SWAT 4 is an important game and here is why
I often feel Irrational Games’ most important work occurred prior to Bioshock, with an incredible introduction through System Shock 2 (also known as The Game We Wanted Bioshock To Be) into a stream of interesting titles of varying conventionality, my favorites of which would be the original Freedom Force — A game worthy of a thinkpiece all on its own — and the absolutely fantastic SWAT 4, a game of cops and robbers that is firmly humanist and sympathetic even in the face of horrific violence and misery, all the while taking the point of view of a force often seen as an approach to law enforcement that is frighteningly close to military engagement. These days, SWAT 4 is a much more poignant and important-feeling game than I remember at launch.
SWAT is an odd series. The first title was essentially a clumsy mixture of FMV adventure game and lecture; more of a police fetish object than video game without fundamentally interesting things to say or for the player to do. The second game played with the mechanics of real time strategy games, but with rigid scripting and lacking polish it felt and looked more like a clumsy version of Syndicate, resulting in a trial-and-error experience that was more frustrating than fun or even educational.
The series started finding a soul of its own with the third entry, a squad-based first person tactics game firmly on the side of simulation. In SWAT3, players led teams into realistic scenarios with the overall goal of “bringing order to chaos”, clearing rooms, securing floors and ensuring the safety of officers, criminals and civilians alike. With this game, developed by an internal team at Sierra, the series took a mile high leap in quality, with a slick interface, interesting lightly randomized encounters, a great presentation and excellent cooperative multiplayer. Subtitled “Close Quarters Battle” and facing players with an escalating series of terrorist encounters aligned the game more with the Rainbow 6 series however, with nonlethal approaches becoming progressively less and less viable or even desirable
It wasn’t until Irrational put together SWAT 4, however, that the series finally made contact with the human element that gives the series greater meaning.
Let’s back up a bit. SWAT is, fundamentally, a series about apprehension in every sense of the word. It is a series about building an understanding of a dangerous unknown, it is a series about calmness under intense pressure, and the literal act of placing people under arrest. Every mission of SWAT is a set of spatial engagement puzzles, where a group of adversaries of varying degrees of sanity and/or morale are to be placed under control, while civilian hostages must be secured and removed from danger. In Rainbow 6, your mandate is to murder everyone with a gun on sight. In SWAT, every shot fired upon anyone, by anyone, feels like a clumsy failure: Suspects must either be shocked into submission or demoralized to the point of giving up — shooting them down is a barbarous approach and docks you points. Let’s look at that again: This is a first person shooter in which, at the higher difficulties, shooting people all but ensures you failed the mission.
Instead, in SWAT, you surprise people, you shout at them, you bombard them with CS gas to disable them, you taze them when they refuse to cooperate (sometimes this includes belligerent civilians as well). You spray groups with pepper-spray laden paintballs while yelling at them to get down, and when they try to run out of the room you’ve secretly locked every exit they have with door wedges, giving them no choice but to give up. Missions going “loud” is a recipe for disaster, with officers and suspects alike shouting and firing blindly, your heart sinking every step of the way. No, in SWAT your goal is the careful herding of human beings, removing every hope they have of success until you’ve got them backed up in a room you can flood with CS gas and yells for compliance.
This all sounds horrible, and SWAT3 did carry a certain aura of fascist repression, your black-clad faceless men stomping jackboot-like through the homes of the vulnerable.
SWAT4, however, imbues the series with Irrational’s gift of storytelling, resulting in a painfully needed injection of humanity. SWAT4 contextualizes every mission with long voiced briefings and full 911 call recordings. It gives every man on your team a personality and individual lines of dialogue and populates missions with faces you remember and characteristics that will haunt you. As a result missions feel less like missions and more like traumatic events through which you made it, all the while maintaining that focus on ensuring everybody gets out alive. In SWAT3, bombarding folks with CS gas and flashbangs feels like a mechanical solution to a practical problem. In SWAT4 (given that the player has the ability to feel empathy), the people inside feel like people, and as such making those decisions is much harder.
One mission early on faces you with resolving a hostage situation at a mini-mart: You don’t know how many are involved, but you know at least one of them is a known felon and drug addict with a history of violent psychoses. This woman is absolutely terrifying throughout the mission, not just because she wants to light your team up on sight and could be literally anywhere in the building when you go in, but because your goal is to get her out of there alive.
I think this shift in perception is huge. The gun in the hands of the police officer is always going to be a scary image, because the police has an absolute monopoly on violence in society. Coming from the Greek “Polis” meaning city, the Policemen are just that: The city’s rectifying, conforming force. A city that kills its inhabitants for the sake of maintaining order is a terrifying and darwinian thought, and depending strongly on your point of origin your faith in your police becomes reflective of your faith in the society that you inhabit.
SWAT4 portrays police under the harshest of circumstance barring outright warfare, with deadly violence on the table from the very first moment, bargaining chips spent, and the only possible outcome being some form of confrontation. Crucially, through restrictions placed on the player through the mastery a higher difficult level implies, and the moral restrictions implied by its storytelling and scenography, Irrational want you to use confrontational means seeking an outcome that nonetheless leaves skin unbroken and life preserved.
The juxtaposition of brutal and humiliating demands and coercion for compliance and a hard zero-tolerance for lethality makes elite-difficulty SWAT4 a game that portrays the ideal city as one that can decisively make order of the worst of situations without putting holes through people. It portrays extreme law enforcement as unpleasant but necessary but nonetheless motivated by a wish for a better tomorrow. For all its darkness, violence and drug-addled misery, SWAT4 comes across as optimistic about what law enforcement could and should be, and teaches us about difficult decision-making in the service of preservation of life. These days, I feel the examination of the role of violence or coercion in law enforcement is more important than ever, examined from every front, and SWAT4 gives a perspective on this that remains largely unique.
It’s visceral, riveting stuff, endlessly replayable, tonally perfect, tactically challenging and thought-provoking in hindsight. It’s also $10 on GoG and runs on a toaster — you’d be a fool not to play it.