Description of SWAT 3: Tactical Game of the Year Edition
The great thing about most first-person shooters is that you can wade into them all guns blazing, with little regard for the health and saftey of those around you. Most shooters are set in a sci-fi setting, and as we all know the only good alien is a dead alien. If in doubt, shoot. That trend for wanton violence has been the norm since Wolfenstein, but it has changed a little of late – Unreal had creatures which would be helpful if you didn’t kill them, and of course Capture The Flag multiplayer games pit you in a co-operative team situation where covering your friends’ backs as just as important if not moreso than hunting the enemy on your own. The very popular Red Storm Tom Clancy inspired games Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear both place you in a team of special ops soldiers, with the usual objective being to take down a team of fanatical Arabic or similarly stereotypical terrorists. SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle breaks new ground by arguably being the first tactical first-person shooter where teamwork (with AI buddies) is the prime focus of a single player game and where emphasis is put squarely on real-life situations ahead of movie-style gunplay. It’s predecessor, SWAT 2, was an isometric squad-level strategy game where players directed the action “from above”. In SWAT 3 the perspective is rather different – you’re placed firmly in the shoes of the leader of a 5-man SWAT element. The setting is 2005, and it’s World Peace Week in Los Angeles. You’ve been detailed to ensure no violent or terrorist acts threaten to break up the peace event. In a 16 mission career game you’ll face situations varying from arrests of small-time crooks in their own homes, to a nuclear “backpack” crisis at the LA Convention Center (which is the very same building where the E3 game expo was held this year…). That 16 mission count is rather on the light side, especially given the game’s lack of multiplayer play (a surprising omission since Red Storm said recently that 30% of their Rainbow Six buyers signed up for online gaming). Given that some of the missions are rather short, you’re probably left with about 10 missions which can be replayed in the stand-alone mission mode and still offer a decent level of enjoyment and challenge. The variety in settings is very good, and each environment is very well crafted, but longevity is going to be an issue for a lot of players. That said, the positions of “suspects” and civilians in each mission is randomised on each replay, so you’re never sure where the threats are going to be each time around. You’ll also get extra game time because there is no in-mission save option; in this case I think the no-save policy adds to the tension, but some people will no doubt argue that Sierrawant players to replay full missions if things go pear-shaped to ensure they get more mileage from that relatively low mission count. The game does come with some limited tutorial information; there’s text descriptions of many SWAT procedures and tactics… terms like “slicing the pie”, “NFD” and “stacking” are all explained quite well in this in-game section. The manual leaves a lot to the imagination however. The only “tutorial” mission is the Shooting House, which is a sort of 17th mission in which you can wander a dark building taking pot shots at wooden targets. The only way to learn to use full tactics properly is by diving into the missions, either in stand-alone mode or in career mode where you pick a squad of eight men and take them into action for the full duration of Peace Week. Mission variety is good; the early ones are quite simple and short, but they soon get a lot bigger and tougher (especially on the hardest difficulty setting). You can easily spend 30 minutes on one mission, with the biggest having some 20 or more baddies to nail. Settings include small and large houses, an air-traffic control tower, a building site, a church, a bank, a nightclub, a TV station, some sewers, a hotel, and the LA Convention Center. There’s no outdoor missions, which probably explains the lack of helicopters, snipers or other such LAPD units. The bad guys range from the expected fundamentalists to the perhaps less-expected Sovereign America militia group. The game has a heavy slant on offering realistic equipment and trying to make realistic tactics pay off. It’s not a true simulation per se, but it’s as close as I’ve seen for a first-person game… and that feeling of authenticity is one which makes the action more immersive, and which in turn makes the gameplay more tense and engrossing. When kitting out you get access to primary and secondary weapons, noise flash devices (NFDs), CS gas, C2 explosive charges, lightsticks (green glowing sticks used to indicate cleared rooms), toolkits (for picking locks and defusing bombs), handcuffs, and an extending mirror (for checking around corners). Weapons include the MP5 machine gun, the M4A1 assault rifle, and a Beneli shotgun. These have flashlight attachments which are very useful in underground or night missions. If you want bazookas or BFGs, you’re in the wrong game… As SWAT element leader, you can pick your four other element members, two of whom go into the Red team and two into Blue. In the career mode there are many element members to choose from, with bios for