SWAT 4 Review
By: ChockrickBear | Jun. 27, 2018 | Views: 62 | Keywords: shooter tactical squad open
A deep, challenging squad shooter about saving lives, not taking them.
Police Quest Series
I learned of Police Quest: SWAT as a kid when my brother played the Police Quest Collection. Police Quest 1 to 4 were point-and-click adventure games where you were a police detective investigating murders and you were scored on how well you followed police procedures from questioning witnesses to investigating crime scenes to working in the office. They seemed kind of boring most of the time because they didn't involve lots of action and shooting, so I wasn't really all that interested in playing them for myself and I just watched my brother play.
Police Quest: SWAT seemed more interesting because it looked more tacticool, with a greater emphasis on high-risk missions rather than driving around town questioning people. SWAT was an FMV game, and like the previous Police Quest games, you had to follow proper tactics and procedures to the letter to win the missions or else you and your team will get gunned down by the suspect. The game had a classroom session, teaching you most of what you need to know, including mirroring corners, slicing the pie, rules of engagement, communication conventions, obeying orders, and your duty as a police officer. The game didn't allow any freedom in how to do things because the suspect will magically appear and shoot you if you didn't do what you were supposed to. Still, it was incredibly tense because you didn't know what to expect around every corner and everything had to be slow and methodical because you and your team were risking your lives to get the drop on the suspect to arrest without firing a shot. You weren't elite special forces blasting through doors, flooding into rooms, and gunning down bad guys, you were human beings resolving things peacefully with minimum force. Neither my brother nor I played SWAT 2 because the top-down strategy seemed to betray what made SWAT 1 so tense.
Then came SWAT 3, which was a first-person shooter in the spirit of SWAT 1, but better because it wasn't hard-scripted and you had the freedom to approach as you saw fit. The goal was to take suspects alive by stunning them with grenades and yelling at them to surrender and it was probably the most innovative shooters around. It was not about twitch shooting, but good tactics. Stealth entries were the best part of the game because of the tension of speaking in low voices, mirroring corners, and carefully creeping in. The game did have its quirks. There was a lack of effective non-lethal options to subdue stubborn suspects. You had to keep throwing gas grenades and flashbangs at their feet to stun lock them so you could keep yelling at them over and over, but your team would automatically gun down suspects who took too long to surrender, so you had to go in by yourself if you wanted suspects alive. Some of the maps were too large and complex for a 5-man squad to clear safely, especially when there was a time limit to disarm bombs placed around the map (that damned sewer level). It didn't help that the suspects were also insanely fast and accurate, requiring you to be slow and careful.
Then came SWAT 4. I was excited at the prospect of a new SWAT game, and when I tried the demo, I was disappointed at first. The game didn't have the realistic feel of the previous game. You and your team sounded like young Hollywood actors and there was no stealth entry. You order your team to enter and clear, they just start shouting and charging in head-first instead of quietly acknowledging, slicing the pie, and creeping in. What was once a game about the realistic depiction of police tactics, turned into a depiction of elite special forces. Even then, SWAT 4 still had a lot in common with its predecessor, does important things better, and is not as dumbed-down as the new style would suggest.
The game involves commanding a SWAT team to arrest criminal suspects and restrain civilians by stunning and yelling at them to surrender rather than shooting them dead. You order your team to breach and clear rooms, and you are provided with tools to help you do this safely, but it is up to you to make the most effective use of them. At the end of each mission, you are scored on how smoothly and in-accordance to police procedures the mission went. You are deducted points for downing suspects, not reporting secured suspects and civilians, having downed officers, improper use of force, etc. Your final score determines whether you have "won" the mission, with higher scores required on higher difficulty levels.
