After Police Quest 4, Darryl Gates had one contribution left for Sierra. It’s called Police Quest: SWAT, even though it doesn’t have much to do with later SWAT titles, and even less to do with the Police Quests before it. Instead, it comes off as something of a quirky experiment. In theory, a hardcore SWAT simulator using the realism of FMV would be impressive and exciting, but the old limitations of video make for some very disappointing gameplay.
SWAT casts you as the newest member of the LAPD’s renowned Metro division. You’ll be expected to qualify with various weapons, learn about the team’s history, gear, and procedures, and respond to dangerous situations popping up throughout the city. You’ll cycle through various team roles as the game progresses, eventually working your way up to a team leader. You also have the option to attempt to qualify as a sniper, allowing you to randomly get assigned to scenarios in the sharpshooter role. If SWAT as a whole is something you’re interested in and you want to learn more, the game tries its best to accommodate.
The entire game is played through full-motion video and digital stills. As with the last game, Gates’ name opened doors across Los Angeles and provided the design team with a number of real-life locations to reproduce in digital form. You’ll travel to the SWAT bullpen, the weapons ranges of the L.A. police academy, and of course, a number of real locations around the city when responding to calls. All roles, from fellow team members to witnesses, are handled by a full cast of actors. Their performances and the resulting video both create the in-mission drama, and fill the time between calls with lectures and chats. It looks as real as can be, and is certainly shot well.
The game comes on four CDs, and can be broken into three distinct parts. The first part is, for lack of a better term, the SWAT Encarta. These are meant to be training areas, but do a miserable job of teaching you how to play the game. Instead, they make up a large collection of various SWAT-related information. The chalkboard at HQ lists topics like “tactical sound factors” or “room entries.” Clicking them brings you to a window with pages upon pages of text supplemented by changing digital stills; quite like a certain multimedia encyclopedia. You can further explore a wealth of generic manufacturer information for gear and weapons; definitely not filtered for the layman. Granted, this could have been more interesting when you couldn’t simply Wiki a gun and get muzzle velocities and fire rates, but since it isn’t referenced in the game itself, it’s valuable only to gun enthusiasts.
You can also click on a VCR to watch interviews with real L.A. SWAT members, which is the only time you’re going to see the actual professionals in the game. These are admittedly interesting, with a good balance of questions and a nice variety of people interviewed. You’ll hear from an original vet present at the 1974 SLA shootout, an actual sharpshooter, an actual team leader, etc. They do a nice job of generalizing what their jobs are like and providing little anecdotes, but again, it’s nothing you can use in the game itself. They also work overtime to present themselves as normal, laid-back guys. Two of them use the identical phrase “we’re not beady-eyed killers,” and there’s a heavy emphasis on making it real damn clear that SWAT is a life-saving force. I personally could have used a little more detail about doing the job, and a little less public relations, but given the 90s, I get why it’s there.
The second game section is an interactive weapons training simulation. It’s more hands-on than the encyclopedia, but is still its own contained set of arcade-style challenges. You select the weapon you want to use, load and switch off the safety, and then get various tasks shouted by the instructor. Some of these are as simple as putting two rounds into the chest box of a target. Some are more elaborate, like the “El Presidente” speed trial where you shoot across three targets in a defined pattern.
You have to do one round of range training to qualify for call-ups, and once you do, you never have to come back here again. There’s an intricate match timer that accurately tracks delay between shots, reaction time, etc, but the game doesn’t care a bit about your performance. You basically can return to attain your own personal best, if you care, but that’s all this section offers – and little at that, considering it’s a goofy and loose control system of aiming gunsight crosshairs with a mouse. I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything by smoothly swinging the mouse from the bottom of the screen to the middle and clicking twice.
Sharpshooting is a different beast. Since going for the sniper role is optional, this entitled the developers to make it as complicated and realistic as possible. You literally have to consult a book of mathematical tables in your inventory and adjust knobs for range, windage and such on your scope to their proper settings. Again, there’s no proper training within the game, so you’re expected to know fundamentals from previous experience, or lengthy reading and self-teaching. It’s critical too, since SWAT places obvious value on being accurate with the first and only shot. If you play a call-up as the sniper and can’t derive the proper settings from visual indicators of distance and wind speed, you’re going to miss the shot and fail the mission. I couldn’t even get far enough to understand what the shot tables meant, but if you’re a rifle enthusiast, sharpshooting is probably the only thing in the game that’s comes close to the realism you would expect and enjoy.
The final part is the story campaign, where you play a randomized role in the SWAT entry team. Each mission begins with you roaming around and collecting information from neighbors or owners, then attending a briefing at the van. From here, you play through a sequence of video clips simulating the mission. It looks nice enough (though clearly green-screened), but a confusing mix of first-person and cinematic third-person angles make it difficult to know when you’re looking at the guy you’re supposed to be covering, and when you’re actually looking at yourself. The “action movie” camera angles further work to confuse any sense of where a movement arrow will take you. You could click right, thinking you’re going to look behind that stack of crates, and end up in another room altogether.
It’s also little more than a puzzle game, using the interface to connect the clips. Any click loads a new clip of new scene or activity, some of which are randomized, many of which are simply death scenes penalizing you for wandering off the expected path. Completing a mission literally breaks down into commands you could bullet-point in a walkthrough – click right to enter the house, wait five seconds, click left, radio team to hold, etc. The later first-person-shooter SWAT titles at least made you feel like you were leading guys to defuse a hostile situation; here you’re mostly an actor waiting for the next cue.