each officer. There are no skill ratings, just years of experience in the LAPD, so you assume an officer with 20 years service is better than one with 3 years. In career mode you have to work around injuries, such that you always have four men to deploy. The Red and Blue two-man teams give you your tactical options in the field. You can command either your whole element or just the Red or Blue team, e.g. you can ask the Red team to “Breach, bang and clear” on a door. When ready, one officer opens the door, the other tosses in an NFD, then they both enter and attempt to deal with any hostiles. The command keys are quite clever – it works like Battlezone with hierarchical numbered orders, e.g. the “bang and clear” order for Red is ‘2’ then ‘1’. Reporting a neutralised baddie is ‘4’ then ‘3’. The “intelligent” mouse cursor highlights only the options available for the target you’re pointing at. After a while, the number system becomes second nature. However, one snag for the less co-ordinated among us is finding the right key in the heat of the moment… pressing ‘7’ (the “surrender now” key) while trying to watch a suspect isn’t easy. I’d say this is a game well-suited for the excellent Game Commander voice-control system, but sadly I don’t have the hardware to try it (Dear Santa…) The other flaw in the dual-team command system is that you can’t split the teams up because you can’t give remote commands. You have to be able to see the thing you want the team to act on. For example, you can “stack” a team on a door, move away to another room and then command your team to enter, which they’ll do. You can then order them to search that room, but to get them to go through another door after that you have to return to them to point and click on the desired door. This makes coordinated movements possible, but limited. You can see what your officers can see, thanks to the in-helmet opti-wand camera, but that view is for visual information only. There’s no equivalent of “Peterson, try the door in front of you”, which is a shame. The command menu changes depending on the mode you’re in – in stealth mode you have “quiet” options, while in dynamic mode you can use NFDs to stun opponents. Either way, the whole command aspect feels very good, and is enhanced tremendously by the vocal feedback your men give you, e.g. “Clear for Blue”, or “Red has an opening left” or “Civilian is co-operative” – rather like the chatter in a good flight sim, your SWAT “wingmen” will let you know exactly what’s going on. You also get chatter from “TOC” and “High Ground”, which are your SWAT contacts outside; the latter will report on any movement they see, which can provide useful clues. SWAT 3 lacks the in-mission planning mode of Rogue Spear, having no 3D map for you to plan movements on. It also lacks any map mode at all… you have to remember where you’ve been and what the room layouts are. You can use lightsticks to mark cleared areas, but in the dark, underground missions it’s easy to get disoriented. This may be realistic, but it’ll likely frustrate a few players. The need to follow procedure is more than cosmetic. You need to report captured, injured or killed suspects or civilians, so that the TOC people can send in men to recover or remove the people or bodies (this is an unrealistic abstraction in the “heat of battle”, but it’s good for gameplay and less tedious than escorting suspects away manually). Suspects and civilians alike must be cuffed before extraction. You also need to give your team prompt orders – if you mis-call statuses, or fail to issue orders, your men will start acting on their own initiative, and your leadership (command) rating will drop. It’s vital to keep your own officers alive, not only to help you in the current mission, but in subsequent missions in the career mode campaign. Death can come in an instant, often from a single shot. The “redline” bang-you’re-dead screen makes me jump every time I get killed, such is the tension. On the flip side, one wrongly placed shot can kill a hostage, which also means game over. The mission status screen gives a hint to how many goals you have left to complete, but it’ll sometimes lie about the bad guys, presumably due to incomplete intelligence from the briefings (or maybe due to a bug, who knows…) The game oozes tension, and with the added atmosphere imparted from the friendly chatter, every moment is both enjoyable and yet possibly your last. While the ability to crouch when moving makes little difference, the ability to lean around corners can be rather adrenaline-inducing (it’s a tactic the enemy AI will also use, especially on the harder setting). SWAT 3 ‘s graphics are good enough to keep that immersive feeling alive and running. Officers move in a fluid, generally realistic way, peering around corners as they go, tossing NFDs on your command. Each officer carries their name on their back, in their team colour, and their weapon and flashlight movements appear very authentic. The attention to detail is good… you can shoot through glass, see spent cartridges on the floor, see reflections in mirrors, close doors as well as open them (though none ever squeak, nor do you hear footsteps), and track enemies by trails of blood on the floor. If you have the beef in your system, you can run at 1280×1024 in Direct3D mode; I found that 800×600 was fine on my Pentium 3/450 