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SWAT: Target Liberty
Reviewed November 2007 by Alex Lifschitz
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment
Developer: 3G Studios
Release Date: October 2007
ESRB Rating: “T” for Teen
Genre: 3rd Person Tactical Shooter
If our taxpayer dollars are going towards any SWAT teams like those in SWAT: Target Liberty, I want a refund. Actually, I want a refund, and a cake with an apology tastefully written in delicious frosting. And a rifle, since I could never count on these guys to defend me under pressure. What the hell happened? The SWAT games on the PC were actually really, really good. I figured that maybe, MAYBE, the portable version might work – Killzone made a fine transition, after all. I understand that squad commands might be a little clunky, but I didn’t expect SWAT to play this poorly, given its PC pedigree. It’s like trying to direct a parade of headless chickens with a shuffleboard cue. If you happened to buy this game and can’t get a refund, well, enjoy your few mercifully short hours with the Short Bus Brigade.
I’m going to try and summarize how Target Liberty plays as succinctly as I can: Imagine that you’re a police officer with a squad of elite agents trained especially to eradicate the most tactically demanding criminal threats. Now, imagine that your team suddenly loses practically all of their abilities – your surveillance guy has selective vision, your sniper can’t hit the side of a barn, and your intimidation guy is a pushover. You learn that the only way to get it back is by limping at a snail’s pace through an area filled with gang members who are too dumb to move around cover to shoot at you. You can beat them, though, by running around in circles screaming at the top of your lungs after directing your squad to run in and clear a room, tactics optional, and hoping they actually subdue all the criminals before deciding to stand still and take bullets for the hell of it.
You do this for five hours solid. Sounds like a good time, eh?
The biggest grievance, in my eyes, is the painful AI implementation. For a game like SWAT, when team tactics are essential, it’s inexcusable. Your squad is incapable of tying their freaking shoes, let alone handling a hostage situation. Behold as they blunder into an enemy line of fire, and stand still as bullets pummel them. Hey, the enemies aren’t any better. Much like playing a game of peek-a-boo with an infant, watch as you hide behind a column two feet in front of an enemy, and they suddenly wonder where that tricky cop has run off to! But, hey, it wouldn’t make sense to do something as complicated as, say, rounding a corner – let’s just stand still and wait for him to come back! These are enemies who will sometimes miss entire volleys of fire because you happened to be ducking, and yet be able to land shots to your central mass while you’re hiding behind cover. But don’t expect your guys to draw fire, or flank properly, unless you’ve purposefully directed them to, even if they’re nearby. But, for a bunch of drooling morons, they’re pretty capable of clearing rooms. I finished entire levels without firing a single shot. All I had to do was tell my guys to move in and shoot everything that moved while I amused myself by jamming on the triangle button in some godforsaken corner to yell at people to surrender. This tactic lasted through a majority of the game, mind you, even when enemies started getting tougher (and this was on medium difficulty). But beware of the rooms that have more than two enemies! There were a number of times when my squadmates would engage enemies, knock them out, and then fail to subdue them. Instead, they would face the wall while one enemy slowly fired at them with a handgun. So, I, in all my glory, would casually saunter on over to yonder bad guy, avoiding his bullets by simply circle strafing (a feat, when you consider that your running speed is slightly above that of a walker-toting granny, which is GREAT when you have to backtrack through levels for forgotten items or hostages), and clocking him one or two times with my rifle.
Oh, sure, if you WANT to, you can have your guys do all the classic SWAT stuff – mirror under doors, use flashbangs, assign targets – but it’s all optional when you can set your squad on autopilot and use the frustrating targeting system to try and hit enemies with your slow-moving projectiles. And, even when you do, it’s totally broken. You would think that using a mirror to look under a door would allow your surveyor, with 30+ years of field experience, to see more than one miniscule area of the whole room, but, then again, these are the same guys who won’t see enemies that are literally right next to them until you actually arrive in the field of vision. However, your squad of amnesiacs can always upgrade their “talents” (the ones they magically forgot) by successfully completing missions with minimal casualties and maximum hostages and perps subdued and reported, which would be a lot more rewarding if not killing criminals meant more than setting your men to use their non-lethal weapons and using the straightforward approach outlined above. But, say you start getting status bonuses. Congrats! Soon, your sniper might actually be able to hit people effectively, your surveyor will be able to see a few more miniscule areas of a room (and you can even assign targets if you happen to catch one of them in your sights, which might only happen around the ENDGAME), and your negotiator might graduate from “Only Good for Getting A ‘Special’ Canned Answer from the Occasional Subdued Baddie” to, uh, “Only Good for Getting A ‘Special’ Canned Answer from the Occasional Subdued Baddie.”