SWAT 4 has The Stetchkov Syndicate expansion that comes with the Gold Edition and features new game mechanics that make the gameplay smoother and more challenging. The expansion is not seamlessly integrated into the base game and you can't play the base game's tutorial or career mode through the expansion. However, the base game missions are available in the expansion as custom missions, so you can play everything through the expansion, although you have to manually create each mission and follow the mission order. The career mode is nothing more than a playlist of all missions (there are no cutscenes), so you aren't missing out by skipping the base game. The main difference is that the mission briefings will have a big "INVALID" stamp over it because it's not the "official" career mode, but you can still listen to the briefings and get the story. I recommend playing all the missions through the expansion to take advantage of its new mechanics.
Combat and equipment
Rules of engagement
You have to abide by police rules of engagement where you are only allowed to use lethal force if the suspect points his gun attempting to shoot at you or anyone else. If you don't, you will receive a major penalty to your final score, with the amount based on whether the suspect was incapacitated or killed. To shoot legitimately, you need to have your crosshair on the suspect and then click at the exact moment they raise their arm to the shooting position. It is hard to do consistently because there is often little to no window between when the suspects point their gun and shoot, so you should avoid risking it and stun them ahead of time with grenades.
Arresting NPCs is a matter of destroying their morale with non-lethal weapons and handcuffing them when they surrender. The amount of morale they have determines how responsive they are when you yell at them. If they don't comply, shoot them with the beanbag shotgun or stun gun, issue compliance again, and repeat until they surrender. While injuring civilians hurts your score, the game doesn't actually count use of force for suspects until they go down and you are not penalized for wounding a suspect for whatever reason. The game doesn't care whether you yelled compliance before shooting. So, you can shoot the suspects' arms to get them to drop their weapon, which will likely lead to surrender when they are completely unarmed, but this is hard to do because there seems to some random element on whether they drop their gun. Even if you legitimately incapacitated or killed, it still deducts from your final score because taking them alive and conscious is worth more points. Yelling compliance is used to "test" their current morale and it doesn't do morale damage by itself.
You can pick from a variety of assault rifles, submachineguns, shotguns, and pistols. Assault rifles are the most accurate, but have slow accuracy recovery. The submachineguns recover aim faster, but are less accurate and do less damage. The shotguns are only effective at close range due to wide spread, but do the most single-shot damage. Pistols are backup weapons that you might use for range if you picked a shotgun. The damage model is realistic and everyone can be dropped in one to a few shots depending on weapon, ammo type, and enemy armour, but this means raw damage doesn't have a practical effect. Because of this, accuracy and recovery speed is the only thing that matters. The MP5 is the best all-round weapon because it is fast and accurate. Shotguns are very situational, so they're not practical to use. The assault rifles are situationally effective for levels with long range, but there are always close-range situations where they're slow and hard to depend on.
Because the game emphasizes arrest rather than kill, non-lethal weapons are much easier to use than lethal. Realistically, they are called "less-lethal", but in-game, they don't actually inflict lethal damage and can be used liberally, even if you shoot the head. The non-lethal weapons inflict morale damage on top of stunning targets for a lengthy amount of time, so they help you subdue non-compliant NPCs. For primary weapons, you can pick a beanbag shotgun or paintball gun that fires pepper balls. The pepper ball gun has a high rate of fire and ammo capacity, but doesn't work against gas masks and is harder to aim because the shots have travel time and an arcing trajectory, making the gun less reliable than the shotgun. On the other hand, beanbags are practically hitscan and works against anyone. Also, body armour has no bearing on a target's susceptibility to stun. The main advantage lethal weapons have over non-lethal is the ability to shoot through unbreakable windows. But that means killing suspects when you should be taking them alive, which hurts your score, so you're still better off risking non-lethal, especially at higher difficulty levels where you need a higher score to win.
You can also pick two variants of stun guns as your sidearm, Taser or Cobra, although the Cobra is superior in every way because it can load two shots compared to the Taser's one. The stun guns are different from the shotgun and pepper ball gun as they wipe the morale of a target in one shot, but they have limited range and need to be reloaded often. They are useful to help save ammo on your primary weapon, since a particularly stubborn suspect might take a lot of beanbags and you will need the range and speed for more critical situations.
