Incidental background writing isn't something that games are traditionally very good at. These days, though, the standard is rising - developers don't rely on Dull Tony in the programming and fiddliness department to write all the dialogue, and instead they knuckle down in drama class and start to make things a little bit more convincing. It's a testament to the excellence of breach ‘n' flashbang sim SWAT4's writing that you barely notice how believable and well scripted it is. Dialogue, briefings, situations - they're all naturalistic and integrated into the muscular corpus of the game. Even the 911 calls, which are of no real concern to the budding Swatistician, are competently acted and lifelike in delivery. True gaming brilliance is in the details, and SWAT 4 was full of them.
This new single-player expansion campaign, the Stetchkov Syndicate, maintains this capable atmosphere, with all the new scenarios being both entertaining and coherent as part of a larger tale. The Stetchkov Syndicate is the story of your metropolitan Yankee police department's struggle with a mob of arms dealers. First you encounter with the people who bought the weapons, and then you make moves on to the cartel itself. From the situations themselves (such as Fundamentalist Christians attacking a Satanic rock festival) to the quips made between your team-members ("dude, you're too old for videogames"), all aspects of SWAT4 work to give us the most atmospheric and believable squad-tactics game to date. The missions themselves are often excruciatingly tough, and only the most thorough assault is going to bring everyone out alive. As before, planning is minimal - little more than weapon selection and a choice of entry locations - and the positions of your hostiles is never the same as you enter the building, so there's always an element of luck as to whether you make it or not. Even if you've learned much from a failed attempt this randomisation can be really frustrating, but often it only makes the successful execution of entry and sweep of a building all the more gratifying.
A new feature with this expansion, which seems so minor and yet is so vital, is the ability to punch people in the face. There was an odd gap of interactivity in the original game, whereby the only way to subdue the people you encountered was to shoot them, or shout at them. Finding yourself yelling at a choking pepper-sprayed individual who simply would not be restrained was a frustrating experience: you just wanted to hit them. And yet you couldn't. Now you can, although it's about the weediest and most dislocated nudge I've seen in gaming since Trespasser's ‘the arm' [fifty-nine bonus points for obscurest reference! - Ed]. This new potential for thumping completes the game that was previously missing a vital link.
Finally: playing missions with friends in multiplayer is exquisite - and that's just another aspect of the Stetchkov Syndicate that confirms what a competent job Irrational has made of reworking the squad-based shooter genre as a whole. It's like it has taken an encore in the form of an expansion pack.
Compare the detailed and kinetic experience of The Stecthkov Syndicate to the recent cadaverous efforts of Rainbow Six: Lockdown and you begin to see that this is one of the finest PC games we have. Even for those people who hated the previous generations of the strategic break and enter, I suspect you'll come away loving this. Needless to say, if you bought SWAT 4, then this expansion pack is an essential purchase. And NOT the inevitable pirate torrent. Right? RIGHT?