SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle

Sierra has finally got SWAT right. As a single-player game, SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle stands proudly alongside Thief as one of a very few unconventional 3D shooters - one that rewards caution, patience, teamwork . . . and respect for life.

This series of Special Weapons And Tactics police games has begged for first-person treatment since its launch in the mid-90s. As leader of a five-member "element" in the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT division in the year 2005, you'll run 16 missions, leading up to the LA signing of a no-nukes treaty. You plug in your name, pick a squad, suit up, attend a wonderfully detailed briefing and then you're off to the home of a freeway sniper. Compared to the baddies to come, he's pretty much a pussycat and this mission is an opportunity to familiarise yourself with a range of SWAT 3's small beauties in a low-risk setting.

The first is the simple, memorable menu of keyboard commands in the upper left-hand corner. From here, using your aiming reticule to establish the in-game context, you can do almost anything cleanly and quickly, whether that means ordering the Red team to search right or the Blue to clear an area or restrain a suspect.

Moreover, each mission - played individually in any order or in sequence as a campaign - unfolds in slightly different fashion every time you go through it - and rest assured that, if you want to improve your end-of-mission leadership score, you'll go through each one repeatedly. This doesn't really lend itself to replayability - the overall task and level design remains the same - but changes in the placement of goals and enemies preserve the challenge from play to play. You can't just recklessly storm through a scenario thinking you know it: that's a shortcut to getting shot.

Your team does a very respectable job of obeying your directions. Ordered to fall in behind you, they'll find your element leader even at a significant distance without your intervention and with a narrow staircase en route. Ordered into an unexplored stairwell, backing up slowly and sliding sideways up the stairs, these realistic, smoothly animated figures looked and sounded for all the world just like a SWAT team in a stairwell.

Graphically and sonically, there's nothing generic or cookie-cutter about SWAT 3. Everything seems to have been designed for the express purpose for which it was used. It's terse and to the point, but also human, and it's hard to watch a hostage mother freak out over her children or a terrorist growl in agony from your bullet. Characters' eyes and mouths move and you can distinguish the injured from the dead at a glance. The game follows up diligently on the status of evacuated suspects, hostages and comrades in arms, and the current status of your objectives is a key press away.

And should you slip up yourself and take one for the team, you'll have the oddly disturbing out-of-body experience of watching a SWAT member with your name sewn onto his back slump to the ground.

To be sure, SWAT 3 has room for improvement. I'd like to be able to order specific officers to take specific positions. The manual leaves out, or consigns to the pre-mission "Gear" screen, some fundamental details and I wound up figuring out on my own how to clear out restrained suspects. Troopers who supposedly pick the locks on doors usually don't come anywhere near them. While each has a distinct personal portrait in the squad selection screen, they all look identical through their masks. (Got skins?) Characters occasionally walk through one together, tread on downed suspects and fellow officers and get tangled up with each other in tight places.

And, amazingly, you can't play cops 'n' robbers with your friends. Sierra plans a multiplayer version, but, to me, that's like waiting until the next morning to clean up the previous night's dinner party. By then, the champagne has lost its pop and the food has hardened onto the plates. Do it once and do it right.

For the most part, Sierra does it right here. SWAT 3 isn't everything it might have been, but it's much more substantial than its predecessors - and essentially right in feel. The third time really was the charm.

Product: SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle

Publisher: Sierra Studios

URL: www.sierrastudios.com/games/swat3/

tips

The worst thing you can do is rush. If you feel yourself hurrying, stop and let rest of the element catch up.

If you're hung up on the second mission, you're probably just missing one of the guns. It's not in the office (as the trap door would lead you to expect), but on the lower level of the coffee table in the living room.

The mission in the Russian Orthodox church is a real show-stopper, given the large number of enemies to wax, potential enemies to secure and church patriarchs to rescue, and a couple of secret passages. Members of the church's private security force may be slow to drop their weapons; a burst fired across the bow is an extremely persuasive incentive.

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