It is now purchasable through GOG.com.
SWAT 4 is a first-person, squad-based tactical shooter. The player takes the role of a police SWAT team leader and is tasked with "restoring order to chaos" in a variety of scenarios ranging from robbery to terrorism. In many ways it is easy to compare SWAT 4 to other "realistic" shooters like ARMA or Rainbow 6. Mechanically, they are similar. People go down in one or two shots, making tactics and fast reflexes a necessity. The gameplay is tense and things can go bad in a few short seconds. But there's a big difference between SWAT 4 and those other games as well.
"Advanced AI", and Human Psychology
I wrote a while back about Liberal Crime Squad, a game that in many ways is on the opposite side of SWAT 4. LCS is about creating social change, SWAT 4 is about preserving order. LCS' methods range from "subversive" to "terrorist", SWAT 4 is about going by-the-book at all times. LCS and SWAT 4 have one important thing in common, though, and it's what separates SWAT 4 from Rainbow Six et al: the way characters, especially hostile characters, behave.
In real life, people have a variety of reactions to a combat situation. Some people are dedicated enough to keep fighting even when they're certain they're going to die. Some people decide it's not worth it. Some people freeze up. Some people panic. Some people run. People don't behave the same; they make their own decisions based on their own adrenaline-fueled emotional state.
This is a thing that LCS and SWAT 4 acknowledge. It is a thing almost every other shooter ever made fails at.
In LCS, every combat encounter has more options than just "shooting". You can intimidate. You can bluff. You can take a hostage. You can use realistic options to manipulate the situation in your favor, and people will behave in a relatively realistic manner. Characters have a sense of self-preservation, cowardice, or moral ambiguity. Even though the game is intentionally designed to be over-the-top political satire, the characters in that game behave more "humanly" than most other characters do.
In SWAT 4 - which is more serious than LCS by far - you are playing a police officer. It is your first priority to arrest suspects, not to kill them. To that end, there are rules that you must abide by. You must give the suspect fair warning and a chance to surrender (specifically, by shouting "Police! Drop your weapon!"). Even after you issue that warning, you do not get a "clean kill" unless the suspect is aiming at a police officer or a civilian. And even if that is the case, killing a suspect prevents you from getting full marks on a mission. The act of killing is, itself, a minor failure, no matter how justified it is.
I mentioned the game's difficulty earlier, and this, too, is important for its message. Because it's so easy to be killed, the player is forced to balance their mercy and their desire to do the right thing with their own self-preservation. You are forced to make judgment calls in the heat of the moment: was I right in shooting that person? What if I was wrong, and they didn't have a gun? These kinds of moments are narratively important, and the game's difficulty is necessary to create them.
What It Means
If viewed "objectively", in a purely mechanical format, SWAT 4 is unique, but ultimately flat. SWAT 4 is a hard game. If you look at it purely as a game, then it's "difficult" and not much else. But that's true of any game that you look at mechanically, because that's what games are: flat. They're fun. They're entertaining. You play them, and you're distracted for a while.
But if you look at SWAT 4 narratively, or contextually - if you treat it like art - it is doing something very important. It is avoiding dehumanization. Every human life in SWAT 4 is intrinsically valuable. Every death is a failure. Every suspect has the chance to give up. In most games, "human enemies" are essentially the same as zombies or robots. They are aimless, ego-less beings with no sense of self-preservation. Their only goal is to kill the protagonist. They do not have any desires or values beyond that, unless the developer wants to throw in a scene where it turns out they're also universally sadists and torturers.
That is what violence in media is. Not just "violence", the act, but "dehumanization", the idea. The idea that there are people out there who can never be fixed, and who only deserve death. This is not a "fictional" idea. It is a real one. It is a real belief held by many real people. It colors the way our society thinks about soldiers and police and anyone else whose job involves killing people. And, because of it, we become more accepting of torture and abuse by those people, because the people they're hurting were permanently evil anyways.
"Taking Things Seriously"
The thing about SWAT 4 is that, more than anything else, it takes itself seriously. It is the result of people sitting down and saying "We want to make a SWAT simulator. In order to make it accurate we are going to include a lot of decisions that some people will say 'aren't fun'. But we have to do that in order to make it right."
There are no female officers in SWAT 4. I am not blaming them for this. If there were female officers in SWAT 4, I have no doubt that (like the Tom Clancy games) those officers would be treated, and depicted, as respectfully as possible. I'm not saying that the SWAT 4 team is particularly feminist or egalitarian or whatever else. What I am saying is that they took the game seriously, and as a result, if they had included female officers, they would have taken them seriously as well.
The thing about women in gaming - when you talk about objectification, or damseling, or anything else - is that women are generally not taken seriously in games. Women are there to be pretty, and games are supposed to be fun, not serious. So you end up with characters whose physiques don't match their roles, because they're not there to be "serious combatants", they're there to be eye candy. You end up with characters whose contribution to the story is ultimately just male gratification, because games aren't meant to have serious stories, they're meant to be escapism for dudes. And the same is true about violence: it's okay to dehumanize people because killing is supposed to be a fun outlet.
If you're concerned about things like objectification, you need to start by taking things seriously. And consistently, too, because it's always going to ring hollow when you're complaining about realism in one case and then justifying non-realism in the next. If you want positive social change you have to hold yourself accountable to the standards you want everyone else to play by. SWAT 4 is not just "realistic", it's serious. It's cohesive. It works together. Its components fit. It is not ludonarratively dissident, it is ludonarratively harmonious. It works.
SWAT 4 is an enjoyable game, and as countless bungling Youtube videos have shown, it's possible to play it in a "fun" way (i.e. not taking it seriously). But the fundamental fact remains that SWAT 4 was made to be played seriously. If you are not playing SWAT 4 seriously, and you are not taking SWAT 4 seriously, you are not getting the full experience that was made for you. And it's that dedication to the message that makes SWAT 4 one of the best games - if not the best game - ever made.