The original SWAT game, released in 1995, was Daryl F. Gates' Police Quest: SWAT. Named after the former Los Angeles Police Chief who formed the world's first SWAT team, the original SWAT and its sequel were actually strategy games. It wasn't until SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle was released in 1999 that the series transitioned into the first-person-shooter genre. Throughout the years, each SWAT game has attempted to simulate what it's like to lead the world's most highly skilled and trained police officers into dangerous confrontations. It's been more than five years since the last SWAT, and the newest iteration of the series is the best one yet, offering an intelligent and flexible interface, a varied and highly replayable campaign, as well as multiplayer modes that include cooperative play.
As with the real-life SWAT teams, your job as an element commander in SWAT 4 is to take your five-man team into dangerous situations and defuse them. These situations range from a botched jewelry heist to high-risk arrest warrants to a raid on an illegal casino. In almost every mission, there are innocent civilians mixed in with the bad guys. Those of you who are Rainbow Six and Counter-Strike veterans will need to cool it on your itchy trigger fingers. Even when you do run into armed criminals, you don't have carte blanche to shoot them immediately. You have to follow the same strict rules of engagement as a real police officer and do whatever you can to subdue and arrest suspects without lethal force. Your guns are meant to be a last resort and should only be used if an armed suspect is an immediate threat to your team or civilians. This is the primary detail that separates the SWAT games from the military-style action games. The rules of engagement add a good deal of difficulty to the game, and SWAT 4 pulls this off well. At the end of each mission you're graded on how well you did, and more points are awarded for arresting as opposed to killing suspects. You are assessed big point penalties for improper use of force, and for the most part, these penalties are levied fairly and intuitively.
The 14-mission campaign isn't linked in any way. There's no overarching storyline that connects them all, so the campaign plays out just like a series of stand-alone missions. It starts you off with a training level that does a good job of acquainting you with the basics of using your weapons and commanding your teams. It's here that you're introduced to the game's interface. Your four subordinates are divided into a pair of two-man groups: red and blue. You can issue orders to the entire element or to each pair separately. Switching between the groups is done by tapping a key. The commands you give are done in a context-sensitive manner and are based on what your crosshair is pointing at. Point at a door and hold down the right mouse button, and you're able to access a menu that gives you different options, such as "Open and Clear," which orders your men to open the door and enter, or "Open, Bang, and Clear," which will order your men to open the door, toss in a flashbang grenade, and then run into the room to clear it of threats. Point your crosshair at a civilian and you can order your men to zip cuff him or her for safety. Aim at a locked door and you can order your men to pick the lock or blow it open with a charge or breaching shotgun.
The context-sensitive interface extends to a multipurpose use button as well. Point it at a suspect or hostage, and the use button will cause you to yell at the person to put his hands up and surrender. You'll be doing this a lot in SWAT 4, as you attempt to get suspects to respect your authority before shooting them. Point your cursor at a dropped weapon and you can pick it up to secure it. Aim at a cuffed criminal or civilian and your use key will radio a status report into command.
There are also interface options that allow you to remotely command one of your squad elements. For example, you can order red team to stack up at a door, and then leave them there while you take blue team around the corner to a second door (which leads into the same room). Even though you're out of visual range of red team, you can bring up a picture-in-picture window of what red team is seeing, and through that window you can order them to enter the door they're standing in front of. This is a neat option that allows you to simultaneously enter a room that has two doors. During a given mission there are also picture-in-picture windows you can open that give you a view of what external snipers are seeing, and you can even control your snipers via those windows.
It seems like a lot to take in, and certainly it takes a few mission runs before you become used to all the options available to you. But once you've gotten a few missions under your belt, ordering your squad elements and moving along with them becomes second nature. The structure of the campaign seems to mimic this standard learning curve, as the first few missions are rather simple and easy, but the difficulty ramps up considerably in the later missions, where you'll find complicated building architecture and numerous heavily armed suspects.