‘Ready Or Not’ is a well-made tactical FPS that I feel uncomfortable playing

Void Interactive's spiritual successor to SWAT 4 is tactically engaging but thematically regressive

Unfinished Business is NME’s column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access Games. This week, Rick Lane kicks in the door of SWAT-shooter Ready Or Not.

There’s a lot to get through in this week’s column, so let’s not stand around fiddling with our flashbangs. Ready Or Not is a tactical FPS so heavily inspired by 2004’s SWAT 4 that it verges upon being a remake. Playing as the team leader of a five-man police response unit, you tackle various tactical scenarios in real-world locations like hotels and gas stations, rescuing hostages and neutralising suspects. Ideally you do this through less-lethal coercion, deploying equipment like flashbangs, stinger grenades, and beanbag shotguns. If a suspect opens fire or refuses to comply, however, then lethal force is allowed.

SWAT 4 is arguably my favourite tactical FPS, and there are three reasons why. Firstly, its responsive, context-sensitive command system makes it incredibly easy to relay orders to your fellow officers. Secondly, it’s incredibly atmospheric. A combination of randomised enemy spawns and strict rules of engagement make turning every corner fraught with tension, while the game has a dark and eerie tone that sometimes verges upon outright horror. Finally, it’s an FPS that implicitly discourages you from killing people, allowing deadly force only in direct defence of life, and encouraging you to make use of its less-lethal equipment.

Considered as a straight successor to SWAT 4, Ready Or Not does an admirable job of replicating what made Irrational‘s game so compelling. Its command system is similarly slick, adding some useful quality of life features such as a contextual hotkey that lets you order your squad to clear a room or arrest a suspect simply by pointing at the relevant object. It carries over the randomised enemy spawning that makes every encounter unique, while adding new hazards to levels such as traps behind doors, alongside new SWAT equipment such as ballistic shields and battering rams. It even successfully mimics SWAT 4‘s oppressive atmosphere, with a dark and dingy visual style and some sufficiently grim locations.

Ready Or Not breaching
Ready Or Not. Credit: Void Interactive.

Yet while Ready Or Not is an impressive facsimile of SWAT 4’s systems and style, the current Early Access build doesn’t do enough to modernise the experience, and this causes a bunch of problems in presentation and in theme. Many of the game’s levels are only slight variations on SWAT 4’s own locales, such as a mission in which you need to rescue hostages at a hotel under redevelopment, and a level that’s almost a direct copy of SWAT 4‘s infamous Fairfax Residence, replacing that mission’s dark twist with a less compelling hidden Meth Lab. Even aspects like character animations seem specifically designed to evoke SWAT 4, an odd decision considering how dated SWAT 4‘s animations look today.

The bigger problem, however, is that Ready Or Not fails to address the thematic challenges of making a SWAT game in 2022. The last few years have laid bare the many institutional problems within modern police forces, particularly in the US, but in other countries like the UK and France too. Endemic corruption and racial bias has combined with a growing militarisation of the police, creating scenarios where gross abuses of power are commonplace. From the murder of George Floyd by a police offer and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, to the phenomenon of SWAT-ing, the perception of the police by the general public has shifted enormously in the last 15 years, and there is an ongoing conversation about the role the police are intended to play in society versus how they actually operate.

Admittedly, these are difficult topics to address in a game, especially one you engage with through the sights of a gun. But I don’t see how you can make a SWAT game today without at least acknowledging the question mark hanging over militarised police units. Yet that’s exactly what Void Interactive does. For all its claims of realism (the game’s Steam Early Access page states that Void Interactive “Consulted with police teams globally to create rules of engagement and a scoring system that are both challenging and realistic”) Ready Or Not‘s portrayal of SWAT units is pure Hollywood fantasy. Its fictional version of LA is a dank and grimy place riddled top to bottom with crime, and you are the unambiguous light that cuts through this darkness. Arrested hostages utter phrases like “You look like the guys in the movies. Nice guns!”, while the broad objective in every mission is “Bring order to chaos”, a phrase that wouldn’t be out of place in a Judge Dredd comic.

Ready Or Not
Ready Or Not. Credit: Void Interactive.

In short, Ready Or Not comes across as playable police propaganda, which makes the developer’s plans to include features like a “school shooter” level all the more concerning. To be clear, I don’t think games should be precluded from exploring any subject, and done right, such an idea could be an interesting way to explore this horrific phenomenon, to give you a first-hand perspective of the terror and trauma the United States’ cavalier attitude toward gun ownership has inflicted upon generations of children. Based upon what I’ve played of Ready Or Not, however, I’m not sure I trust Void Interactive to handle the subject with the mixture of tact and incandescent fury it requires.

SWAT 4 is one of the few shooters to make you consider the consequences of your shooting, and back in 2004 this lent it significance as a game design. Nonetheless, it too ultimately failed to address the broader issues that come bundled with its theme (these problems are, after all, not new). Ready Or Not clearly has what it takes from a mechanical perspective, and could ultimately become a better game than SWAT 4. But only if it is willing to ask the questions that SWAT 4 never did.

Right now though, the only question I see Ready Or Not asking is “What if you were a SWAT guy and it was really cool?” Which, given everything that’s happened in the last couple of years, is in the most benign interpretation startlingly ignorant. Ultimately, Ready Or Not has its ballistically shielded head stuck firmly in the past, and for all that it does well, this makes it difficult to recommend.

Ready Or Not is currently available on Steam in Early Access

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