Until last year, my only experience with tactical shooters was Rainbow Six Siege, and although I find it an amazing game, I have spent only a few hours actually playing it, since it’s an experience focused on multiplayer, and playing online with a team where I never knew anybody is not something I’m really into.
However, at a certain point in the chaotic year of 2020, I was able to download SWAT 4 and play it for the first time. Now, that was a game that glued me to my PC for a couple of days.
This underrated gem is a Windows exclusive tactical shooter, released in 2005, developed by Irrational Games and published by Vivendi Universal Games, being the fourth installment in the SWAT series.
I only knew about the existence of this game thanks to an awesome YouTube channel called SomeOrdinaryGamers that has a whole series of SWAT 4 playthroughs. The game caught my attention due to its unique mechanics (at least to someone who doesn’t have much experience with tactical games), a seemingly realistic representation of a SWAT raid, and a focus on single-player gameplay.
The game is composed of multiple scenarios where you and your SWAT team have to make an entry in buildings and houses, dealing with barricaded suspects, hostage rescue, and high-risk warrant service situations. In all of those scenarios, however, you will have two main objectives: arrest/neutralize all the bad guys and rescue the civilians.
Today, we are going to explore the game design behind SWAT 4, what makes it stand out among other first-person shooters, and how it managed to be realistic, challenging, and fun at the same time.
A First-Person Shooter where you barely shoot
If you’re used to playing DOOM or Call of Duty, shooters where you can sprint, jump and shoot everywhere, and you try to do the same in SWAT 4… this game will slap you across the face and send you back to your mother.
As I have mentioned before, this is a game made to simulate the tension and complexity of a real SWAT raid. So the game’s mechanics have to reflect that, forcing the player to take a more cautious route. That effect is achieved due to some crucial changes to the typical FPS mechanics we are all used to seeing. So let’s take a closer look at those changes.
1 – Restricted movement
Your character’s movements are much more limited than in other FPS games. What I mean by that is: forget about sprinting or jumping. As it is in real life, a SWAT officer will not break into a house and start running and jumping around.
In a delicate situation involving armed suspects and hostages, you have to calculate every step you take, and carefully examine every corner before you advance. Because, if you just rush into a room without taking the proper measures, there may be a bad guy in there, waiting for you with a sub-machine gun in their hands and a restless trigger finger. If that happens, you can’t run fast enough (and you definitely can’t jump) to escape, and if you die, the mission fails and you have to start over. The enemies here do a lot of damage, depending on their gear and how close they are to you.
So by limiting the player’s movements, the game makes them more vulnerable and forces them to tread more carefully and slowly through the map, using some of the tools they have at their disposal, like the optical mirror, to check corners and look under closed doors to see if it’s safe to proceed or if they are going to find resistance.
That is why many horror game devs make their protagonists move slower than usual. Decreasing the main character’s speed in a conflict situation is a good way of making the player feel more vulnerable (when done right).
2 – The penalty system
Of course, you can always drop the bad guy with a good headshot and everything is fine… right? It depends. Did you scream at him first?
The success of your operation depends on two things: completing the main objectives and getting a good overall score at the end of the mission. To keep your score high, you need to follow some protocols during the mission, such as screaming at the suspect to drop their weapons and giving them a chance to surrender. If they run or shoot at you, you can incapacitate them, either with your lethal gun or with your taser. If you shoot them without shouting at them first, you will receive a penalty for unauthorized use of force. Overall, the game will encourage you to arrest the hostiles instead of killing them. So you may finish a mission without even having to reload your gun.
However, as I said, the bad guys won’t hesitate to shoot you on sight, so most of the time you will have only a fraction of a second to make that decision. And that’s enough time to get injured, which can affect your movement and even your aim, depending on the injury.
But the game also provides tools to give you more time to make that decision, so you avoid getting hurt and breaking the rules at the same time. The gas, flash, and sting grenades are very useful to distract or stun the enemies before your team enters a room. However, you have a limited number of grenades, so choose wisely when to use them, especially in larger maps, and which one is more suitable for each situation.
