It is SWAT it is

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.



Filed under Games

5 Responses to It is SWAT it is

  1. squareking

    It seems the next logical progression for the series would be SWAT 5, the F2P MOBA.

    It took me a long time to realize these games were connected by the same thin thread. I remember seeing SWAT 4 in a store and thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe there are 4 of those FMV things now…is FMV still a thing?” before wandering off to play Civ IV.

  2. DanMan

    I love(d) that game. I guess the closest we can have atm. is

  3. Joshua

    I think it was Jim Rossignol who, in his Modern Warfare 2 review, noted that there was so much killing that the act of killing itself became meaningless.

    SWAT 4 absolutely does not do this. Considering the recent bouts of police agression in the US lately, I’d say it should be a mandatory part of police training.

  4. Great text. Now out on GOG. In defence of the first game, I think they made that as a prototype to sell in to policedepartments at the time, it always seemed like a possible firmwareidea.

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