Man, that dude’s sandy.
What Spec Ops: The Line Got Right
- + Emotional character development
- + Sandy Dubai is interesting
- + An engaging campaign
What Spec Ops: The Line Got Wrong
- - Cover system will kill you
- - Button mapping is troublesome
- - No real squad elements
”Shoot now, ask questions later.” That infringement on a great many film clichés is murmured during an early cut-scene in Spec Ops: The Line. I can’t think of anything that says so much, and yet so little, about a game in one concise statement. There’s lots of shooting, and at first, it seemingly doesn’t matter why.
Only, it does.
The storytelling prowess is strong and unique in its approach. Led by the dreamy voice of Nolan North -- of Uncharted fame -- the events themselves play second fiddle. I can’t for the life of me remember what transpired in the first half of Spec Ops: The Line, and I only finished it yesterday.
The actual events aren’t that import; it’s the characters and their emotional development (maybe I’ve been watching too much Dr. Phil). Spec Ops: The Line forges a connection with its audience to give real meaning to our protagonist and his band of allies’ actions. It’s not the why that it’s important. It’s the how, and the lingering effects that must torment any soldier. The three man squad is shell-shocked, clearly burnt out by the horrific elements of war and inhuman cruelty that goes from bad to unimaginable.
Spec Ops wants to give the senseless violence a reason. It wants you to think about what you, and your enemies, have done. Video games have desensitised us to being the impenitent (virtual) serial killers that we are. I’ve ruthlessly murdered at least 20,000 men this year, and not lost a second of sleep. The Line wants us to feel something after witnessing, and committing, unforgivable acts of war.
You play as Captain Martin Walker, the head of a three man team sent into a Dubai destroyed by unrelenting sandstorms on the unlikely search for survivors. A mission doomed to fail would have been the ideal scenario. Instead, Walker and his men stumble into a crumbling battlefield, ravished by something far worse than a series of freak sandstorms.
Walker is presented with a number of moral dilemmas during the worsening course of his unwanted adventure. These aren’t played out by a simple “right or left” equation, but rather the result of his physical actions. The choice of which partner to side with; who to kill and who to let live; the objective or saving an innocent civilian. None of these affect the outcome of the story -- that isn’t important. Instead, they grow on Walker’s conscience. He develops into an unlikely sympathetic character, as a result of his actions, from his humble beginnings as a Nathan Drake soundalike clichéd hero.
With elements clearly inspired by Gears of War, Ghost Recon and even Call of Duty, Spec Ops still forges its own path, once you get past its seemingly generic military shooter aspirations.
In a game with an assortment of weapons designed to mutilate every part of your body, it’s a man with a knife that is the most terrifying.
As with BioShock, the environments constantly diversify concurrently with the narrative, only with sand as the catalyst. From the outset, you’re encouraged to shoot out panes of glass to crush unsuspecting enemies harmoniously with the sandy environment.
The other mechanics are fairly standard. The cover system can be a little finicky at the best of times; expect to be killed on numerous occasions because Walker didn’t slide in or out of cover as he should have, but the weapon selection and shooting control are intuitive and as you would expect. Enemies range from standard clones, to sneaky snipers, short range shotgunners, impenetrable heavy gunners and genuinely terrifying knife-wielding crazy dudes. In a game with an assortment of weapons designed to mutilate every part of your body, it’s a man with a knife that is the most terrifying.
The button mapping arises as a surprising Achilles’ heel to Spec Ops’ success. Vaulting over cover is a key technique -- actually it’s required on several occasions to pass through the linear corridors -- and for reasons unknown to man, is mapped to the same button as melee. Unless the vault option appears on screen, you’ll slam your wrist into a concrete wall instead of leaping over it. Good one. Likewise, issuing the simplest of commands to your boys is limited to the action written on screen. There’s no way to issues a stun command if they’re hellbent on awaiting a target to execute.
However, these relatively minor issues are quickly forgotten when a new weapon or 37 tonnes of sand come your way. Innovation is the flavour of the day in Spec Ops, as none of the 15 chapters feel the same. There’s also something different to keep you on your toes, as you’re willing yourself to play “just one more” chapter, after you’ve already missed your bed time by three hours.
As a squad-based shooter, Spec Ops struggles. You can direct your two colleagues to target a specific enemy, revive one another or throw a flashbang, but it lacks the fluidity Future Soldier spoiled us with. There’s no tactical sniping or perfect flanking worthy of some e-wood. It’s more of a Gears of War-style shooting gallery where your allies simply help churn out more bullets at the relentless waves.
Multiplayer isn’t worth much of a look. It feels tacked on and won’t replace any of the stalwarts that are still spinning in your consoles or PC. It lacks everything that makes the campaign so enjoyable, and was likely added because 2K felt compelled to offer the complete package. With an array of game modes and detailed character customisation, it’s more fleshed-out than expected, but that doesn’t change the fact that the gameplay isn’t suited to multiplayer.
The Final Verdict
Spec Ops: The Line deserves your time. From the outside, it takes the form of a generic current warfare shooter; don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s not just another shooter. Its emotional depth and character progression is unparalleled in games, at least against the backdrop of war. This alone is reason enough to lose yourself in one of the more engaging games released this year.
By Ben Salter - Bio
Version Tested: PS3