It doesn't matter who started it, and it doesn't matter who is the king of the hill at the moment, but what does matter is how astonishingly fast the tactical action genre has moved forward in the past couple of years. What began as a relatively niche market with the likes of Novalogic's Delta Force has now wrapped its camo-clad fingers around the gaming world, and it isn't going to let go for the foreseeable future.
The Class SWAT
Earlier this year, Sierra recognised that they had a market hole to fill, and released the third addition to their popular yet somewhat lacklustre SWAT series of games. Unlike it's predecessors SWAT3 was a first person shooter, and proved to be a surprise hit. Creeping up behind the likes of Delta Force and Rainbow Six, it dealt them a swift blow to the back of the neck and ran off with the crown as one of the most immersive and brilliantly constructed tactical titles yet.
As is usually the case with this type of game, the structure is mission based, although SWAT3 does offer a vague story to tie it all together. Set in 2005 during the build up to "Global Peace Day", representatives from every nation of the world have converged in Los Angeles of all places to witness the signing of the United Nations Nuclear Abolishment Treaty. It's your job as an LAPD SWAT officer to do your best to enforce order throughout the city during this time. The missions you get involved in rarely have anything much to do with this storyline, but who am I to argue?
Those of you who remember SWAT3 may be a little confused at the moment as to why we are reviewing a game which is over six months old, and indeed what the "Elite Edition" tacked on the end of its title might mean.
Well, such was the demand from the dedicated SWAT fan base for a multiplayer mode in SWAT3 that the development team went straight to work on addressing this deficiency, eventually forming the idea into a small add-on pack for the original game. This won't now see the light of day as a seperate product, but Elite Edition is simply SWAT3 bundled with the multiplayer support and all of the other additions from that planned add-on.
The single player campaign is more or less the same as it always was, but for the benefit of those of you who haven't yet experienced the game, it is similar to the Rainbow Six series in feel. As the element leader of a SWAT team, at the start of a mission you are given a choice of team members and equipment, but it appears that the extensive armoury is just there to satiate American gun nuts, because the default weaponry is usually ample. Avoiding complex planning routines like that of Rogue Spear is a smart move, as here you just need to pick your preferred entry point and whether or not you want to go in all guns blazing (which is usually not very advisable), allowing the player to simply get on with the perp-nabbing.
The missions themselves are pleasantly varied, from an assault on a sniper in a run-down Hicksville cottage to searching for bombs in a grotty subway while their timers tick away. The Elite Edition add-on also gives you a further five missions to play with, my favourite being the gorgeous Chang's Theatre setting, which features a lovingly modelled cinema.
The first thing that strikes you is that SWAT3 is a great looking game, far surpassing anything we've seen from the Red Storm (Rainbow Six) team to date. Not beautiful in the rolling hills and green pastures kind of way, but in the intricately detailed gritty suburban realism kind of way, with wonderfully modelled rooms and buildings of supreme quality... The level designers and texture artists have gone to town beyond anything I've seen before.
It isn't just the graphics which are realistic though. In the top-left of your HUD is a menu with which you can issue orders to your team, such as telling them to search specific rooms. Want to open that locked door? You can't just bust through and kill whatever is on the other side. Put away your gun, get out your lock pick, pick the lock, get out your little mirror tool and use it to peek around the corners for any potential hostility, and then slowly creep in, not making a sound.
If you spot a criminal, you can't just shoot on sight and hope that he drops; you have to call for compliance, perhaps popping off a couple of warning shots and maybe, just maybe, he will drop to his knees with his hands in the air so you can arrest him. Yes, you even have to put handcuffs on him. In a frenzied firefight things can get incredibly panicky as you try and enforce law "by the book", as opposed to simply mowing the scumbags down while the bullets ricochet off walls dangerously close to your face.
Bring Your Friends
Of course, the make-or-break feature of this edition is the new multiplayer support. Online or over a network, you can play a choice of either deathmatch or co-operative play, simply by registering for WON.net (eurgh) and picking a server using the in-game browser.
Deathmatch mode plays pretty much as you would expect, a free-for-all battle for the most frags with the addition of a few AI controlled opponents just to add to the numbers. These play so well you can hardly discern between humans an AI. The only problem with the deathmatch play is that there is very little strategy involved, and one player with a good connection can sit behind a box in a room and pick off everybody who comes past. This is not where SWAT3 multiplayer holds its strength, it's in the co-op mode where things get really interesting.
Co-op is exactly like the single player game, except you play with human team members against AI terrorists. It's really quite surprising how much having human teammates adds to the game, and the only improvement I could think of would be to have human terrorists as well. However, as detailed and wonderful as the levels and missions are, it still can't come close to the instant gratification and simplistic gameplay offered by Counter-Strike - the only real competition for SWAT3's multiplayer mode.
The netcode in SWAT is surprisingly good though, and I managed to host a game on a 56k modem with the other players reporting only very minor lag, which is a testament to the amount of work Sierra has put into expanding the game.
Elite Edition is a worthy addition to any tactical action fan's collection, unless of course you own the original SWAT3 already. If that's the case, hop over to the SWAT3 website and you can download the additional portions in Elite Edition for free!
With the inclusion of a Software Development Kit in the package, the door is also wide open for user modifications and new missions for the game, which should extend SWAT3's life for the foreseeable future. I couldn't recommend your acquisition of this game any more.