Review: Spec Ops: The Line
Do you feel like a hero yet? It's a question that Spec Ops: The Line asks in its attempts to do what few shooters ever try by giving death meaning. With a sandswept Dubai as your backdrop, you're in for one hell of a ride.
- Worth The Time?A shooter that offers such a harrowing and unique experience is a rarity worth its short 7 hour duration
- Things LovedThe beautiful realisation of a desolate and damned Dubai makes for a great environment and the liberal use of colour sets this apart from your typical brown shooter. Excellent voice acting combined with interesting characater development and a compelling narrative make for a gripping tale. The group dynamic between the Delta force operators is something special. The way in which you will question your actions is a truly unqiue experience.
- Things HatedTypical, bland cover-based shooting dominates most of the gameplay. Bolt-on multiplayer is a disappointment and the game suffers from a few graphical and gameplay issues. Cutscenes should look better than they do. AI can be dim at times and sand mechanic could've been put to better use.
- RecommendationAnyone who is looking for a shooter that offers a fresh and uniquely gripping narrative experience should check this out. If you can look past the bland gameplay that is.
- Name: Spec Ops: The Line
- Genre: Shooter
- Players: 1-8
- Multiplayer: 2-8
- Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
- Developer: Yager Development
- Publisher: 2K Games
- Price: PS3/Xbox 360 - R515, PC - R345 (BT Games)
- Reviewed On: PS3
Spec Ops: The Line first appeared in 2009 and shortly fell off the face of the earth only to be resurrected last year and now it’s finally here. I’ve followed it from the debut trailer and was always intrigued by the game’s unique take on war and the consequences of killing. Despite carrying the name of the Spec Ops series that some may be familiar with from the 90’s, that’s where the similarities end because this is a fresh beast with its own traits and certainly a very unique character.
Dubai is best described as a hollow city; one of immense opulence and blinding wealth but ultimately there’s next to no substance there and the city’s soul is as rich as the arid desert surrounding it. Spec Ops: The Line takes the shining symbol of opportunistic capitalism and aggressive expansion that is Dubai and turns it into a desolate place of damnation of darkness. Dubai is laid to waste by ravaging sandstorms and while many were evacuated, those that remain trapped within the city are fighting for survival.
Enter a three man Delta Force squad led by Captain Martin Walker. They are sent in for a recon mission to assess the situation but Walker quickly reassigns their mission directive to search & rescue after a disturbing radio transmission from Colonel John Konrad. He and his 33rd Infantry were sent in to assist with mass evacuation of the city but stayed on and Konrad was in fact presumed dead prior to the radio transmission. Walker happens to have a history with Konrad as they served together in Kuwait.
The game starts very ho-hum with players having to eliminate a wave of scarf-wearing enemies who shout at you in Farsi and the environment is predictably dull, just like any military shooter but this all changes rapidly. The Deltas find themselves thrown into the midst of a civil war that rages between several factions including the CIA and Konrad’s Damned 33rd. The rich and colourful buildings of Dubai make a starkly contrasting backdrop for the violent conflict and it works to great effect. The Deltas are met with the darkest side of humanity and they see first-hand what people will do to survive. They also witness just how quickly society degenerates when cut-off from the outside world.
In order to stay alive, Walker and his team must resort to aggressive self-defence that sees them doing many regrettable things and even gunning down their own countrymen – rogue US soldiers. Almost every extended gunfight ends with Adams or Lugo, your teammates, questioning the squad’s actions and legitimately debating the morality of those actions. Very little of what you do can in fact be justified as right or morally acceptable. Everything is blanketed in grey and Walker’s justifications become increasingly hollow and routine.
The group dynamic between the three Deltas is something rather intriguing to watch develop. It starts off pretty standard with usual jokes and quips thrown back and forth but as the situation becomes more desperate and they descend further into the darkness that has consumed Dubai, each character undergoes his own transformation and as they argue and lock horns regarding their growing mountain of regrettable actions, a tension manifests within the group. Each skirmish or battle adds to this and it’s something very tangible and real that the game pulls off. You begin to feel for these characters and you can sympathise with them on many levels.
The greatest progression of all though, is perhaps that of Capt. Martin Walker. He starts out as a generic, run-of-the-mill military shooter protagonist complete with the light stubble, chiselled features and voice of Nolan North. As the game progresses you grow to sympathise with him and by the end of the game it’s a different story entirely. Also, if you thought that Batman took some serious battle damage in the two Arkham games, what happens to Walker through the course of the game is in a different league entirely. As military shooter protagonists go, Martin Walker is perhaps one of the deepest, most human characters you’ll follow and his trappings make him all the more relatable. His manic obsession with Konrad ultimately drives him further into the heart of darkness than anyone else and that crazed drive is ultimately what leads to his ruin.
