There isn't much in the world more satisfying than executing a perfect entry and subduing all suspects with no casualties or injuries whatsoever. There are some things more satisfying, obviously, but not many. SWAT 4 follows the path laid down by the rest of the series in being one of the most thoroughly satisfying (picking up a pattern yet?) games around today.
Anyone familiar with 1999's SWAT 3 will slip into this new iteration with ease - if not easier than one would expect. Controls for those familiar with the last offering can be set to a 'classic' method if they so wish, but players both new and old really should go with the new (default) control method offered up. It is sublime. Total ease of use, with no keys too far away from a finger and the majority of commands and actions carried out using the mouse - this is one of the best thought out control schemes seen on a tactical game of this type, or on any game for that matter. Context sensitive commands at the click of a button make for a fantastic experience - taking any hassle out of the control scheme has left the game free to show the player how good it really is. The aforementioned perfect entry and clearing of a room can be carried out with just the mouse and a couple of presses on the tab key. It's almost magical, in a way...
SWAT 4 isn't a game about showing off the latest gimmick, having the flashiest graphics or copying the most popular fad for the FPS genre. It's about doing what it does and doing it well. Tactical shooters are all well and good, and the most recent Rainbow Six offerings have been of an amazing standard, but the SWAT series has always had an edge over games of its ilk, and the fourth of the lot is no exception. Take your usual squad-based dynamics and toss in numerous bad guys. Check: we're in normal-tactical-shooter-land. Throw into the mix civilians and strict police rules of engagement, along with an emphasis on disabling rather than killing suspects, and we have a whole new level of tactics. Each move must be deliberate, considered and concise, as one false move can leave you with a severely hampered (i.e. dead) squad. An itchy trigger finger could also cost you a mission, with penalties being handed out for unauthorised use of force or for killing a suspect that posed no threat. All number of factors have to be taken into account, paving the way for an intelligent and difficult game. But it's still so fantastically satisfying.
Missions come in many shapes and forms, with some on the smaller scale and some with all-out gang warfare going on around you, but they all follow the same path of briefing-loadout-deployment. These initial stages are critical to a successful mission and studying information that has been made available can give an astute player the upper hand. That is, of course, if the information is even available. The loadout is important too: hollow point bullets just won't cut it against suspects kitted out in body armour, for example. Or maybe you want an entirely non-lethal mission? Well, why not try kitting your whole four-man squad out with pepper-paintball guns, beanbag shotguns and tazer pistols. Tactical choices are ripe, and thoughtful selection will help no end. Dumb decisions aren't really that possible, but the hollow point/body armour example is one way of crippling a squad before they've even been deployed.
Just as with the latest Splinter Cell, SWAT 4 rewards a player for seeking out non-lethal methods of removing suspects. Initial encounters usually involve officers barking orders at the bad guy, ordering them to drop their gun and get on their knees. Sometimes they'll co-operate. But what do you do when they don't? If they stand and shoot, what will you do? Return fire and injure, possibly kill them, leaving an imperfect record? Keep on barking, risking a bullet in the brain? Choices add up and quick thinking soon becomes second nature. My preferred method would consist of a 9mm suppressed machine gun and full metal jacket rounds. But I'm not that nice, to be honest. There is an almost perverse pleasure in taking people down with beanbags though... And pepper spraying an uncooperative old woman is the embodiment of hilarity.
Other tactical choices come through the choice of grenades and tools, with each member of the squad having a number of slots available on their loadout - flashbangs, CS gas grenades, stingers (grenades loaded with rubber bullets. Nasty.), door wedges, optiwands (for looking under doors/round corners etc) and other such items are at your disposal. Obviously, a quantity of grenades are required for room clearing services, but thought has to be put in when it comes to items like the optiwand - should more than one member be carrying one? If the team member carrying it goes down then you lose use of the item, removing an incredible tactical advantage. Conversely, using up an item space with the wand takes away a slot that could be used for something like a wedge - that means one less door that can be jammed shut, leaving an open access (literally and figuratively) for your team to be blindsided. Tactics, tactics, tactics. It's simply wonderful.
It may seem like all this thought involved is overwhelming. Well it is. At least at first. After a while it becomes clear, and picture-in-picture raids between two separate squads can be orchestrated with ease thanks to the combination of intuitive controls, functional AI and deep tactical options. These are the points when the satisfaction really sets in. Put in the work and you will be rewarded with a stunning game, fantastic on nearly all levels; a game that will last a long time, with random suspect/hostage placement on every play and a mission maker to shake things up even more, should you require it. Take into account the online multiplayer, which factors in co-operative play, along with a choice of many different styles of deathmatch/escort/bomb disposal etc and you have an even more complete package.
Downsides do rear their ugly heads though - this rather dystopian terrorist and criminal heavy near-future isn't all perfect. Graphically, things are sound - if you have a hefty system, that is. Anything not up to the absolute pinnacle and things will judder and chug on the default settings. Things do scale back nicely though, even if the end product is a lot less pretty than it is higher up. AI can be an issue too, with team-mates sometimes being infuriating with their reaction times, or lack thereof - standing in front of an armed suspect and simply not reacting as they get shot at can get very annoying very fast. Fortunately, this doesn't happen too much and missions can be finished with no good guy casualties if enough consideration is employed. Another issue could be raised with the fact that you are penalised for shooting first, even if it is clear as day that the suspect is about to shoot you. If you shoot first, you will be penalised, whereas if you wait, you will die. This, of course, is not to do with the game itself, and more with how SWAT is run in real life. Damn regulations. We should all be able to be the Martin Riggs' of the world.
SWAT 4 is an absolute gem in the tactical FPS genre. Everything is of a brilliantly high quality and fulfilment is guaranteed if the time necessary is put into it. Breach, bang and clear with no casualties and three suspects under arrest - throw in a couple of uninjured hostages rescued and, well, you have a whole lot of satisfaction. Two thumbs up.