Swat 4: The Stetchkov Syndicate
Scanning Down The list of new features available in SWAT4: The Stetchkov Syndicate - the first expansion pack for last year's crackingly good tactical shooter - my reactions went something like this: "Who cares, so what, should've been in the first game, big deal, ooh that's quite good, who cares." In other words, it's not all that impressive, on paper at least.
Some particularly redundant additions include delights such as 'new armour type: no armour' - a negative option presumably offered for madmen who'd rather lighten their load than stop a bullet entering their chest cavity. Along similar lines are new enemy pistols and machine guns (only Americans care for such things), a vague semblance of plot and some minor server browser improvements.
In practice, however, it's a more promising story. Yes, in the most part Stetchkov is just your basic, contractually-obligated mission disk with a brace of new levels and a handful of petty changes that could easily have turned up in a patch. But despite the initially lightweight impressions, there are two or three features here that are actually pretty great, and (assuming you've already enjoyed the main game), will bring new joy to your law enforcement adventures.
Of course, there's also quite a bit of material that falls under the category of 'quite good things that should've been there in the first place', including proper voice comms (hoorah), night-vision goggles, an ammo pouch for carrying extra clips, a skin-chooser for multiplayer and, answering one of our biggest beefs with the original game, the option of selecting a team leader in co-op games - a crucial addition that brings a badly-needed dose of order to the online chaos. You can even vote for a new leader mid-level - especially handy if your man breaks down and reveals a history of alcohol abuse.
Hold That Thought
In single-player, the big news is 'held commands', where you can set delayed orders for your teams and then initiate them later. So, if you've got a room with multiple entry points, you can set the red team at the front door poised to 'open, gas and clear', stick the blue team on the back door ready to 'breach and clear', while you either take another door, control one of the sniper views or just mill around shouting things. Once everyone's in place, you give the go-command and your lads pile in with clockwork precision and arrest everyone (hopefully).
In reality of course, things can still go tits-up. In particular, the system is strangely flaky, often managing to forget your first order by the time the second is in place. If you treat it gently, however, it's a wonderful thing and genuinely changes the way that you play the game. Not only does it let you indulge in more tactical and devious manoeuvres, it allows you to exploit your resources much more fully, revealing for the first time the true value of having two fire teams.
Other additions include chemical light-sticks that can be dropped in cleared areas (like a sort of fluorescent breadcrumb trail) to help avoid backtracking - quite useful in the larger levels. The bots also now respond to some voice commands, much as in the Rainbow Six games.
Better With Ten
Given the success of SWAT4 online, it's no surprise to find a few crowd-pleasing embellishments to the multiplayer arsenal as well. For a start, the superb co-op mode has been boosted to ten players max, which allows for two teams of five. Unfortunately, this doesn't make it twice as good, and in practice very few levels are big enough to cater for such a hefty police presence; but it does make the game's best mode that much more flexible.
Slightly more appealing is the new multiplayer game type, Smash and Grab. In concept it's frankly dull - one team is SWAT, the other Suspects; a briefcase spawns somewhere in the map and the suspects have to find and extract it, with the limitation that the person carrying the case can only walk and fire a sidearm. However, there's also a time limit in place, and (here's the good part) the suspects lose 30 seconds off the clock for every non-lethal arrest made by SWAT. Without this twist, Smash and Grab would be just another copycat game mode, but the specific rules actually make it one of the more interesting, and the best at encouraging non-lethal takedowns.
Incidentally, there's also now a lobby for the quick mission maker, so you and your friends can set up the parameters and launch a map-on-the fly rather than saving it in advance - which is just the sort of change that makes you wonder how it could ever have been otherwise.
