SWAT 4: The Stetchkov Syndicate Download
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode
As The World's least competent SWAT player, within ten minutes of booting up the long-awaited expansion pack I had shot myself in the head with my own sniper. I had my sniper window open on-screen, I went into a shadowy room, my sniper saw a dark figure moving around suspiciously, I jabbed Caps Lock to take control, I fired, I died in a pool of blood and the hoodlums who had taken over the dilapidated arcade I was in the process of liberating lived to be naughty another day. Not entirely what you'd call recommended procedure. Nor, indeed, was the messy incident in which I accidentally shotgunned a snappy woman in the face while fumbling for my handcuffs.
In short, now that The Stetchkov Syndicate has rumbled around the corner of computer gaming, nothing seems to have changed in terms of my utter ineptitude. I remain the sole victim of two-thirds of my own flashbangs: the Stinger is invariably he who shall be stung. Then again, having had a mash through work-in-progress code for the SWAT4 expansion, there isn't much change there either; it's just as fun and just as challenging, but certainly not far removed from what went before.
It's a collection of excellent maps set in predominantly believable locations with a few intriguing twists, a new weapon or item unlocked as you march through the levels, some porky hostages and some rewarding gameplay tweaks that dim the prominent interaction fiddles you came across in SWAT4 vanilla version 1.0. In addition, obviously, there's even more developer in-jokes plastering the walls of the expansion's various homeless shelters and rock venues - has any other game had more development staff photos gurning from posters and wall furniture? Answers on a postcard...
Not wanting to pre-empt the review too much, but there are some truly excellent maps here. Pride of place goes to the Ministry of Agriculture, which some rather angry farmers are intent on exploding. My bumpkin dad usually just sends angry letters or kicks the dog - Americans apparently tool up with AK47s.
There are three floors of carnage here, with bleeping bombs in random places and one bomb that's already gone off -meaning that the building is hollow in the middle, extremely dark and has a basement car park that's knee-deep in water. It makes for a scintillating experience, with potential danger in every conceivable direction, made all the more nerve-jangling by a vamped-up interest in centring levels around large open spaces with multiple entry-points.
These cavernous locations prompt outright fear in every true player (inept ones especially), and after intense bouts of play can cause trepidation even when visiting large non-game rooms, such as those in out-of-town retail parks. Not that we'd recommend imagining you were tooled up with weapons in the JJB Sports retail outlets, it's just something that happens sometimes. But in this expansion, open areas such as rock venues, chapels and large rooms with open balconies on either side are more common than ever, always containing a heady mix of plebs, hoodlums and flashbang flare. Because of this, they demand careful planning, expert marksmanship and a large helping of luck.
Thankfully though, there's a new feature here to help you - meaning that you can stack up your red and blue teams at different doors to cavernous areas before giving a simultaneous 'Go!' signal. True, you could get fairly similar results last time around, but it came through frantic key presses and a distinct feeling of being rushed. The new 'Held command' system feels as if you're commanding a well-oiled machine: calm and meticulous. Until you rush into the fray and headshot your own man as he sprints towards you from the opposite side of the room. Once again: guilty as charged.
Intriguing level design aside, Irrational really seems to have paid rapt attention to criticism levelled at SWAT4. That said, at this stage of development we're not particularly convinced that all its remedies will be pulled off.
For a start, the press blurb promised a story that dealt with a criminal organisation (the titular Stetchkov Syndicate), but in practice you'll only ever notice this if you're one of those nerdy spods who read every second line of the mission blurb instead of choosing your gun and diving straight in. Stetchkov missions only start appearing come level five, and even then it's hard to notice - although, in all fairness, Stetchkov remains a cool name.
The same drive has presumably gone into weaving a bit of added character into your fellow SWAT flunkies - 'I think I brought someone here on a date once,' 'Was it a blind date?', and other such ribticklers. All pleasant enough, but perhaps filling the gaps with a tongue-clenched-between-teeth chunky crayon rather than a dainty, refined set of colouring pencils. Still, it's a work in progress, which is something that, again, we should reiterate when pointing out that it's fine introducing a couple of 'physics objects', but perhaps not when they're in the Tribes: Vengeance variety of bounciness and suggest that we're skulking through a drug lab on a secret moon base. Still, time will tell.
Now, everyone likes shooting electric wires into whining bystanders when they refuse to get down on the ground (before you put them down!), and there's no feeling quite like giving a team-mate a cattle-prod moment in the derriere. So imagine my joy when I first discovered the Cobra stun gun - a dear little creature that not only has springs capable of zapping two sequential grannies, but also works in melee mode should you be up close and personal.
It's just one of the unlockable additions in the SWAT4 urban outfitters collection that open as you work your way through the levels of the expansion. Elsewhere, the boring (ammo pouches) mixes with the excessive (grenade launchers you can pack with stingers, tear gas and the like), and the intriguing (blurry night-vision goggles) rub shoulders with the gleefully fleshshredding (5.7 x 26mm sub-machine-gun).
All this, and you can drop glow-sticks to mark where you've been (or recreate one of those legendary late '90s SWAT raves, should a level have access to a field), and punch perps in the head with your fist should they act shabbily when expected to comply with your wishes. Some may argue that a lot of the new gameplay options weaved into the SWAT 4 website are things that should have been in the original game anyway, rather than a particularly 'expansive' approach. However, from what I've played, the quality of the levels invariably exceed its forbear in style, substance, setting and imagination.
After all, it's not often that I want to be a policeman, but apparently there's more to it than standing outside nightclubs and asking fat, drunk bald men to calm down. In fact, if I was a policeman, I'd try to tazer someone everyday, perhaps even twice a day. I'd imagine you'd have to fill in some forms and such to say who you'd tazered and why ('He gave me a funny look', 'he was holding a shotgun', 'he was standing outside Dixons'), but it certainly seems to be a great perk of the job. Roll on The Stetchkov Syndicate review code, and roll on SWAT5.
Increased player-count points to success of the police recruitment campaign
Multiplayer tomfoolery, the much-vaunted and often much-ignored holy grail that sits on the edge of every single, solitary disc of SWAT4, has also been prodded in necessary areas. Instead of the cacophony of five different monotonous SWAT voices that used to greet the start of every co-op match - 'Go here!', 'Go there!', 'Check under that door!', 'Have you fed the dog?' - there's now a sole leader, rather than four people who assume that they should be viewed as dictator-general ofcrim-chasing. Then again, if you're using the now built-in co-op VOIP system, there's nothing you can do to stop your more eager teammates from yapping like a corgi on heat - apart from, perhaps, a well-placed electrical current. With a number of co-op players that now maxes out at a colossal ten, and a 'Smash and Grab' mode that's a bit like the former VIP escort game, but instead sees both teams scurrying around for a briefcase that's presumably been left lying around by MI5 or a Tory leadership hopeful, community bods will be happy indeed.