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Ready or Not’s realistic SWAT simulation is ruined by FPS cliches

Ready or Not is a brilliant, tactical, and often horrific multiplayer FPS whose simulation of the extreme grows increasingly questionable.

A SWAT team member wearing a gas mask and standing in front of a red background.

Void Interactive’s Ready or Not casts you as a SWAT team leader tasked with handling horrific combat and hostage scenarios rarely represented in action games. In one level you must storm an apartment complex where a videogame livestreamer has killed his mother and taken his younger brother hostage while still on stream. In another you must clear out a methamphetamine den whose residents act erratically, forcing you to assess who is and isn’t an actual threat in real-time. Deeper within you’ll find an incapacitated child on a bed suffering from spasms. A spiritual successor of sorts to the SWAT series, Ready or Not differentiates itself through its grim commitment to the simulation of the extreme, and six months after its 1.0 launch, it’s as uncomfortable as ever.

It’s mechanically reminiscent of some FPS game greats. As part of a four-person squad, you’ll work together to decide your infiltration style, ideal access points, and methods of entry, which include explosive charges, battering rams, and lockpicks for a stealthier approach. You can also mix and match entry points and methods and then execute them simultaneously if the situation calls for it. Once you’re inside you’ll begin the intense process of clearing rooms, searching for hostages, collecting evidence, and stopping either real or perceived threats.

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It’s easy to get lost in the sporadic bursts of civilian panic and the believably sudden and at times clinical nature of the violence. Screaming at frenzied civilians to hit the floor and put their hands behind their heads starts to feel like part of the grim routine, as do the moments where you mistake them for a threat, gun them down, and incur a meager score penalty. Its allusions to realism and ripped-from-the-headlines scenarios simply don’t sit well with its desire to retain and reward you for a job well done.

Ready or Not works best when tensions are high and you’re yet to slip into any sort of numbing familiarity. The AI enemies are surprising crack shots, lighting you up with pinpoint accuracy should you make a false move. The traumatic audio design coupled with the believable enemy behavior occasionally thrusts you into a horrible game of cat and mouse where you’re the unexpected prey. I’ve found myself as the last person standing while still hunting for remaining suspects only to realize they’ve been quietly and patiently lurking behind a door the whole time, giving me the sort of jolt you’d expect from the most skillfully executed jump scare.

In time, however, Ready or Not’s simulation starts to feel like a grind toward a grislier-than-usual and arguably bad-faith power fantasy. The more I returned to that streamer’s house, raided that civilian-filled drug den, stormed that nightclub, experimented with my huge arsenal, and tried on my tasteful cosmetics, the less I thought of the game’s handling of its subject matter.

“Don’t forget: Our mission is not to create widows and orphans. It is to bring order to chaos,” reads a banner hanging on the wall of your briefing room. Another nearby proclaims “Stop the killing. Stop the dying,” which makes me laugh when I remember my arsenal includes dozens of lethal weapons and a grand total of three with non-lethal capabilities. Shooting a suspect before they’ve become an active threat sets you back 50 points, which might seem like a lot until you realize mission scores often hit three or four thousand in total. Here, the police institution is just and its methods needn’t be questioned.

In late 2021, Ready or Not split from its then-publisher Team17. It was widely speculated that this was due to Void Interactive’s teasing of a school shooting level. Six months later, the game was under scrutiny again following the release of its nightclub level on June 12, the anniversary of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. Void also removed alt-right references such as a redpill box and Pepe meme after Kotaku spotted them in a 2022 preview.

All of this combines to form a very conflicting experience. The moment-to-moment action is mechanically impressive and the game has little issue ramping up tension and terror, but it’s also unsettling and uncomfortable to play in the wrong ways, meaning I’m likely to hand in my badge and retire from the force before long.