Of course, none of this is helped by the fact that you need to direct your brain-dead companions to do almost everything with a crappy, clunky control system. Want to do something as simple as, say, shooting a guy? Just hold the left trigger, select the icon that appears next to him, let go (lest you accidentally keep holding the trigger and keep selecting the same guy over and over), fire blindly and hope your bullets actually hit the guy, and issue orders to your squadmates at the same time. Want to navigate your way around a map? Just use the circle button to run at a snail’s pace, but beware of, um, cover. The snap-to-cover system is absolutely pathetic. Not only is it terribly ineffective, but you’ll almost always find yourself taking cover accidentally, simply by standing near something, and you may not even know you’re behind cover until you start leaning out like a full, and the only way to get out is to hold the nub in the opposite direction, which starts you off facing said direction, which is pretty dumb in a firefight. Hell, sometimes, button presses won’t even register. And, for all the squad tactics and combat, it really doesn’t help that you need to tell your guys to do everything – even subduing downed or surrendered enemies – via a reticle you bring up with the R-button. It doesn’t help that it moves so damn slowly, and leaves you unable to do anything while commanding it. And, for some reason, you need to navigate it around obstacles. Want to select a spot on the other side of a maze of cover? Instead of just navigating your reticle to the spot and selecting it, you have to move the reticle through and around cover, as if it were an squadmate with physical limitations. But, hey, it's not like the game keeps going as you try to navigate it – like any good tactical game, it'll pause all enemy and ally actions while you have to contend with its terrible command system, allowing you to use strategy and preventing your squad from blindly stumbling into enemy fire while you plan ahead, right?
I’ll hand it to them, though, that they can capture the feel of a level pretty effectively, and, well, that’s about it. Anywhere you go looks like a warzone, and there are some nice touches to each area, mostly regarding the background garbage that’s found strewn around the level, so the attention to detail ain’t half bad. Level design isn’t too rough, either, except that the whole game is done from an isometric viewpoint (it shifts from time to time, though), so a lot of areas will look similar. I suppose that terribly linear level design is a plus in a game when you move so slowly, though some rooms do have multiple entrances, which allows you, after hassling through the setup, to perform some of the cooler multiple-entrance infiltration that you would see in the PC games, even though it’s almost always entirely unnecessary. Oh, and that viewpoint? Have fun getting sprayed by enemies just outside of your field of vision.
The animations are pretty pathetic, as well. Killzone, which used the same perspective, at least had fluid, believable animation. SWAT, on the other hand, has comically exaggerated movement and death animations, and stiff acting that barely complements the already slow-moving storyline. I could swear that these are ragdoll physics (from the times I got bored during the occasional, awkward sniper sequence, and ended up shooting dead bodies for amusement), but if they are, they really aren’t using it that well.
The graphical quality itself is also severely underwhelming. Not as bad as it could possibly be, but bad enough. It’s really hard to notice (next to the cookie-cutter enemies) when you’re zoomed out so far, but everything just screams “generic” when you get to see it up close. The in-game cutscenes, along with being poorly animated, look to have low-poly count and all the characters apparently have lockjaw. What I don’t understand is why some of this happened to finagle its way into the pre-rendered FMVs (which feature plenty of screen-tearing action, too), which are well-directed, but still painfully disappointing, especially when you see the finesse put into cutscenes in games like Syphon Filter, where animation is fluid and characters are believable, as opposed to the jerky, inexpressive cast of SWAT.
I wish I could cut SWAT some slack when it comes to audio, but, even here, it suffers. The same few sound effects are used over and over, enemies spout canned answers with lame dialog whenever you apprehend them, and the soundtrack is the same few seconds of uninspired audio looped over, and over, and over still. And, just as with other low-budget terrorist-apprehension sims, the enemies suffer from Painfully Apparent Stereotypical Accent Syndrome. Don't bother with a pair of headphones for this one.
Now, I started playing SWAT expecting quite a lot, probably because I loved the PC game, but I should have expected it to not deliver quite what I had hoped. Squad tactics are difficult to execute on a system like the PSP in real-time, and shooters in general are tough with only a single analog stick. What I didn't expect, though, was the poor interface, horrid AI, unnervingly repetitive sound, and, ultimately, a thoroughly frustrating experience to play – that kind of slapped me upside the head. SWAT just tries too hard to do too much with too small of a budget, and, honestly, even on the PSP, it just could have done a whole lot better. If you want a decent tactical shooter, save your money and skip SWAT. Your faith in law enforcement will be glad you did.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
The graphics are, all in all, not the best. The level design isn't entirely bad, and the little bits and pieces scattered about the levels are a nice touch, but things could be much, much better.
Hearing the same few sound bytes for hours on end was thoroughly unnerving, as was the soundtrack.
Ultimately frustrating for all the wrong reasons.
I was about ready to put this down after the first few minutes. I probably should have, in retrospect, seeing as how the entire game is the first few minutes ad infinitum. If you really need to get through it, though, be glad that it'll probably take you no more than six hours, max.