with TNT1 card. There are a few clipping bugs, most noticeably where handcuffed or downed characters can sometimes be walked through. You’ll also see occasional “limbs through walls” glitches, and a graphic oddity in the entrance to the LA Conference Center, which is a little disappointing. As is the fact that while you can turn on light switches you can’t shoot out light bulbs. Overall though, the visuals are high quality and add to the playing experience. The AI is, generally, pretty decent. The friendly AI is good at following your orders, be they “bang and clear”, “search” or “stack on a door”. Your men seem able to watch each others’ backs, and make searching patterns which minimise their chances of walking into a trap or other bad situation. It’s possible to play the game just letting your men do the hunting and killing (and thus taking the risks). In fact, my first two missions were won without a shot being fired by anyone – the suspects surrendered when commanded to drop their weapons. It’s quite fun just to watch your men dealing with the enemies, but of course a lot of players will want to wade in themselves. The main friendly AI failing is that it has no memory of mistakes… if an officer is downed when entering a room or doorway, you can watch as the next officer makes the same mistake, and the next… leaving you to call out a fleet of ambulances… not too clever, and very frustrating when it happens… The enemy AI is solid. Enemies will wander and hunt you down, and respond to you in different ways each time you play a mission. Hostages and other civilians will also run around in a panic, and give you some lip if (when) you handcuff them. The baddies don’t always respond to noises, and will often stay in the room they’re in even with World War III going on a few yards away. Perhaps if every enemy made a beeline for you at the slightest sound the game would get too hard (or very short, whichever way the brief firefight went). The harder the difficulty setting though, the more likely they do get aggressive in hunting you down. Winning on the hard setting is, as the name suggests, very hard. The AI is very capable of popping out from behind cover to take a shot at you. SWAT 3 is a very enjoyable game. It’s strength lies in putting you in a realistic environment which is ostensibly a first-person shooter yet one where teamwork, planning and patience are the order of the day. There are some notable shortcomings however. Top of the list is the low mission count, or at least the low “worth replaying” mission count. After that, the lack of multiplayer (which the game is crying out for – lead a team each in a co-op multiplayer mission!) is very disappointing, though not everyone’s into online or LAN play, of course. The occasionally brain-dead friendly AI is a pain when it fouls up. Despite that the lack of an in-mission save ability isn’t a minus – in SWAT 3 it positively contributes to the tension and the feeling of realism, of being there, of every move and order being critical. The fact that the fastest running speed (obtained by holding down the right mouse button) is rather pedestrian by Quake standards is, in my view, a good thing. This isn’t a sci-fi anything-goes shootout game, but Quake -ers may feel they’re playing in slo-mo. Yet perhaps that’s a good thing in a world with lethal bullets and no health packs. The only other negative point that’s worthy of mention is the way your spoken commands get queued… if you issue four or five commands, one or more of which may be a command for a suspect to surrender, they’ll get spoken in turn, with the last one coming out a good few seconds later. Overall SWAT 3 offers a gaming environment that should be experienced by any action-oriented gamer who might appreciate realism and nail-biting tension ahead of gung-ho respawn-oriented frag-fests. SWAT 3 at times mirrors the eerie quiet of Thief, yet it poses the need to think tactically in the same way a squad-level strategy game does, but when the bullets start flying you’ll need the reactions and accuracy required of any action-oriented shooter. The pace and tempo of the action swings as each mission unfolds. If you dare to play on the harder difficulty setting, it’s a real challenge, perhaps too challenging. Yet it remains fun, even in that split-second when you realise that one bullet has just spoiled your day. The question is whether you’ll get the playtime from the game that the street price of $40 should deliver. The 16 missions are diverse and varied, both in environment and goals, with some excellent detail in every one. They can be played in any order. You can dip into any mission at any time, which is handy, as I’m stuck on the sixth (bank heist) one, but I’ve completed 13 of the 16 despite that. There is some repetitiveness to the breeching of doors, the sweeping of stairwells and the searching of rooms, but when all is said and done SWAT 3 offers exceptionally tense gameplay, and its team-oriented, real-world slant gives it a relatively fresh and innovative feel. Short? Yes. Lacking multiplayer? Yes. But it’s fun all the same, and that’s always the number one selling point for any game. SWAT 3 narrowly misses out on winning a GDR Award, but look for Sierra to hopefully add multiplayer support in the inevitable Mission Pack.
Review By GamesDomain
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