The interface is also a nightmare. Right clicking switches between a movement pointer and a gunsight icon. The center of the toolbar houses a multi-paneled menu for your inventory, hand signals, and the crucial “slice pie” command – you’ll have to click arrows to switch between the three panels. A round porthole on the left shows any hand signals directed at you. Naturally, you’ll need to learn the hand signals – the game will not “translate” them for you. Your own menu of hand signals are a group of clickable buttons. Your signals must be quickly deployed to notify the team of changes in your situation, such as when you’ve spotted a suspect. Any deviation from any of this fails the mission and forces you to restart after an extended lecture/ass chewing.
All of this is well and good, except that the game treats delay as inaction. So you spot a suspect around the corner with a gun. You need to alert your team of his position. You have to right-click off your weapon, navigate to the hand signal page, find the button for “suspect,” click it, click the new icon on the suspect, then right click to access your gun again. But while you’re struggling around through the interface, the game thinks you’re not doing anything, so the goon steps out and shoots you. I agree that a certain level of hesitation should be punished, but you shouldn’t be limited because you don’t know the interface by heart, or have to wait for the multi-panel’s animation to cycle to the right menu.
And that’s the major problem with the game. I wish the game took more time to teach you how to play it. Yet even if you clearly understand what you’re supposed to do, the interface doesn’t make performing that action easy. A real example from the game is when the leader tells you to “cover a door.” Okay, how do I do that? Clicking on the door opens it and gets you killed. When you were previously expected to cover your teammate, you moved the movement arrow to the top of the screen and clicked up, but this time “Up” moves you to another corner of the room and allows the bad guy to open the door and kill you. Instead, you’re supposed to wait there with the gunsight icon trained on the door until you’re ordered to move on – but any time before, waiting has meant an intentional lack of choice, which gets you killed.
This is what I mean by the game becoming a puzzle. Actually knowing your tactics and your role is frequently rendered useless by having to struggle to make your intentions clear to the interface. It’s far easier to think of it in interface terms, and keep retrying the mission while building to your list of “moves” until you get to the end. Or to put it another way, it’s less about reacting naturally to what’s on the screen, and more about simply figuring out and clicking the right spots in the right order. Whether you think that will be any fun is up to you.
Expect to flip CDs like a short order cook flips pancakes. The various SWAT calls are on discs 2-4, but you’ll always have to return to HQ at the end of the mission, which is on CD #1. Back in the tray goes CD #1, to be swapped out again a few minutes later. Also, the game comes with only a handful of scenarios, so you’ll be playing through them multiple times in different roles, with no explanation as to why you’re back saving the same guy in the same warehouse. It’s a fair caution if you’re expecting those four CDs to hold an impressive amount of unique missions. Instead, you’ll be rescuing the crazy old lady from the shower again, but this time by going around the side of the house! And maybe this time she won’t be where she was before! Awesome!
SWAT is a good-looking game, and the digital visuals capture the grit of the urban locations well. Resolutions are sharp, colors are vibrant, and you would be able to recognize these places from their pictures here. Call locations are all real and not an obvious set. You end up in places that it seems likely for SWAT to be in, and the choices don’t seem cheap. The only disappointment is that live video isn’t shot on location – only still images were allowed, with actors shot over greenscreen. They integrate quite well with consideration to footsteps and angles, but are captured at much lower resolution, making them blocky and out of place. It can also be difficult to read hand signals, since the detail isn’t good enough to show individual fingers at a medium distance. This is probably the reason for the awkward hand signal window in the corner of the interface.
The game sports clean dialogue and live-recorded effects. No complaints there. The music, however, is a bitter pill. The same generic, military-esque drum beat runs under every menu and training screen. I’m already not enjoying reading pages of text, and it’s harder to concentrate with the looping “rat-a-tat-tat” ever-present bullshit. I’m also not a fan of the America’s Most Wanted style background music during missions and field briefings (is this supposed to be a realistic simulation or not?) and the cheesy heartbeat when things get intense. You can’t turn the music volume down independent of the rest, so you’ll have to deal with all of the above.
Acting is fairly abysmal. Your commander doesn’t look the part and is hard to take seriously (and if he says “the fat’s in the fire!” one more time, he’s gonna get a flashbang up the ass). Your squad leader fairs a little better, and your teammates at least perform their SWAT duties convincingly. Other actors, like every single person you interview, are absolutely horrible first-timers. You get what you pay for. Even the marksman trainer stumbles over his lines, and you can tell that these guys don’t have the understanding of the jargon or the general confidence that the real pros would. But I suppose the pros wouldn’t have the time to star in what must have seemed like a high-school play shot in their backyard.
Despite the involvement of the LAPD, this game’s merit as a simulator is questionable. It’s certainly no fun to play. The inefficient interface simply doesn’t give you quick access to the tools and commands you would need to play a reactionary game. As a result, it becomes a frustrating puzzle of trying to find the right combination of “moves” to win. The encyclopedia sections may have value to budding SWAT enthusiasts, but anyone looking for a recreation of a day in the SWAT van, or a interesting police-based action title, should pass this by.
Sharp digital stills make for realistic locations and detailed equipment close-ups. Encyclopedia content has varying value to those interested in SWAT.
Horrible interface limits your reactions, actual game is about finding the correct sequence of events to proceed through the FMV missions. Restricted Full Motion Video gameplay.