For example: if you see one or more suspects in a room, but you also think there may be hostages in there, it’s not a good idea to use the sting grenade. For those who don’t know, a sting grenade is basically a non-lethal version of a fragmentation grenade, containing many small rubber balls inside.
When the rubber balls make contact with the targets, they cause a sting sensation on their bodies. The goal is to incapacitate targets through pain, but those grenades can also cause minor injuries. That is why it’s safer to use them in a room where you’re sure there are no hostages.
Hurting civilians is a big “no no” in this game, and some of them may be injured or incapacitated when you arrive, so a sting grenade hitting an already weak civilian can kill them, and a lot of points will be deducted from your final score.
The taser is also very useful when dealing with hostages. You see, some civilians can be just as stubborn as the criminals. So when you tell them to get on their knees, they refuse. As we discussed, you can’t just shoot them into submission, as you would do with a bad guy, but the taser is a totally safe option for dealing with those individuals.
This penalty system is another aspect that forces the player to reconsider their way of playing in order to obey the game’s rules. And it does it based on real SWAT protocols, adding to the realism. But the game doesn’t give you a fixed way of following those protocols. The player has to think and decide on their own how to make use of the available tools in their arsenal as best as possible based on their experience.
3 – You have a team to look after
One of the biggest appeals of SWAT 4 is that you have a group of officers assisting you in the raid, to whom you can give orders and coordinate their moves. They are Reynolds, Girard, Jackson, and Fields. They communicate with you all the time during actions and even have some entertaining lines triggered in specific maps.
While in RPGs, for example, you can have a party that fights beside you, most of the time you don’t need to worry too much about their safety or think twice before leading them into a possibly dangerous area.
Here, you are directly responsible for what happens with the members of your team. Despite having a rather smart AI, they can still get hurt as much as you. So if you make a bad entry, like sending your team into a room full of hostiles without any safety measures, some of your partners can get injured and even incapacitated. In the case of the latter, you will have to proceed with one less officer in your team, and that can make your job a lot harder if you still have a good number of rooms left to clear.
Having to take care of a group is another design choice that tells the player “hey, stay calm and be careful, or you can lose your team”. SWAT 4 is clearly not designed to be played without your teammates, so losing even only one of them is a reason to be concerned. Not only because you can get outnumbered quite easily, but also because when one of your teammates falls you receive a penalty to your score and you lose whatever equipment he was carrying, which means you now have fewer grenades, fewer wedges, etc. That is another way for the game to punish the player for being careless, and it encourages them to take better care of their team.
What about the negative points?
In all honesty, I had to look a bit harder to find a negative point about this game. But if I had to criticize something, that would be the speed of some of our teammates’ animations.
The use of grenades when making an entry is one of them. If you choose to use the gas grenade when entering a room, for example, your team will take their positions, and one officer will open the door, while another one throws the grenade. However, the animation of the officer throwing the grenade is a bit too slow, and if a suspect is facing the door, they can injure the team before any reaction can be triggered.
That is why a mod has been created to increase the speed of those animations, among other modifications, called Sheriff’s Special Forces. However, I don’t think this aspect hinders the player’s experience too much. For me, it was something quite easy to get used to.
Why is it fun?
If you’re looking for an experience that will make your brain work, you just found it. To beat this game, the keyword is “strategy”; the order of the rooms you enter, what tools you use, if you split your team or not, how do you use the snipers, etc. Those are all things you have to constantly think about during a mission, and although the action is not the game’s focus, the moment when you enter a room where you know you’ll have to subdue hostiles after you have conceived a strategy is always thrilling. And if you succeed, it is very satisfying.
Besides, the game has a small but dedicated community, creating mods like the one I have mentioned and custom maps to enhance the experience even more. However, if you want to replay the maps of the vanilla game, you won’t be bored: the enemies are placed randomly throughout the map every time you play it, so the experience remains fresh. You can also play missions with your friends, in multiplayer mode.
But beyond the fun aspect of it, one thing is certain: this game makes you gain a new appreciation for real-life SWAT officers, and think about what it takes to risk your life for a living, and how some decisions may not be so “black and white” as we think when someone else’s life is on the line.