Get out your spades, hoes and shovels, it's time to start digging into the annals of yesteryear. Underneath that new soil lies a world of hidden gems, sparkling away despite their many years below the radar. And, of course, there are plenty of rotten apples festering in the bowels of gaming's darkest dungeons. However, you'll have no need to worry about any garbage sifting through, any wreckage piling up in your browser. Only the choicest, juiciest cuts of gaming past will materialise through the time hole into your browsers, so prepare for an array of dazzling delights from times long since gone.
Naturally, it's important to start something like this off with a big name title, but one that isn't so obvious. You all know about the Marios and Sonics of this world, so writing a big fluff piece about how great Doom was is a little pointless. So, instead, this column will, and indeed should, be focused on things that are just slightly less well known than that. Without further ado then, let's talk SWAT.
Split into three distinct styles, the SWAT series was a follow-up to the insanely difficult Police Quest games, which were primarily parser-based adventures that took great delight in slaughtering your protagonist (Sonny Bonds in the first three and some bloke called John Carey in the fourth). The PQ series was all about making sure you followed proper procedure. Horsing around was always amusing, but would regularly end up in death, suspension and just plain old Game Over.
In the second game, even failing to properly maintain Sonny's weapon would prevent completion, just one of the often farcical mechanics Sierra used in its adventures. Anyone else remember the bit in Space Quest II where if you didn't pick up an object in the second screen from a locker, something easily missed and vital about 16 hours of play later, you'd be unable to progress? Exactly. It was unfair and just one of the reasons the LucasArts adventures are often more fondly remembered.
Anyway, once the tidal wave of FMV adventures were vomited forth in the mid-90s, Sierra appended the sexy SWAT title to the PQ series and turned it into a video-based romp. Taking up 4 CDs, it was basically a failure, as was the fourth game. The incessant focus on proper procedure, and the penalty for not following them, was by now too much for the public to bare. Spending the majority of the game on the training ground having repetitive exercises being drilled into you isn't most players' idea of fun.
In fact, there are only three (randomised) missions in the game, so it really is just a training simulator with a few bolted-on 'exciting' elements. Big, big mistake there, Sierra. With the series at an all-time low, it was decided that the next game, PQ: SWAT 2, would ditch the crappy FMV approach and, radically, the element of adventure that was a hallmark of the series.
Isometric squad control and management was the order of the day this time, just like UFO: Enemy Unknown (X-Com to US residents) and Rebelstar. Except with no aliens. Two campaigns with pseudo-real life scenarios, one playing out like the Rodney King debacle, are negotiated by selecting an element leader and some squad members and tactically approaching each mission using all the regular strategies you'd expect.
Intriguingly, the second of the two campaigns is played out from the perspective of the Terrorist group, the Five Eyes, where killing hostages is actively encouraged. AI, as always, was the biggest issue, as it still is in these types of games (proving that some things never really change) and there were also some issues with exploiting the way the budgeting elements worked, making it easy to just blitz through the game with the best weapons and equipment from a very early stage.
Regardless of the more positive reception and the better quality of the second game, it wasn't until the third SWAT game that things really clicked. If you mention SWAT to people, it's from the third game onwards that people will primarily be focused on. Switching from the isometric to the first-person perspective, SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle is the highest-selling of all the SWAT games, mixing the immediacy of FPS action with both multiplayer modes and the tactical squad-level strategy of the second title.
It's success, if one goes beyond the obvious switch to the more trendy first-person view, was because it lessened the necessity to follow strict police procedure and let players have a bit of a laugh using tasers on each other and explore their own methods, rather than saying “this is how you win, do anything else and you lose”. Co-op is really where the SWAT series became brilliant, allowing teams to employ sophisticated tactics and to get over certain unavoidable deficiencies in what the AI could or would not do.
SWAT 4 followed on from this and just sharpened up all the loose edges and added a few more competitive multiplayer modes, even if the co-op was still “where it was at”. Up to 10 players split into two teams could play, those great numbers working best on specifically designed custom maps. Less-than-lethal weapons were to the fore in the fourth game, allowing for both larks (shooting beanbags into the face of your team-mates, 'accidentally' pepper-spraying your team leader) and for bigger and better scores in the breakdown of your mission success.
An expansion followed, the tough-to-beat Stetchkov Syndicate, and the series was concluded. Many wish it would continue, but why? The answer is simple: what other games attempt to do what the last two SWAT games have done? Combining real-life tactics with high quality co-op gameplay, interesting scenarios and tough-but-fair gameplay, there's nothing else like it.
It's a shame it seems to have been forgotten. A fifth game with a lot of money behind it could be massive. Add a really strong storyline and it'd be huge (maybe). Just so long as you could still taser allies as they peeked under doors. That never gets old.