Ironically for a series that aims to simulate police tactics in extreme situations, the average Eurogamer reader's experience of the SWAT series is probably limited to chuckling over potentially illegal requests for new CD keys on our comment threads. We've never quite pinned down why we get so many for SWAT 3. When we saw the long overdue sequel, SWAT 4, on a recent Paris press trip, Sierra reps couldn't imagine why it was either, but judging by the game that Irrational has produced at its Boston studio over the past months, running foul of the Special Weapons And Tactics division isn't something to be taken all that lightly. So we'd stop asking, kids.
Irrational has taken every care to ensure that the game's 14 levels simulate the experience as best as possible. This is no narrative-driven, old-boy-back-on-the-force cinematic cliché and we haven't seen Colin Farrell anywhere either. Instead this is a game about studying a briefing, - complete, in some cases, with an associated 911 call to listen to - assessing the situation and commanding a five-man SWAT team whose primary goal is the arrest of any suspects inside rather than shooting them all to pieces. You'll have to work out which real weapons to use, move cautiously in to deal, restrain docile suspects and take the others down - opting for a non-lethal takedown like a beanbag shotgun to knock them into complying. You can even use a Quick Mission Maker tool to re-spec each of the 14 missions with dynamically placed enemies, different victory conditions and various restrictions to add to the replay value - and it'll be easy to distribute your rejigged settings to other SWAT fans, too.
With the game "nearing completion", we spoke to Sierra producer Ken Rosman about authenticity, your enemies, the technology and what else goes in to making an authentic tactical police shooter to take on the Rainbow Sixes of the world.
Eurogamer: Why did you decide to do SWAT 4?
Ken Rosman: The company had previously decided it wanted to do a SWAT game. There was a SWAT game already in development, but it had gone too far away from what we wanted SWAT to be.
Eurogamer: Was that Global Strike Team?
Ken Rosman: No, Global Strike Team did come out. That was the console version - SWAT: Urban Justice. And we just felt that it wasn't living up to what we wanted and was going too far away from the SWAT franchise itself. And Irrational just has a passion for our old IP, so... We love them for that.
Eurogamer: Did you actually go out on patrol to research it?
Ken Rosman: We had a 34-year LAPD SWAT veteran named Ken Thatcher actually, and he flew out to Boston and gave Irrational a two-day tactical training; how to hold the weapons, because you see your guys lower their weapons when they're among team-mates, walk correctly and so on. He basically verified our radio commands, our radio calls and he verified movement speeds, weapons interaction, how suspects would react in a situation. From start to finish he's reviewed the game and played the game at different stages.
Eurogamer: Very much going for authenticity over fun?
Ken Rosman: Well, when it came down to an issue of whether something was actually fun we sometimes bent the rules a little. For example a breaching shotgun [used for blowing out the hinges on doors for swift entry] actually requires two rounds to open a door in real life, whereas it's one in the game. But for the most part the goal was to make a police tactical shooter, and we're pretty sure it's mission accomplished.
Eurogamer: What sort of scenarios can we expect in the game's main missions?
Ken Rosman: Oh they vary quite a lot throughout. There's the Kwik-E-Mart with the chick who's just gone off her rocker and held it up; there's a fuel bomb in a night club; there's an office environment where you have to free the hostages; there's one where you have to track down a serial killer in his house and dungeon. The 14 missions are pretty unique.
Eurogamer: Are they linked by a story?
Ken Rosman: They're not. They're linked inasmuch as you need a certain score to get to the next mission. Each mission has its own overarching story but they're not tied together. It allows for us to do dynamic enemy placement and for repeat play.
Eurogamer: Does each have a 911 call associated with it?
Ken Rosman: Nope, not all of them. All of them have a briefing, but only some of them have 911 calls.
Eurogamer: It must have been pretty weird to go into a booth and basically scream for help as if you're being burgled or worse!
Ken Rosman: [Laughs] Yeah, the voice over stuff was a hoot.
Eurogamer: Can you share your Quick Mission Maker creations with other users?
Ken Rosman: Yeah. When you create one it saves the mission in the game folder and you could post that mission to the Internet, add notes and so on. So you can create missions the whole community can share, yes.
Eurogamer: Will there be any kind of online ranking system? Leagues, tournaments?
Ken Rosman: At this point there won't be online ranking. It's something we hope to do in the future. But the multiplayer will be community-based and it's open to modding.
Eurogamer: In multiplayer both teams wear similar outfits with only blue and red markers on the back to pick them apart...
Ken Rosman: The suspects are in a dark olive drab green and the police are in a dark blue and they're very similar. It was a design decision based on the fact that even in multiplayer it's still supposed to be a realistic tactical shooter. That said we're currently in the process of looking at making skins for foreign police departments. In that effort it may turn out that multiplayer games are a bit easier because you'll be able to use the alternate skins.
Eurogamer: How clever's the suspect AI? If you wedged a door closed, for example, could they perhaps escape through a window?
Ken Rosman: [Laughs] Heh, that's pretty good. Er, they'll figure things out but they're not so smart that they'll completely ruin what you're trying to accomplish.
Eurogamer: Do they work as a team at all?
Ken Rosman: They are aware of each other. It's dynamic, but if there are two of them in a room they'll both be focusing on different areas of the room, but then that same room on the same map may only have one suspect in it the next time around. In terms of their intelligence level and their perceived level of compliance, every suspect has their own level of motivation. For example, the serial killer's Mum is a little less compliant and you may have to use a little more force with her. Whereas another suspect may be up instantly and give up. It's a pretty broad dynamic.
Eurogamer: Is it possible to shoot out the lights?
