For computer players the SWAT franchise holds a lot of weight. For the last twelve years this Sierra franchise has impressed gamers and critics alike with its blend of realistic tactical action and compelling ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling. Seeing as I'm not a huge PC gamer I have never actually spent time with this franchise, so I was excited to see what all the fuss was about in this SWAT PSP game. More importantly, I was more interested in knowing just why SWAT was targeting liberty.
SWAT: Target Liberty is a top-down tactical action game set in and around New York City. You play Kurt Wolfe, a man who must lead two other officers through a number of dangerous scenarios. At the start we are introduced to the idea that there are two Korean gangs that are warring over turf, but you'll quickly realize that there's more at play here and that it's up to you to save the day from a nuclear disaster. I'm not sure why these three officers are the only line of defense between safety and the death of millions of people, but this is the story we have to work with.
The problem with games like this is that they often have deep controls that don't translate particularly well on a control pad. For the most part SWAT: Target Liberty's controls feel fine on the PSP, but you will want to take advantage of the four-part tutorial that the game sets up for you before you jump into your first mission. Not only will these tutorials explain how to secure civilians, shoot your gun and hide behind cover, but you'll also be entertained by the tongue and cheek writing. While not as funny as those recent Sam & Max games, this SWAT game does start off with a lighthearted approach that made me want to keep playing. Unfortunately the rest of the game is deadly serious and you'll long for those tutorial mission jokes as your bored senseless by the lame story.
Like all tactical action games, SWAT: Target Liberty is not about rushing into situations with your guns blazing. Instead what you want to do is slowly move around the room hiding behind tables and chairs, and sneaking up to doors and openings. The simple act of opening a door may be the thing that stands between you and safety, so you'll want to take precaution before entering any unknown room. Thankfully you have a few options, the safest thing to do is to pull out your mirror and check underneath the door, this will allow you to get a fix on where the bad guys (and civilians) are standing. Once you've checked out the room you can go in by throwing a gas grenade in or by using your flash grenade, these two attacks will allow you to get the jump on the enemies and you will hopefully be able to arrest them an interrogate them instead of making more work for the coroner.
The good news is that the game is about more than just safely entering a new room, you will also be able to choose from different weapons and control whether your team uses lethal force or simply knocks people out. The non-lethal takedowns are not nearly as much fun as shooting holes in your enemies, but this is a good way for you to get information and increase your overall score.
Before you start your mission you will have the opportunity to fine-tune your teammates, so you may want to read up on the available officers and see what their strengths and weaknesses are. You'll find that there are some officers that are better suited for the particular mission you are on, so it's wise to pay close attention to who you have working with you and what they are good at. What's more, you can also customize the weapons they are packing as well as how they react to enemy attackers. At the end of each level you will be graded on how well you've performed, and the points you earn will improve your team's performance.
Once in the mission you will be able to control these two officers by using different face buttons. For example, if you want one to cover the right side of the room you would point to where you want that person to stand and then push the "O" button. To move the other teammate you would point in a different location and push the "square" button. It's that easy, and for the most part these two officers will do what they are asked and react how you would want them to. I can't complain too much about the artificial intelligence. There are times when my teammates took damage, but generally it was because some guy got the drop on us because of my poor planning.
One big problem with the game is that all of the missions seem to play out the same way. While you may have different objectives that you have to complete, most of them are too similar to one another to take away from the tedious nature of the title. What it comes down to is that most of the missions have you ridding the level of enemies and then taking down the leader (who just so happens to be holed up at the furthest room from where you start). Sometimes it doesn't matter if you kill him or not, while other times you will need to take him alive. Either way, you're doing pretty much the same thing in every level, which can become repetitive quickly.
That's not to say that there isn't some variation, some levels try to inject some urgency by adding timers and other mechanics that will keep you on your toes. For example, in one level you are forced to take down all of the enemies in non-lethal means so that you can get them to radio their superior and check in. According to the timer you only have 90 seconds between check-ins, if you happen to go over that 90 second limit the leaders will know something's up and you will fail that mission. Thankfully there are plenty of enemies to subdue, so getting from point A to point B is never a problem. This is an interesting wrinkle in the mission, but it's hardly the kind of thing that takes away from the fact that you're basically just rushing in, restraining bad guys and getting out.
While the missions may not change much from level to level, the locations certainly do. The good thing about basing your game in the New York City area is that you will always have recognizable locations to recreate. As you might imagine you will be swept away from some landmarks as Grand Central Station, Coney Island and Central Park. And when you're not sneaking around major tourist traps, then you're checking out generic locations, such as an abandoned hospital, a subway station, or some warehouse. While these levels definitely look different, they seem to play out in the exact same way. At the end of the day you are forced to hide behind debris lying around, subdue your enemies, save the civilians, and then make your way to the main bad guy.
All this would be fine if you weren't forced to play as the slowest man on Earth. Now I realize that this is a stealth action game, so you don't want to rush into battles or anything, but the pace of this game is unbearably slow. Your character's lethargic stride will put you to sleep if you have to do any kind of backtracking, and you better pray that you didn't accidentally leave some guy unsecured back at the start of the level. The game does come with a run button, but I assure you that they use the word "run" very loosely. Your character doesn't run so much as he goes slightly faster. To put it in perspective, at his fastest your character doesn't even get up to the speeds of a senior citizen speed walker. I've seen slugs cover more ground than Kurt Wolfe.
To add insult to injury, the entire SWAT: Target Liberty storyline can be completed in less than five hours. The game itself is not especially hard, so you'll find yourself breezing through most of the levels without even losing a guy. To the game's credit, there will be people who will want to go back through these levels and make sure they didn't miss a single thing. But I suspect that the completist mentality is rare and that most people will be done and finished with the product once the credits roll.
The game does come with a few multiplayer modes, assuming you have friends who own copies of SWAT: Target Liberty. The game packs in three different four-player games, including Football (where the players compete to see who can bring the most hostages back to the base), Rodeo Round-Up (where the players compete over who can kill the most hostile enemies), and The Great Escape (where one player is a SWAT officer and the rest are terrorists trying to get past him). While you can have some fun with these three modes, the truth is that there are far better multiplayer games on the PSP.
Unfortunately SWAT also fails to impress when it comes to the presentation. The visuals here are small and bland, and the different locations are just too dark and boring. The game isn't terrible looking by any means, but this is definitely not the kind of game you would use to show off what the PSP can do. The best thing you can say about the visuals is that they get the job done, nothing more and nothing less. The sound is also dull. While the music is alright and the game has solid sound effects, there are just too many times when you will have to listen to the same voice sample used to represent different people. Worse yet, the voice acting isn't very good and does a terrible job of conveying how urgent this whole situation is.
At its best SWAT: Target Liberty is a messy stealth action game that tries to bite off more than it can chew. If you're looking for a game that is boring, repetitive and offers clumsy controls, then SWAT may be right up your alley. Everybody else should avoid this game and check out Killzone Liberation or the two PSP Syphon Filter games instead. If you're like me and this is your first experience with the SWAT series, then chances are you're going to come away from this game confused by why everybody has been bragging about this series for more than a decade.
If you feel that the PSP is a weird place for the popular PC franchise, SWAT, then you aren't alone. This is a messy game full of small graphics, a boring story and repetitive action. I'm sure there are people out there that will find this kind of thing exhilarating, but even they will be bummed out when the game only lasts five hours.