The expansion also introduced a melee attack where you derpily punch in front of you and stuns like a beanbag. This is useful for saving ammo without switching weapons. It inflicts some lethal damage, so you can't use it on civilians, and if you punch someone enough, they'll get incapacitated. If you have the Cobra equipped, your melee attack is converted into poking with it, which allows you to shock enemies without using ammo, but this does not apply to the Taser.
You have three kinds of grenades, all of which stun for a decent amount of time and are effective under different circumstances. A single grenade takes up an item slot, so you have to decide what kind and how many to take for each team member. Grenade placement is key to catching all suspects in a room and sometimes you will need to throw your own grenade instead of relying on your team's throw because they will only throw just past the door, even for a large room with lots of places to hide. Holding down the mouse button before releasing allows you to charge up to throw farther.
Flashbangs stun anyone with line of sight to it, regardless of how far they are, which makes it good for open spaces. Sting grenades have a smaller blast radius, but they stun longer than flashbangs (although flashbangs stun long enough to follow up with a beanbag shot). Gas grenades stun anyone inside a large cloud for a long time and ignore obstacles, but they are useless against suspects with gas masks and the gas can obscure your vision. Flashbangs and stingers can inflict a small amount of lethal damage if they explode too close to an NPC, which can hurt your score if you throw a grenade at a civilian's feet, but this is rarely a problem. Your team is immune to all grenades, but you are immune only to gas, so you have to be careful. Note that when you tell your team to throw a grenade, their throwing strength and trajectory is fixed, but you can shove them around by walking into them, which means if you push them after giving an order to grenade, the grenade will probably land at your feet.
You also have breaching charges that will incapacitate anyone standing directly behind the door as well as blind anyone else farther away as though it were a flashbang. Breaching charges take time to plant, but are particularly useful to stun opponents when opening a door and throwing a grenade is too slow. They will stun at any range, but they have a limited arc, so anyone standing too far to the side of a door will not be affected and need to be grenaded. You can also swap your breaching charges for a breaching shotgun. The shotgun won't stun anyone behind the door, but has the advantage of being the fastest way to open a locked door. Unfortunately, there's no need for such speed and it will only put you and your team at risk, so breaching charges are always better. If someone you don't want to blow up is blocking the door, you can just try opening the door and the NPC will move away.
The most important item is the mirror, or Optiwand as the game calls it since it's a fibre-optic camera on a stick. The Optiwand is low-resolution to make it difficult to see distant threats, but it allows you to see around corners as well as allowing you to see what's behind closed doors by looking underneath them. This tool is absolutely critical for planning ahead, deciding whether to toss a grenade, what kind to toss, and where. Sometimes looking under a door may not give you a good view, so you may have to open a door to adjust your angle. The only problem with the Optiwand is that you can't use it while moving, which makes it inconvenient to get better angles. It's just janky having to stop mirroring, move slightly, then try again because there is a short delay to use it. It doesn't even remember the last viewing angle, so you have to reorient the camera every time you reposition, which gets annoying.
There are also door wedges that allow you to prevent a door from opening. There's no need to worry about direction because all doors open both ways, always opening away from the person. These are very useful to prevent suspects from moving into rooms you've already cleared, which allows you to clear the map more safely and efficiently since you won't have to check the same areas again or worry about suspects sneaking up behind you. A wedge takes up an item slot and you can't reuse wedges, but they are quite important. However, maximizing their effectiveness pretty much requires intimate knowledge of the levels, and taking too many wedges will leave you short of grenades.
Before each mission, you can equip yourself and your squad from a variety of weapons and gear. In addition to a primary weapon and sidearm, each team member has five equipment slots plus one separate slot dedicated to a door breaching item, so you have to decide on what to bring and how many.
