and it does escalation wonderfully.
Equipment is rather limited, but it’s not a problem.
The friendly AI is impressive, and will respond to most situations competently, although they can be a little gung-ho, and annoyingly, they mark you down even if they themselves kill a suspect, but it’s a small price to pay. They’re also easy to control for the most part, with a clever windowed camera mode showing you their point of view in a corner for easy co-ordination and commanding, and they will even show a little initiative in handcuffing suspects and securing weapons if you’re busy or can’t be arsed.
The terrorist campaign has been dropped entirely, but the payoff is a varied, challenging, and highly rewarding experience quite unlike any other.
That is, until the next game in the series.
By 2005, Sierra had been through several staff layoffs, been bought by Havas S.A, which was renamed to Vivendi Universal Publishing, and its development arm was no longer putting out very much worth talking about. After a long break, the SWAT series fell into the hands of Irrational Games, rightly famed for 1999’s venerable System Shock 2, and under-celebrated for the marvellous Freedom Force series. Working from the same engine built for Tribes: Vengeance, Irrational took the rather bold step of not drastically altering the entire genre of the game, and instead released another first-person tactical shooter, SWAT 4.
Shock! Tasers are highly effective, but short ranged, and you only get one shot.
It is magnificent.
SWAT 4 dropped the story and reputation elements of SWAT 3, and lost a little of its thematic variety, but in return it delivered satisfying shooting mechanisms, more tactical options, and ramped up the tension to a sometimes unbearable degree. Again, the player leads a team of five SWAT officers, who can be split into groups and ordered remotely using an efficient and flexible context-sensitive menu, into a series of crisis situations, and again, the player must subdue everyone present with as little bloodshed as possible. Causing too much damage or failing to report significant events back to HQ will lower your score, and if too low, you’ll fail to progress.
This would be a clean shoot.
This would not.
This time the NPC AI is much improved, and terrifyingly unpredictable. Suspects will wander about a level, and if they see you they might open fire, surrender immediately, or run away and hole up with a friend somewhere. Suspects who’ve heard you coming might lie in wait and open fire as soon as they see the door move. They might attack if they see one cop, but give up if five of you kick the door in and scream at them. Even civilians can cause havoc by refusing to submit to arrest, or running in a blind panic.
Or just generally getting in the way.
To compensate for this, you can equip your team with a wider variety of less-lethal items such as tasers, pepper spray and horrendously painful “stinger” grenades. You’ll lose points for any kill (although far less if a suspect is shooting at you or threatening a hostage), so taking full advantage of these is mandatory on higher difficulties.
Just another few incredibly tense stand-offs.
The shooting itself is improved, with two ammunition types having significant pros and cons – hollow points will do less damage against body armour, but full metal jacket ones might go straight through your target’s arm and kill a hostage on the other side of the room. A shot or two in the arm could disarm a suspect, and taking hits yourself will impair your movement or accuracy.
Most of all though, what you’ll remember about SWAT 4 is the shouting. It would not be a gratuitous pun to call it a first-person shouter, such is the importance of yelling warnings and threats at anyone who crosses your path, and they’re not shy about returning the favour. As with SWAT 3, it’s an effective tool and works wonders for the atmosphere, with much more effective voice acting across the board.
Less complex than Rainbow Six, mercifully, but planning is important.
Impressively, there was even an active multiplayer presence, at least until late last year, and a quick and easy mission maker allows you to populate any map with a variety of NPCs, and even remove the embargo on killing, should you be tired of playing nice.
All in all, SWAT 4 is the pinnacle of a series that’s taken more genre shifts from game to game than just about any other. It might be ironic advice to any publisher out there who’s already convinced that the FPS is the only viable genre in existence, but SWAT only got there after trying other approaches first, realising that the core of the series was its completely different attitude to shooting, and then finally refining the process. Both it and SWAT 3 are excellent games in a disappointingly small niche, and ones which deserve a place in any game collection.
My team secure a hostage while I remotely direct another team. SWAT 4’s command menu system has never been matched.
Sadly, with its publisher Sierra absorbed into the Activision blob and subsequently closed, and its last developer not interested in a follow-up even after being explicitly asked, it also looks like it’s the end of the line. What’s the moral of the story? Well, I guess there are two. Firstly, in a time of a million games about shooting, the best one considered shooting to be an admission of failure, and secondly, don’t break the law, because as any cop worth their salt knows, creeping up silently to pepper spray you and scream in your ear is goddamn hilarious.
After a long break, tempted by unexpected news of a free expansion, I have played some more E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy over the last few days. I still have things to do with it and it’s still provoking some thought, but that can wait. For today I finally gave in and tried the expansion, Blood Games. It’s (ugh) multiplayer. And… wow.
