Spartans, Fox Hound, COG Soldiers, SOLDIER, and Koopa Troopas all share one extremely desirable hallmark; they're all squads of super elite badasses in the realm of interactive entertainment. Unfortunately few of us will ever get the chance to join any of these organizations due to their default status as works of fiction. Life may imitate art, but until turtles grow wings or men can carry swords twice the weight of their body, we'll have to settle for closest real life equivalent - the SWAT Team. Sure, they may not have superpowers, but have you seen Heat? They're entirely capable of some next level prowess. They’re trained, ready, and willing to distribute unbridled badassery on the criminal populace.
So one would hope that a videogame could properly chronicle such a revered occupation. One could picture a squad based version of Bad Boys, with bad guys getting dropped at every corner in hilariously implausible ways, or maybe something more akin to the movie SWAT, which featured a character centric storyline in the context of the highs and lows of being on the SWAT team. Amazingly, SWAT: Target Liberty for PSP is none of these things. Rather than a high energy shooter focused on mayhem and ultraviolence, we're granted a laggard, tactics based adventure with an emphasis on investigative theory and pacifism. While that may seem like a bit of a downer, it looks a whole lot like the moderately entertaining Killzone Liberation, so maybe such an unlikely collection of variables will somehow form an entertaining piece of software. Or maybe not.
Make The Call
You're Kurt Wolfe, the supposed standard archetype of a relentless hardass. Wolfe isn't alone, however, as a menagerie of AI backup is available for support, but we'll get to them later. Your first task consists of a problem that always seems to plague the residents of New York; bloodshed has erupted into the subway because of a seemingly insignificant territory dispute between two rival Korean gangs. Before you know it, antagonists assemble like Constructicons and the plot goes all 24 as it inexplicably expands from a minor squabble into a full blown nuclear threat. At it’s core, SWAT’s narrative is simple, tried and true pulp action, but at least they tried with the delivery. Moderately competent cut scenes interlace every mission and, despite some hilarious accents and potentially racist (omfg fundamentalist Islam!) archetypes, it's sufficient enough to hold your interest.
Actually it's not so much sufficient as it is consistent with the gameplay. As a tactical shooter, SWAT has you entering a room, clearing it of suspects and/or bystanders before moving onto the next room/area. There are multiple ways to go about entering a room, whether you want to scout it in advance by sliding a mirror under the door, open it and toss a few nades in, or simply burst in with guns blazing. Of course, playing it safe and methodical is usually the best course of action, as murdering everyone in the room usually isn't the best way to pacify a situation.
Yes, actual conflict resolution is quite an interesting process. Upon entering an area, you're optionally contracted to confront all living members of the human race. Friend or foe, everyone is subject to the transcendental waste of time known as restrain and interrogate. You get to walk up behind bystanders or surrendering foes, then hold a button to presumably zip tie their wrists before interrogating them. Sometimes you have to hit them in the face with your gun first, but all times they respond with either an insult or a substantial piece of information related to your future encounters. It's sort of entertaining at first, until you realize the citizens and badguys of New York are all dimensionless, hive minded voids who all repeat the same eight or so lines of dialogue. Oh well, such is life on the SWAT Team.
The game is viewed from an isometric (top down + third person) angle, which, despite feeling great in the training levels, doesn't fare so well when applied to the actual level design. Logistically it makes sense, a top-down view should alleviate the problems associated with a user controlled 3rd person point of view, but the execution doesn't follow theory. Oh sure, you can see details and occasionally places to use for cover in rooms you have yet to enter, but the bad guys' locations and sheer numbers still remain concealed. I realize that giving away their position would render the countless number of ways you can open a door pointless, but it just seems like a waste of one of the few aesthetic qualities SWAT has going for it. Still, it seems the art department was slightly more inspired than the gameplay folks, as everything has an above average amount of detail for a PSP game.
Control is a little wonky, and this is most evident by slot machine sequences masquerading as gun fights. The snail's pace at which you and your squad move is somewhat understandable given its roots as a tactical shooter. Tactics require time and thought, I get it, but what I can't figure out is why these guys, be it you or your AI partners, can't shoot the broad side of a 747. The gunplay is mostly a joke, the hit percentage of your shots, regardless of aim, appears to be completely arbitrary. I know your accuracy is supposed to level up with your character, but aim is still inconsistent at higher levels (and I can’t ignore the alleged paradox of why an elite member of the SWAT Team would need to level up). This is in stark contrast to the AI, whom I swear must be using some sort of aim-hack. Some scant sniping missions aside, trying to end conflicts with tactical force instead of bullets is usually the recommended course of action. This is even more evident in the post-mission debriefing, where your score increases with a more subdued (read: restrain and interrogate) approach to dealing with bad guys.
Special Weapons and…oh yeah, Teammates
To try and pile some depth onto an increasingly shallow pool, two SWAT Teammates accompany you for every mission. A random assortment of cronies, with hilarious code names such as Hollywood, Subway, Gramps, and Python round out your selection. Each excels at one of four different attributes, adding a bit of strategy toward whom you want to bring along. Python shines at intimidation, which will lead to suspects putting up less of a fight before they surrender information, while Gramps specializes in observation, which will allow you to see further into a locked room when using your mirror. Interrogation, which determines how many suspects will give up intel, and accuracy, which we've already established as a joke, round out the remaining skills. Each of these can be leveled up four times, assuming you do well enough in the field.
Your guys can be ordered around with minimal effort. While a mouse and keyboard seems like the preferred method of teammate relocation and control, the PSP's button layout is enough to get the job done. For the most part, you can order them to do pretty much everything. Be it burst down a door, gas a room, or interrogate a target. Sometimes they either don't listen to me or have no interest in doing what I tell them, which would be cool if I thought that was related to their personalities, but more, more than likely, it’s a flaw in the game design.
Ohhh the game design. This is one area where SWAT really starts to struggle. The training levels do a wonderful job of preparing you for what you're going to face in the field, but, by about the third level, it becomes abundantly clear that you're not going to learn to do anything else. It sounds ridiculous, but I'm not kidding, every level feels like a slightly reconfigured version of the previous level. The skills you learn in training are the same ones you'll be using at the end of the game. Improvisation and adaptation are non existence aspects of gameplay; each level is done by the book without ever trying to step outside its bounds. Playing it safe with the mechanics, which aren't too solid in the first place, is rather disappointing, even more so when you realize the gameplay is set on seven hours worth of an infinite, looping repeat.
Should you somehow be able to overcome these shortcomings, SWAT does offer some reasons to keep playing. Collectable artwork is scattered about the levels, so you're all set if finding collectables happens to be your thing. Then there's always the quest for perfection, which can be done in part by finding and interrogating every person in a level (and calming your itchy trigger finger). A couple ad-hoc multiplayer modes are available, though I wasn't able to test them because no one else, including the Gamestop that employs my roommate, had a copy of the game.