The Optiwand allows you to look under doors and get the drop on suspects, making it the most important tool in the game.
Even with the Optiwand, you cannot see everything. There could be a suspect hiding behind this pile of junk, so charging in is not a wise choice. Because you only have limited grenades, you can't afford to spam them on an empty room. The best action would be to open the door without entering. If nothing happens, creep in with your team behind you and mirror around the junk.
You have four team members. As AI-controlled teammates, they are generally unreliable. They won't automatically shoot suspects into submission with non-lethal weapons, they charge past blind corners and open doors, they don't take cover or crouch, they prioritize chasing and yelling at NPCs over following orders, and they keep complaining, "you're in my way" because they have AI position nodes they refuse to deviate from even if it puts them in harm's way when the door opens. They're generally able to outshoot suspects if they're facing the right way and standing still, but they do have derp moments. They will always stay inside their current room, but that won't stop them from crowding in front of an open door to yell at people in the next room while exposing themselves in the process. Any rooms with blind corners will often lead to facepalm-inducing situations if you just send them in on their own.
Much of the game involves working around your team's incompetence. Your team should be used primarily as equipment mules that follow you around, throwing grenades, sticking door wedges, and taking non-lethal shots where you need them to save on your own grenades you'll need for tricky throws. Telling your team to follow while you take the time to scan every corner and door with the Optiwand is something you should do most of the time. If you tell your team to mirror, they won't give you important information such as the room layout and suspect positions, and they are better off using the item slot for something else. It is very important to keep your team alive because you can't pick up spare grenades and ammo. The more members you lose, the harder the missions will get as you will find yourself short of much needed grenades.
Your team is divided into two sub-teams, Red and Blue. You can order all of them as an element or order the sub-teams separately. If there are multiple entrances into a room, you can split up your team to enter from different directions with a coordinated entry by queuing a command on each team and initiating as an element. This is very useful if you need grenade coverage on different sides of the room. Attacking from multiple directions doesn't affect enemy reaction times or morale and may actually put your team in greater danger because they would be in the way of a fleeing suspect. Sometimes, it is better to keep a door wedged and have a fleeing suspect waste his time trying to open it so you can shoot him with a beanbag. Splitting your team is also useful for map control without committing to wedges as suspects have a tendency to flee the moment they spot your team.
You also have access to one or two snipers depending on the mission. Snipers are fixed per mission, have a limited view through a window, and you can't choose their placement. They are controlled through your picture-in-picture camera and you can shoot any suspects that appear. You won't be penalized for unauthorized use of force, but it will prevent you from arresting them, so it still affects your final score. It is better to shoot suspects' arms to make them drop their weapon. They will limp away and won't attempt to equip another weapon until they see you, which will at least delay them and give you a better chance of outshooting them.
Ordering your team to move and clear can sometimes result in your team charging past blind corners. You should take the lead most of the time and mirror every angle yourself.
Picture in Picture.jpg
You can split up your team to have one cover your back while you clear another direction and wedge doors to maximize map control. You can also issue orders through the picture-in-picture camera and set up a coordinated entry from different doors.
Suspects and civilians
All suspects have the same AI behaviours. They only differ in character models, voice lines, morale, and equipment. They start off in an idle state and they might have set patrol routes. Once aggroed, they are most likely to flee and hold down a room with other suspects. They might shoot as soon as they see you, but they will always shoot if you or your team are in close proximity to them. They do have a strong tendency of running towards you, so you need to be quick about stunning them with a beanbag. However, doors and corners can be a big problem because you might not see approching suspects until they appear right in front of you or your team.
The suspects are generally fair, but they don't have any concept of rules of engagement and will show you no mercy. They seem to have a higher chance of winning a fight against your team at point-blank range, so keeping your team stacked at a door is not a good way to cover it in case someone pops out. Suspects are unpredictable and dangerous and you should never risk a head-on confrontation; grenade every suspect you get the drop on, then move in for the capture. Even after they surrender, suspects may still get up and pick up their weapons if no one is looking, so you have to secure all suspects quickly. Alternatively, you can just pick up all weapons as soon as they are dropped, since doing so is quick and suspects can't do anything unarmed.