The voice-work is solid and adds a layer of believability to the entire experience. The rest of the sound is similarly put to good use; starting out with typical rock tunes but as the game becomes more sombre and morose so does the music with melancholic strains to accompany the mounting weight of your actions. The visuals do it somewhat differently. Things start out relatively drab and regular before giving way to the shear opulence of Dubai, realised in a way that is surprisingly colourful and vibrant for a grim military shooter.
As I said before, the contrast is jarring in a way that you are constantly mindful of. It is marred however, by some less than excellent use of the Unreal Engine 3. The Line suffers from wholesale texture loading issues on both characters and environments. The character models look good though and, for the most part, so does the environment around you but some of the interior levels do look a little shabby and bland in contrast to everything else and they don’t always capture that grandiose and glamorous appearance that Dubai is so synonymous with. For the most part, level design is rather good and creative with many unique environments that you wouldn’t expect to be holding a firefight in. There’s a great attention to detail and the lighting effects simply add to the spectacle of the ruined wealth that surrounds you.
I’ve been avoiding talking about the gameplay but it was inevitable so no time like the present, right? Spec Ops tries so very hard to still be a typical cover-based shooter while also trying very hard to be a very different, thoughtful shooter where the story is concerned. It never results in any sort of gaming bipolarity but the gameplay certainly doesn’t compliment the narrative because while that is compelling and rather bold in what it attempts to do, the gameplay is sadly too content with being nothing more than mediocre.
It’s everything you’d expect from a third-person shooter and it’s not even done very well. That’s not to say that the gameplay is bad but it’s adequate – good enough is what it is. There’s a good use of multi-level combat and you have to manage your ammo just a little bit but there’s not much to set this humdrum gameplay apart from your typical shooter. You’ve seen it all before, various types of enemies, having to eliminate turrets, blind-firing, chuck a grenade or two, protect this convoy, pick up that sniper rifle; it’s all things we’re used to and barring the terrible stealth which shouldn’t even exist, it’s all done well enough but nothing special really. The stealth is mainly ridiculous for the reason that you are going to be seen anyway within less than a minute so why bother?
You do get something interesting out of the squad commands and while you can’t tactically position your teammates as in games such as Mass Effect, you can order them to focus fire on a particular target or get them to suppress enemy fire with a flashbang. They’re largely not needed and really just give you something to bide the time while you wait to regenerate health. It also comes in handy when you’re out of ammo or are pinned down.
The controls are also not as finely-tuned as you might like with Walker occasionally doing the wrong thing because of the button designations. The button to go into cover is the same as that to sprint and the button assigned to melee happens to be the same as that for vaulting over cover. Normally you just expect these context-sensitive controls to work and that’s that but in Spec Ops they only work about ¾ of the time. So you won’t always see your character run or slide into cover when it’s necessary and this usually results in a cheap death. Less fatal but equally annoying is when you try to vault over cover but instead jab aimlessly at the air like a present-day Muhammad Ali.
There is some variety to all these rather standard firefights as you will sometimes be hit by a sandstorm mid-battle and you might even have to fight in blinding sunlight as the sun reflects off the abundance of glass. Sand is supposed to be a major mechanic but it rarely moves past being an environment-changing gimmick whereby you can shoot out glass ceilings or walls to shower a group of enemies with a deadly wall of sand. It amounts to little more than ‘shoot glass to win level.’
I’m glad Yager didn’t take every opportunity to show off the sand physics but at least make regular use of it. There was only one, maybe two, occasions where the sand actually shifted and drastically affected the environment and combat. I feel as if the sand mechanic is an opportunity missed and that it could’ve made for a far more dynamic game rather than just using sand for scripted events. The AI isn’t too sharp either. Enemy AI is as dull as you’ve come to expect of modern shooters but when you aren’t telling your squad-mates what to do, they have the potential to be a pain in the ass. They generally don’t do much to help you and on a few occasions a teammate did something stupid like throwing a grenade at an enemy who was literally right in front of me instead of melee-ing him like a sane human being.
It’s painful to see that for everything the narrative and scripting of the game does to be unique and special, the gameplay doesn’t even make an effort. It’s a classic example of over-investment in only certain parts of a game, in this case narrative and visuals, while the gameplay is done almost as an afterthought and really, the gameplay in The Line does nothing to stand out. It merely exists to facilitate the story.