As feared, Streum’s decision to focus their efforts on this was a really terrible one. Anything but the most off the wall, original multiplayer system couldn’t hope to build on what made the single player game so unique, and while the game modes introduced by Blood Games aren’t bad, they are utterly ordinary.
I’ve only tried the basic all vs. all deathmatch mode, not least as there was only one server with more than four people playing, and it’s fun, but very badly thought out, extremely unfair on new players, cuts out almost everything that made EYE interesting to begin with, and the playerbase, while not unpleasant, was barely into double figures throughout the whole evening.
Players spawn with a random weapon and armour, which goes a little way toward helping new players, except when it just makes it even harder. You only get one clip of ammunition, so with a couple of exceptions, using the weapon cleverly is key rather than simply brute forcing it, and almost every round will turn into a swordfight before long. Still, there are at least some fun tactical options in choosing how and when (or whether) to use the weapon you’re given, as well as any you might collect from fallen foes.
But while you might start with the minigun (and therefore have about a 70% chance of wiping everyone out), you might also start with the terrible sawn off shotgun (which is even worse in multiplayer because it only comes with two shots, and its one microscopic advantage of small size doesn’t apply, as there are no inventory restrictions)…. or the medkit.
You might start armed with only a medkit. In front of a hostile interceptor armed with rockets. For several levels have environmental hazards, which aren’t explained, and for a while seem to just be the game randomly killing you off (and deducting points for the “suicide” of being unavoidably killed by a random, off-map mortar). And finally, players can take their single player characters in, who can jump forty feet to your three, hit harder and faster, and while your dedicated hacker (or simply lower level character) struggles to fire more than two accurate shots from a kneeling position, they’re shooting with 100% full auto accuracy from the hip while sprinting and flying through the air. If you want to catch up – just to break even, you’ll have to grind the singleplayer side missions for approximately ten thousand years. Added to all this is the frustration and tedium of the Counterstrike model of deathmatch, wherein players get one life per round and must sit the rest of it out before they can play again. This is bad design in a game with random unavoidable death, and it’s particularly baffling given that the single player had an in-story system of “lives” that saw the player resurrected on the spot every time he died. Here it just seems unreasonably cruel.
The one potentially great thing about it is the melee system. Parrying with your sword will block any incoming shot from the front, be it from a pistol, minigun, or a sniper round to the face. It drains your energy though (and note that higher level players commonly have more energy), so you can sometimes overwhelm a defence (ie: prey on weakened enemies, or just use the minigun), or you could time your shots so that you hit them in between them dropping their guard and stabbing you. Or you could run and regroup, or get them in the back, or, more likely, get your own sword(s) out and have a duel. They’re quite fun, and four or five people fighting it out can be a good laugh, but it’s far too arbitrary to be truly satisfying. Hit detection, range, speed of swings, and even basic things like the number of contacts a swing can hit are a complete crapshoot – you’re as likely to hit two enemies with one shot where in the same position five seconds ago you hit nothing, and instead exploded as someone seven feet away apparently killed you by stabbing your shadow. Some melee weapons occasionally fail to swing at all.
So it falls far short of its potential simply because it relies on the wonky melee combat from the single player, only you can’t tear into the mooks here because they’re like you, and can parry your attacks all day until someone’s wild flailing happen to please the random number gods, who choose to strike down the other player.
You can’t use augs. You can’t hack (well you can, but it’s totally worthless, as everyone’s defences are beefed up to absurd levels, so even if you could somehow hide without getting attacked, you’d likely run out of time before you hacked one target). You can’t use psi. If you haven’t built your character to be a shooting, stabbing whirlwind of bullets and blades, you’re at a huge disadvantage. Oh, and there are little niggles too, like the number keys still not consistently delivering the right weapons, no indication is given of how many other weapons you have, and the chat messages disappear within nanoseconds, are unreadable while you’re typing, and for some reason dead players’ messages are visible to those still in the game. This would have been a design flaw at the turn of the millennium. In 2013 it just seems embarassing.
I’ve not played the team mode yet. I’m told you can use psi powers and augs in it, and that it’s class based. Maybe team mode redeems it, but I wouldn’t know, because there were never enough players on to find out. In four hours there were at most about ten, maybe twelve people playing on one server, with a handful scattered about elsewhere.
I don’t enjoy saying any of this, because I like EYE and want its clearly deranged developers to do well. But this is not going to win anyone over, and I can’t see it offering more than a few nights’ worth of play for existing fans.
If you already have E.Y.E., I do suggest you give it a try. It’ll be a laugh for a few hours, and the maps, while not spectacular, are rather interesting and well-realised. Everyone else though, well, my previous thoughts stand.