Being quiet will allow you to get the drop on enemies. Making noise through running, yelling compliance, breaching doors, or shooting attracts nearby idle suspects to investigate, which can screw up your entry. However, enemies also make footstep noise, allowing you to hear them coming. Suspects who are already alerted will not investigate noises and will just look in the direction of the noise, which can make flashbangs more effective. If a suspect is coming and you're not ready, you can stand in front of a door and it will block him from entering, causing the suspect to just run away in frustration and camp a corner. You can also take initiative to block doors immediately after entering a room to prevent suspects in adjacent rooms from entering while you deal with NPCs in the current room.
Civilians just stand around acting scared and may flee and get in your way if you shoot near them. Even though proper police procedure requires you to secure them, civilians are never a threat (unlike in real life). They exist solely to distract you in critical situations and become a target of friendly fire. Injuring civilians, no matter how slight, penalizes your score and killing them will fail the mission, but it is usually safe to hit them with a grenade unless it lands right at their feet. Your team will automatically yell at civilians, and this can attract suspects, so sending in your team on a lone civilian might actually put your team at risk of an ambush. In this case, you may need to go in alone and do some recon before yelling. You can also open a door without going in to yell at civilians while keeping a safe distance, since your team won't go into rooms by themselves.
There are thirteen missions/maps in the base game plus seven missions in the expansion for a total of twenty maps. You can even create custom missions with those maps, allowing you to choose the type and number of suspects/civilians, their morale levels, skill levels, and weapons. You can cram a map full of heavily-armed commandos for a real challenge. However, there isn't much variation in mission objectives. Every mission simply requires you to comb the map and arrest everybody. There are two bomb defusal missions, which basically puts you on a timer to clear the map, but you have no tools for effective rush tactics, so you still have to mirror corners and conserve grenades, which kills the sense of urgency. However, there is not enough time to be absolutely methodical, which means you will often have to take risks that turn room entries into gambles or know ahead of time where the bombs will spawn (their locations are semi-random, but they will emit a beeping noise).
Layout and navigation
The levels are open-ended with lots of doors, odd corners, and connected rooms, creating very challenging tactical scenarios. Before each mission, you can select one of two possible entry points. Most of the time you are given floor plans to study, but it can be difficult to choose the best entry as well as navigate the level efficiently unless you played it before and know the maps inside and out. A lot of obstacles that determine which grenades are effective are not on the floor plans, so chances are, there is some trial and error with regards to what grenade loadout to take.
You have to be very careful with your positioning because the AI can see your hands and get aggroed, which is rather annoying for a game based around stealth and surprise because you can never be sure if moving forward will get you spotted even if it looks clear. Add to the fact that you can't move while mirroring, and you have agonizingly slow-paced navigation. But no matter how careful you are, some levels are designed to screw you over with awkward obstacles that exploit the flaws of your team AI. For example, windowed doors abuses the fact that your team cannot crouch and will automatically yell at whoever they see, which will screw up the element of surprise and make arrest difficult. Also, your team won't throw grenades to the most efficient spot in a room, so you will often have to throw your own grenade deeper into a room. Unfortunately, you can't carry more than four grenades (unless you want to sacrifice the Optiwand for one more, which is a bad idea) and chances are there are more than four places where a well-placed grenade will make a difference.