Speaking of cheap after-thoughts, look no further than the games bolt-on multiplayer which has the same bland gameplay as the singleplayer but none of the narrative allure that kept me going through it. There’s not much variety and everything is basically an 8 player deathmatch with a severe lack of incentive to stay online. The prizes for winning matches and advancing through the multiplayer are new skins and upgraded guns with minimal improvements over the gun you already have. Maps are large but cluttered which makes them almost claustrophobic. Perhaps the only redeeming qualities of the multiplayer are that you can be hit by sandstorms midway through a match which makes things a little more dynamic and Buried Mode is quite good. Teams of 4 must sabotage the enemy HQ and it requires some skill and planning that anybody with half a brain would relish.
What Spec Ops does very well is examining the psychological and emotional deterioration of a man when surrounded by humanity at its darkest and most vile. The Delta operators begin the game with the discipline and moral compass of any honest soldiers but as they descend further into the darkness of Dubai, their morality becomes blurred and it becomes difficult to tell whether their actions are good or not anymore. In fact, Spec Ops deals primarily in gray with nothing being as black and white as military shooters like to have it. Each new encounter has you, as the player, and your squad mates questioning just how justifiable those actions were and trust me when I say that you will do some things in this game that you genuinely regret. This is a game that finally brings meaning and weight to all the death that you bring and in a genre that goes giddy for bloodshed, this is something not only refreshing but deeply chilling.
The approach is so different from other shooters that the experience is like no other. You will often be presented with moral decisions but unlike inFamous where the decisions are clearly right or wrong, The Line makes you choose between two equally questionable choices and it’s more fluid than the aforementioned games’ approach of ‘press X to take the good option’. You will be offered an option from each of your squad members and you simply choose to carry it out. That said, the moral decisions you make don’t have any effect on the world around you nor on the ending. There are still 4 possible endings but one of them is simply determined by your actions in the final chapter of the game and the other three are based purely on what you choose to do in the game’s after-credits epilogue.
You can replay the epilogue after completing the game so you can find out three of the endings without even replaying the game. The endings do offer closure to the story though and the final twists in the story actually give your moral decisions earlier in the game more meaning and weight rather than it being the reverse. Thus, no matter which ending you get, the game begs a second playthrough just to view all those moral decisions with fresh and far more disturbing perspective.
The Line takes great inspiration from the movies Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, both of which deal with the darker aspects of human nature and the blurring of what is right and wrong. Thus, while there are no real consequences to your actions, the narrative and the way the characters feel the weight of their actions makes you project that significance onto the game. At least, the game manages to do that most of the time. Sometimes it tries to illicit an emotional response but comes up dry.
The rawness of war that the game often depicts is harrowing and in disparate contrast to the opulence of Dubai. It also puts so-called realistic military shooters such as Battlefield 3 and Modern warfare 3 to shame with its depiction of death and the effect that killing has on a man’s psyche. Enemies will often still flail and convulse violently after going down, corpses hang from lampposts and you often come face to death with decaying remains of civilians and soldiers alike. Make no mistake; this game does not celebrate death like other shooters. It shows it for the grim, bleak endpoint that it is.
You will do so many truly regrettable things that even before the ending you will really begin to wonder whether you actually are a hero. Never before have I questioned my actions so much in a shooter. There is even a ‘No Russian’ moment but it isn’t simply mindless shooting used as a shock tactic as in Modern Warfare 2, it is there to show the hostile threat that civilians pose and consciously deciding to open fire on civilians to get out of that situation was actually a very tough decision to make.
The story is complete with its own twists and deceits and mysteries and for once, the intel you pick-up in-game has a real purpose in explaining some of the unknowns about the story and filling you in without the narrative losing momentum. Occasionally it rings of lazy storytelling to just leave it in a note on a desk and the game could certainly have benefitted from certain details being explained in cutscenes rather than audio tapes but it is no less captivating. To watch Walker’s obsession with Konrad drive him ever deeper into ruin is unnerving but oh so compelling.
You know a game has gripped you when you sit there while the credits are rolling, trying to piece together the meaning of everything and fathoming the ramifications of that mindfuck ending. As the credits rolled I just sat there thinking back to all the moral decisions I’d had to make in the game, seeing them in a new light, far more disturbing light. I must have been completely zoned out because my brother, who was sitting next to me, actually asked why I hadn’t skipped the credits after about a minute or so. Testament to how wrapped up in the narrative I was.
Spec Ops: The Line is not the best shooter I’ve ever played but with some attention paid to the gameplay it damn near could have been. The gameplay is lacklustre and the multiplayer less than that but the narrative is just so unique, so haunting and fresh for its genre that this game is surely one to remember and definitely one worth playing.