Of course, improvements and tweaks aside, the real meat here is the clutch of new missions - seven of them in total. In accordance with the amusing subtitles, the missions are themed around the idea that some dirty Russkies are flooding the streets with cheap, high-quality weapons and armour. It's pitched as a proper storyline, but in reality it's just a thin excuse to make a bunch of normal SWAT missions a bit tougher - because of course, all the bad guys have been supplied by the Stetchkovs. So, in mission three, you get a bunch of crazy bible-bashers raiding a death metal gig -with assault rifles. In mission four, you get a cadre of disgruntled farmers trying to blow up the agriculture ministry - with briefcase bombs and Tec 9s. It's all very silly, and handled in the usual tongue-in-cheek fashion of the main game.
The quality of the missions varies wildly, but overall I'd have to say they're a bit disappointing. Aside from a couple of the later maps they're all quite unremarkable in both concept and layout, and we wouldn't be surprised to find out some of them were rejigged cast-offs from the original game.
The first mission, for example, acts as a kind of refresher course on basic sweep-and-clear tactics, and is almost insultingly simple. The second and third missions are also very straightforward - conceptually limp, they rely merely on odd-shaped rooms and multiple entry points to provide intrigue. Only when you reach the fourth map -an office building with its guts ripped open by an explosion - do you find a bold visual concept to complement the roomclearing action.
Needless to say, once the early remedial section is out of the way, the missions also become extremely punishing. The original game was tough, but with the extra enemy fire-power, and an increased unwillingness to go down without a fight, the difficulty is ramped very high indeed - enough to ensure you'll have to play some of the levels dozens of times before you succeed. (Which is convenient when you've only got seven new missions to go around.)
Elsewhere, some broader problems remain, though as these are hangovers from the original game it's perhaps a little unfair to expect them to have been remedied in an add-on pack. One is, of course, the lack of proper object physics. It may seem churlish to mention this again after we laboured the point last time, but what the hell - on at least two occasions it caused one of my troops to get stuck behind a door or piece of office furniture, so the pain is still fresh.
Another big problem is the AI. Despite the fact that it's fairly good compared to many similar examples (though I must say that Prezzer got a little bit carried away when he described it as "blisteringly good"), it still manages to trip up with alarming regularity. The entire tactical squad-based genre in fact, has always been hamstrung by its AI, and as far as I'm concerned the problem remains.
However, something more worrying that emerged in the course of playing Stetchkov - perhaps because the levels aren't that great, perhaps because the concept has been stretched too thin - is that the gameplay is really quite repetitive. The whole routine of coming to a doorway, deploying your Optiwand, storming the room, arresting the suspects, cuffing them, picking up the weapons, reporting it all to dispatch - it all just becomes a bit of a chore after the hundredth room or so.
Still, you can punch and electrocute civilians to make them co-operate, and quite frankly that'll never get old.
Angry farmers immune to debilitating jolts?
The enemies in The Stetchkov Syndicate are meant to be a bit tougher than usual, because they've been equipped with the latest military gear by a Russian crime syndicate. That's all well and good, except that they're row so tough they're practically superhuman. I shot one with the (new improved) Taser gun, watched him convulse a bit, punched him a couple of times, shouted at him to drop his weapon, and still he managed to recover, raise his still-held weapon and kill me. Now, I'm no scientist, but according to my research, the Taser gun delivers a debilitating 50,000 volt jolt, and anyone hit with one loses all control of their muscles and collapses instantly. So what's going on? Are these guys immune? Did I just get killed by Magneto? Enquiring minds want to know.
Being a good cop does not make for a fun game
One big problem with the SWAT games is that complying with police procedures (such as not killing everything that moves) is, frankly, a bit tedious. Much more fun, surely, would be a game in which you had the choice whether to play it by the book or not.
So, if you wanted to play the boy scout you could - reporting regularly to dispatch, going for promotions and medals and so on. If you didn't want to do it that way, however (and I think this applies to most of us), you could play it more in the style of Vic Mackey from The Shield. So, when you found some drugs, rather than reporting them, you could steal the evidence and sell it for profit. When one of your men accidentally killed a hostage, you could cover it up by faking evidence and making the victim fire off a few pistcl rounds from their limp, dead hands.
It could be a brave new direction for the genre, peeling back the heroic fagade of the force to reveal the corrupt, rotten truth, and it'd be great.