Random NPC spawns
The location of NPC spawns are semi-random, as in, there are a whole bunch of pre-defined spawn points, but NPCs will spawn at randomly chosen points. Suspects often flee and gather into rooms with other suspects, which can often create crowds of enemies, but they will not necessarily be in the same rooms on subsequent playthroughs. The randomness also means you don't know whether there are suspects in adjacent rooms or around the corner to hear you, so you can never be sure if suspects will pop out to surprise you after breaching into a room. It creates challenging, unpredictable scenarios, but it also leads to a lot of situations falling out of your control as your team gets distracted and put themselves in danger. So, there is a bit of luck in how well you will do in each mission and it gives the game good replayability.
End of Mission.jpg
At then end of every mission you are scored on how smoothly the mission went. You receive major penalties if you injured a civilian or gunned-down a suspect who wasn't an immediate threat.
Slow, tactical movement
You walk very slowly and running is no faster than a brisk walk. Equipping and using items have a lengthy animation, requiring you to be sure you are safe before switching. Moving makes you inaccurate with your gun and there is a significant accuracy recovery time, which means there is no running and gunning, so you must play defensively and manage your positioning well to minimize risk of being caught off guard. You can't strafe quickly, but you can lean, which is fast and does not affect your accuracy. However, you can't move while leaning, which makes it awkward to finesse cover as you have to stop leaning, move, than lean again to check if you're positioned the way you want. While you can crouch, you cannot go prone, which I wish this game would let you do because there are windows you can't crouch far enough under.
You can take limb damage. Being shot in the arm will reduce your accuracy greatly, while being shot in the leg prevents you from running. Because of how debilitating injury is and that taking any damage reduces your score, you might as well just restart the mission in such circumstances. The point is, do not get shot. If you get shot, you did something wrong.
Two types of command menus
All of your orders are issued through a command menu, which lists all commands you can give on whatever you're aiming at. You can give basic orders like follow, hold and cover, and move to a location, but otherwise, orders are context-sensitive. For example, if you're pointing at a locked door, you have the option to pick the lock or breach it, or if you're pointing at a stubborn civilian, you can order to fire a non-lethal shot. By aiming at a different room you can issue an order to throw a grenade and clear it. You also have a picture-in-picture camera that lets you see from a teammate's perspective and you can issue orders through it. There are some limitations with the orders you can give. For example, if a door is locked, you can order to breach, grenade, and clear, but you can't do this if the door is unlocked even though a breaching charge would be effective. There is the option of deploying a breaching charge on the door, but you have to manually give a follow-up order to grenade and clear, which wastes crucial time because you have to speak the order. If your team gets distracted by whoever is in the room, they won't respond to orders.
You can choose between two types of command menus: a pop-up menu that appears in the middle of the screen when you open it or a hotkey menu that's always on your HUD (a.k.a. the 'Classic Interface' that's similar in style to SWAT 3's command menu). For the hotkey menu, the orders are bound to the number keys all the way to '-', while your weapons and gear are bound to the F-keys. Just aim at a target, it will list your options, and you can press the key you want, which is fast. A lot of the keys are wasted to list each type of grenade to deploy on entry, which could have been compacted by using sub-menus. The 'Deploy' order has a submenu to deploy various ordinance, so I'm not sure why they didn't do that for the other orders. It's only slightly faster to press one button instead of two or three in sequence and you give up button ergonomics to do so. Orders are generally not time-sensitive and the most time-sensitive orders are those which are hardest to reach and require two button presses anyways (e.g. deploy less-lethal shotgun is '-', '9' and deploy Taser is '-', '2').
The pop-up menu works by aiming at what you want and pressing a button to see your options. You have to move the mouse up and down to scroll through each individual item to select the one you want. Because of that, it is both slower and less precise since you have to move the mouse just the right amount to scroll to where you want and you don't have a mouse cursor to use as a point of reference. It also takes away your ability to look around while the menu is open, which makes it slow to aim at different things to check your options. It's also bad with high mouse DPI, as the scrolling will be too fast. The pop-up menu seems to have been created in an attempt to compact the keyboard controls and reduce HUD clutter, but it's clumsy.
