The best scene in 2016’s Triple 9 follows a drug raid executed by a team of seasoned professionals. Director John Hillcoat shows the precision with which Casey Affleck and Anthony Mackie sweep each room, announce each action, and move as a single unit, to convey the kind of skill and rehearsed confidence that only comes from years of rigorous, process-focussed training.
Forethought and restraint are not qualities that one would imagine would lead to an exciting video game, but they are the crucial elements that set Sierra’s SWAT 4 apart from many other, more banal, shooters.
SWAT 4 is a game of on-the-fly tactical planning interspersed with bursts of smoke and gunfire. The heart of the game is in breaching doorways, in drawing conclusions with limited information, weighing risks and rewards, and eventually leaving all that behind and stepping into the unknown. Every choke point, every corner, every shadow can be lethal, and must be approached with caution. No plan survives contact with the enemy, but with a good plan and good luck you and your teammates may survive long enough to reach the next danger. If you’re really good the hostages may survive too.
The game stacks the odds against you from the start. Wounding shots are rare, and your enemies are trigger-happy. You can’t fire on sight, because killing a surrendering man in cold blood is frowned upon by society. A civilian dying ends the mission. Whether you were the shooter or not, you are at fault. You’re not above the law, you are the law, and the weight of the lives of everyone trapped in the dingy alleys and basements that make up the levels rests on your shoulders. You’re not there to win a match, you’re there to get everyone home alive. Your tools include the usual arsenal of pistols, machine guns, and rifles by necessity, but non-lethal tasers, bean bag shells, or pepper-spray paint balls are often your best choice.
Coordination and constant communication are essential to completing a mission and VOIP is an absolute necessity when playing multiplayer (the only way to play SWAT 4). Missions can be played solo, but covering your friend’s back while they sweep under doorways for signs of hostiles is much more visceral. Practice develops shorthands and routines, a shared language and stories of missions that went right or horrendously wrong. SWAT 4 is a cooperative RTS in a FPS’s guise.
Despite a creaking engine, OS compatibility issues, and terrible net code, SWAT 4 is still played and loved in corners of the internet today. The original requirement for Gamespy to find public servers has been replaced by a fan-made server browser, dedicated fans still host servers open for anyone to drop into, and publish enough fan-made maps to fill any player’s appetite.
Although still satisfied with this rare gem, SWAT 4’s dedicated following has cried out for a sequel in forums and blog posts for years. Ready Or Not, announced this week by developers Void Interactive, is not the first project to hear this cry, but it perhaps shows the most promise. Void seem to have drunk the SWAT 4 Kool-Aid, and grok what did and didn’t make the original special. Their development blog hypes features like incremental leaning and cautious door opening that sound mundane to the uninitiated, but mean the difference between life and a chaotic, bloody death in practice. Their mandatory gallery of static renderings is full of the tools familiar to any SWAT 4 veteran: sting-ball grenades, door jams, multi-tool lock picks. Most of all, their trailer shows doors being bashed in. They know SWAT.
Void Interactive are pandering to a very specific audience, but they know the lingo well. High-res, pre-rendered trailers are a dime a dozen these days, but as a SWAT 4 evangelist longing for an official sequel that I know will never come, I am very, very ready for this spiritual successor.