Ken Rosman: The environment is dynamic and you can interact with it to a certain extent, but you won't be able to dim the lights or anything. It's not Splinter Cell; I believe that's kinda what you're asking. It doesn't have that level of detail. What you're seeing here is pretty much what you can expect in terms of interaction. That being said, the multiplayer mode's use of Havok physics is much more limited than it is in the single-player game, because we didn't want it to be all about knocking things over. In the single-player environment there are stacks of money, juice bottles, crates; all that stuff's interactive. There may be times when you wonder why something isn't interactive when it looks like it ought to be, but it won't dramatically change the game.
Eurogamer: Are there any stealth elements at all?
Ken Rosman: There's stealth inasmuch as you can get into a room if the AI's looking the other way and covering a door over there [gestures, worryingly, in the direction of the lavatory]. If you walk into that room and don't shoot him or yell "compliance" at him, he won't know you're there until you either shoot him or shout. You can use the little opti-wand to see under the door. So there is stealth in that you can attack him in a tactical situation where you're more in control of the environment, but not so much as in Splinter Cell that you can shoot out the lights or sneak up on him and cut him or anything.
Eurogamer: If you start shooting, the others will presumably react?
Ken Rosman: Yeah they'll be aware at that point. Now, that being said, they do have a sphere of influence. I mean, if they're on the other side of the map they're not going to come running in.
Eurogamer: How many ways are there of doing non-lethal takedowns? You've got the wedge to block the door, the cuffs and so on...
Ken Rosman: You can use the stinger, the flash grenade, CS gas - all three of those force the suspect to become controllable. There's a pepper ball gun, which causes them to cough. There's also a tazer pistol, which causes convulsions. There's the beanbag shotgun.
Eurogamer: Is there a multiplayer mode where you can just use non-lethal takedowns?
Ken Rosman: There is and it's a hoot. There's allow-only-non-lethal and the way scoring works there is that instead of killing somebody you cuff them and they time out and go back to the world.
Eurogamer: When someone's been cuffed in the game, can they still run around?
Ken Rosman: Yeah! On the [Rescue the VIP multiplayer] beta, if you're the VIP and you're handcuffed, if you're not being tazed or screwed with you can actually shuffle on the ground. And yeah, cuffed people can walk around if you don't force them into a situation - even in a multiplayer game. It was funny because when people started playing the multiplayer beta they didn't understand obviously that the VIP could still kinda wander, so you get this situation now where people just constantly abuse the VIP with tazers to keep him subdued.
Eurogamer: What's your player limit in multiplayer?
Ken Rosman: 16. It's five-player co-op multiplayer.
Eurogamer: Why five?
Ken Rosman: The level design. Everything was built kind of narrow, so five is just what the game currently supports.
Eurogamer: You've got deathmatch and VIP. What sort of other multiplayer modes can we expect?
Ken Rosman: Bomb defusal. Then again all three of those have a lethal and non-lethal variant, so essentially there are six variations.
Eurogamer: You've got the Quick Mission Maker in single-player. Will you be able to customise much about the multiplayer missions?
Ken Rosman: At this point, no. It's something we'd like to do in the future; to be able to create customisable multiplayer environments. It's something we're looking at, but it might be before or after release; we don't know.
Eurogamer: What sort of system specs will SWAT 4 require?
Ken Rosman: It's the same as Tribes: Vengeance, so I think that's a P3 1.4GHz, 256MB RAM and a GeForce 2 or better video card. Compared to Half-Life 2 or Doom III that's pretty low. But basically if you can play Tribes: Vengeance then you can play SWAT 4.
Eurogamer: Will you do a console version?
Ken Rosman: We investigated doing a console version, but if there is one it'll be a future version at this point.
Eurogamer: Has the engine not changed much since Tribes: Vengeance then?
Ken Rosman: There were tweaks made by the Boston team outside of what the Australia office did, but they were more to do with the way the two teams wanted to implement the Havok physics.
Eurogamer: Can you think of any more examples of things you had to change on the basis of making them more fun?
Ken Rosman: Well, you mentioned the movement speed earlier; actually Ken Thatcher told us that the SWAT guys move slightly slower in real life because they're not always running whereas you can set them to always run in the game. Although of course our always-run is like walking in most other games! But generally we went for authenticity.
Eurogamer: Do you see SWAT 4 as a competitor to the Rainbow Six games then?
Ken Rosman: For the most part. When the last SWAT game, SWAT 3, came out, tactical shooters hadn't really been established. Now Rainbow Six has kind of helped games fit into a genre that people know and understand. So I do feel that it's our direct competitor, but the big difference is that because it's a police tactical shooter the goal is compliance not kill. So that part's still going to be a little foreign to people. It's not 'run into a room and kill everything'; it's tactically enter the room and make people comply.
Eurogamer: So you want to vacuum up the existing SWAT fans and the Rainbow Six fans?
Ken Rosman: That's the goal. We've actually got the SWAT 3 user interface in there as well with just such a thing in mind, so if you're a SWAT 3 fan who can't be bothered to learn the new interface or don't like the new dumbed down interface - for want of a better term - you can just go back to using the overly complicated SWAT 3 interface with our blessing.
Eurogamer: Can you actually put your team-mates in cuffs?
Ken Rosman: Yeah you can actually [chuckles]. You can shoot your team and your team will turn on you, too. If you shoot one of your guys they may just kinda throw you a look, but if you shoot another guy they will start hunting you down too.
Eurogamer: Is it possible to be the bad guy at the bottom with the SWAT team coming in to get you?
Ken Rosman: [Smiles] That situation is completely possible.
Thanks to Ken Rosman for answering our questions. SWAT 4 is due out soon on PC.