The Use button is context sensitive. If you highlight nothing interactable, you will yell compliance instead. Once an NPC is secured, aiming at them and pressing Use from any distance will report them to command. The biggest problem with this is that if you want to use something or report someone in, if you miss, you will yell and it can attract nearby suspects. If you have a bunch of secured suspects you want to report in or lots of guns on the ground to pick up, you have to carefully point to each of them and press Use once for each. Spamming Use will lead to a lot of cringe-worthy yelling. It would have been better if you could report entire groups at once, but reporting each and every person is a requirement to get perfect scores, even if you repeat yourself to command over and over again.
You also have to manually pick up individual weapons. While you can order your team to do so, they will only pick up the one weapon you aimed at and you waste a lot of time just speaking the order when you could have just done it yourself, since picking up guns is instantaneous for you. Manual reporting and weapon securing is just busywork that can drag down the pace of a mission. It's especially bad when you finish your objectives only to realize you missed a gun and have to retrace the entire level, searching every nook and cranny to find it. You are given convenient statistics in the Escape menu to track how many secured people and weapons are available for reporting and you should check it after resolving every encounter to make sure you got everything before you move on. However, injured civilians pre-spawned throughout a level count as available and unreported, so you have to mentally deduct them from the stats.
Doors have context-sensitive inputs. If you aim at the bottom-middle of the door, your reticle will change to an Optiwand icon and clicking left-mouse will directly switch to the Optiwand and allow you to mirror. Aiming at the bottom towards the door knob will allow you to place a door wedge. Aiming at the door knob will allow you to pick the lock with your multitool. Aiming above the knob will plant a breaching charge. These inputs make it so that you never have to manually equip your utility items, with the exception of the Optiwand because there's no input for corners. You can save a little bit of time by manually equipping as you approach the door because of the slow equipping animations. The only drawback to this context-sensitive system is that you have to be absolutely sure you're aimed correctly, or else you will fire your gun, due to the shared left-mouse button.
Mouse control is inconsistent with smoothing and acceleration enabled by default with no in-game option to disable them. Fortunately, the game uses Unreal Engine, so you can tweak User.ini to disable them as well as adjust sensitivity to any number of decimal places, resulting in mouse control that is quite responsive and accurate. Good aim can save you and your team in ugly situations as well as catch fleeing suspects with beanbags, so getting your sensitivity right is not something to neglect. If you use low sensitivity, it will make picture-in-picture camera control sluggish as it uses its own lower, relative sensitivity that you can't adjust. A bit of design oversight and can potentially be fatal because it makes it hard to quickly give orders through it if you're separated.
The original career missions have no overarching story, while the Stetchkov Syndicate expansion sort of does. Each mission is a separate story and is some variation of guys with guns making trouble in the neighbourhood including abductions, gambling, robberies, and political terrorism. The expansion involves drugs and a black market for guns, with some kind of syndicate behind it, but your job is still the same: get in there and arrest everyone so you can be graded on your performance.
Every mission briefing describes the situation with a dryly narrated wall of text by the SWAT commander. While it provides some background to what happened, it makes no difference in the mission, so the briefings just become tedious after a while. Any story-related things during the mission are just a few lines of dialog uttered during the normal flow of gameplay, which also do not make any difference and are harmless banter. The lines of dialog are easily cut-off when you're giving orders, yelling compliance, and shooting suspects, which makes it easy to just stop caring.
The background of each mission is told through the environments, if you stop and look and are not busy with room clearing and staying alive. Environmental decor tells what kind of life the suspects or civilians have, from bug-ridden pig sties to high-class offices. Blood, bullet holes, and wounded civilians makes you think about the ruthlessness of the suspects. However, the artstyle, animations, and voice dialog are leaning on the cartoonish side, which somewhat detracts from the seriousness and impact of the imagery.
