When you’re put behind the crosshairs of a gun, do you assume you have to shoot to kill? Better still, do you have to shoot to win? For the majority of First Person Shooters, that is certainly the case. What if you were given the choice to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but still be able to complete your objectives? It sounds like the trend of stealth action games starring super-spies in skin-tight bodysuits. But it’s not. It’s a law enforcement simulation.
SWAT 4 Gold Edition (Irrational Games, 2006) packages the original SWAT 4 tactical first-person shooter and its story-based expansion campaign from earlier this year, The Stetchkov Syndicate. Adding a meager seven new missions, a collection of new gadgets to use, and new multiplayer options, the expansion does its best to extend the life of the original game. Though I think its biggest strength is in the way it handles the choices that could be made in the original game by increasing their significance.
SWAT 4 rewards players for neutralizing threats, rescuing any innocents, and securing evidence (mostly dropped weapons) with a numerical score at the end of each mission. Suspects are explicitly asked to comply by you or a member of your squad. Killing a suspect that has already dropped his weapon will lose you points, as will failure to report a downed squadmate. Depending on the difficulty level, you won’t be able to proceed to the next mission unless you get the required score. So aside from making sure the suspects on each level are taken care of, and the innocents have all been accounted for, there are a number of details that must also be considered. Have all the dropped weapons been located? Did a fellow officer die after you foolishly ordered Red Team to clear out a room full of armed suspects? The game is methodical and deliberate. There are choices to be made.
On harder difficulties you’re given a more challenging objective: subdue all of your adversaries, not just the ones that happened to drop their guns the first time you asked them to. When killing isn’t an option anymore, it causes you to second-guess yourself. Did that guy have a gun? Was he a threat? Sometimes an itchy trigger finger takes out a hostile that’s about to lay down his weapon – and that’s an unauthorized kill. This is why The Stetchkov Syndicate presents a whole host of taser-like weapons to help subdue the perpetrators. But it doesn’t make the game any easier.
The Stetchkov Syndicate also increases the unpredictability of the enemy AI. Even if you’ve gassed a room and the perpetrators (or even innocents) have complied, they will occasionally pick up the gun they just dropped and start firing, or simply run out of a room. It requires quick thinking on the part of the player: do you have your team zipcuff the perpetrators immediately, running the risk of additional armed enemies filing into the room while you’re at it, or do you lock down the entire room before apprehending the suspects, wasting valuable time? It’s a careful balance that must be observed for every task in the mission. Because in SWAT 4 you can’t ever memorize the locations of your adversaries – they are always randomly placed throughout each map, for each attempt of the mission.
It’s easy to think that the stealth action genre allows you to make a similar choice of not killing to win, but I think it’s a misconception. Games like Splinter Cell (UbiSoft, 2003) and Thief (Looking Glass, 1998) don’t teach you to respect your fellow man; they teach you how to survive. In Splinter Cell, you’re a super spy that has a high tech arsenal at his disposal, but is under-equipped to take on a group of well-armed guards. In Thief, you’re a scrawny brigand who makes a living off of the unprotected riches of powerful lords. Getting into a sword fight with even one guard meant instant death; you were better off to snipe from afar or not engage anyone at all. As such, these games don’t really infer that you shouldn’t be killing anyone, but rather that you should simply avoid conflict altogether. There’s a big difference.
SWAT 4 gives you all the equipment you would expect to find in most anti-terrorism units, which would allow you to just as easily tear through a building leaving a trail of bodies in your wake. Instead, the game stays true to its source material that dictates your utmost priority is protecting life at all costs, unless it is absolutely necessary to take it.
By introducing the more challenging – albeit more rewarding – element of subduing your enemies, you are constantly given a choice. Ask for compliance or shoot to kill? As a gamer that grew up with an itchy mousefinger in Doom and Quake, and moving through the thoughtful first-person action of the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series, it’s still quite difficult to resist the defensive urge to pull the trigger when threatened. In the interest of preserving a criminal’s life a new strategy evolves, one that will often get you killed for assuming your assailant will give up his weapon in the face of five SWAT officers. As we all know this isn’t always the case, and the unpredictable outcomes that result are more reflective of real life than the most complex damage modeling or photorealistic graphics. It means questions must be asked, where the answers may never require you to shoot at all.