The Fairfax Residence mission is one of the better missions in environmental storytelling. Lawrence Fairfax had been kidnapping young women from a local law school and SWAT has been dispatched to arrest him. He lives with his mother, who cares about him, but is oblivious to the harm her son is causing. The house is fairly small with one storey and a basement. There is a basement garage with a driveway that slopes down into it and you can enter the house from there or the first-level porch. There are two bedrooms on the main floor, but only the master bedroom has a bed and the other is used for storage.
So where does he sleep? He apparently lives in the basement in a separate room, and not just that, he also dug out his own tunnel system next to his bedroom where he locks up his victims and abuses them. Because the basement entrance allows entry without needing to go through the main floor, it makes sense that his mother doesn't know about his activities; Lawrence drives his victims into the basement garage and takes them directly to his dungeon while his mother lounges around upstairs. His two victims show signs of physical abuse, with one being tied up and writhing in pain and the other bruised-up.
In his room, his bed is a mattress on the floor surrounded by a mess and a small TV connected to cameras in his dungeon, allowing him to watch his victims like porn. He also has various newspaper clippings posted on the walls about him and his activities. The dungeon is also the suspect's workshop and it is full of hand-made masks and body figures. What exactly happened is left to your imagination. It appears he molds the figures from his victims, which means lots of sexually-abusive touching, but the victims you find are fully clothed *cough*censored*cough*. However, there is no attempt to explain the psychological profile of someone who would do such a thing or how the victims cope. Lawrence is just a creepy bogeyman kidnapping damsels for his own grotesque amusement.
Same guys, different skins
Suspects differ only in appearance and equipment. Because everyone behaves the same and there are no mission-specific scripted sequences, it's hard to care about who you're dealing with. The lack of an overarching story does enable changes of pace and variety, but it also means there's no driving purpose to keep playing beyond the sheer thrill of the gameplay. Some missions were written for shock value, such as cultists who sacrificed their own children according to the teachings of their leader, but there's little exposition beyond that and no resolution beyond you arresting or killing the suspects. It would have been nice to have mission outcomes affect the story, like a suspect you killed caused grief for a relative or a suspect you arrested turned out to be innocent and was just trying to defend himself. There's no modeling of the social consequences of your actions.
If there's a theme to all of this, it is about the civility and professionalism expected of police officers to defuse a violent situation and enforce every citizen's constitutional right to fair trial. You are a bystander with a gun, you don't know the circumstances behind why people act violently and it is not your place to judge and execute someone on the spot based on your own moral highground. It's certainly possible that a guy with a gun was just defending himself and got spooked by you, or some of the suspects involved in the crime were just along for the ride and never wanted to hurt anyone. Suspects are not faceless bad guys for you to gun down en masse; they are citizens of a free country with a fair judicial system for dealing with them in a humane, orderly fashion. Your job requires vigilance, self-control, and compassion for both civilian and suspect alike, something few have in the face of imminent danger.
Unfortunately, the game doesn't mention any of this. At the end of every mission, you just get a number indicating your performance. A game like this is perfect for teaching the high level of discipline expected of police officers and why you must show mercy to criminals. However, there are no moral greys here. The only thing keeping you from blowing everyone away is a number. You're only showing mercy because it's your job to follow procedure, not understand them. SWAT 1 taught important stuff like this and the live-action video format humanized everyone involved, including the suspects. When the suspect was a paranoid grandma with a heart condition, you didn't blow through the door, threw a flashbang, blasted her with beanbags, and yelled at her face, you carefully approached and talked her down as a civilized officer would. SWAT 4 focuses strictly on combat tactics against aggressive gunmen, which makes good strategic gameplay, but it is not a good portrayal of law enforcement.
So much can go right or wrong depending on your ability to gather information, foresee problems, and perform the best action with efficiency. While there are some rough edges, this is a good example of deep, strategic gameplay. Every item, order, and game mechanic at your disposal is useful and need to be applied correctly to handle any situation. However, SWAT 4 is not for the impatient or faint of heart.