Spec Ops: The Line has only made the barest of dents in our gaming news up to now, but since I was able to get to grips with the pre-alpha build without any preconceptions, I was able to appreciate Yager's upcoming title on its own merits. It's a third-person shooter set in the cataclysmic ruins of Dubai after a series of massive sandstorms reduced the city to a lifeless desert... and though it's still taking shape, it's easy to see what they're driving at.
The story and setting is more than a little confusing, but here's what we know. Playing as grizzled lieutenant Martin Walker, you'll lead your team into the supposedly sterile environment to find a couple of missing Spec Ops squads... only to find that their commanders have gone full-on Apocalypse Now crazy. They're both carving out their own kingdoms and exploiting the terrified looters and inhabitants to do so.
The demo started in the destroyed ruins of an opulent hotel. Destroyed beauty has provided the art style for many many shooters, but Dubai provides a jarring contrast between the opulent hotels and arid sand dunes. Seeing crystal giraffes next to decaying bodies and genuine squalor is an obscene take on Dubai's massive class disparity. A falling mercenary shattered a recessed fish tank, showing off some seriously impressive glass effects even at this early stage.
Upon opening the exterior door, an enormous sand dune slumped into the corridor. As well as providing the major stylistic theme, sand is apparently going to play a key gameplay role that can be exploited by the player and by wily enemies. We can expect shootable slumps and plenty of buried weapons- as well as more brutal sandstorms that will reduce firefights to desperate melee scrambles.
Upon entering a linear freeway, Walker and the team were ambushed by some looters. The action essentially resembles every modern shooter out there: with the ability to take cover, blindfire or aim down the sights by holding the left trigger. The enemies were a selection of bog-standard faceless grunts, and the arena itself was a tight battlefield with the standard gamut of cars and low walls to hide behind. However, a couple of new features were beginning to stand out; including a vault move that turns into a powerful kick when it connects with an enemy. The team control system was also simple and effective, requiring single context sensitive taps of the left bumper to issue move and attack orders. Spec Ops will need to provide some more serious innovations to stand out from the crowd, but it's certainly looking capable enough.
“The Line” refers to the preconceived notions of morality that Walker and the team will have to break in order to survive. Many binary morality decisions await the player, with Yager daring us to ask ourselves exactly what we'd be willing to do in Dubai's bizarre circumstances. Can we “look into the whites of your enemy's eyes and pull the trigger?” As you'd expect, one of your squad is extremelly callous whilst another is highly idealistic and players will need to choose between them. At least these decisions will be playable rather than a simple cutscene choice- and apparently there will be several endings. To demonstrate, the devloper engaged in a hostage situation and accidentally shot a civilian, with the screen fading to black to the overused phrase demonstrate that “every action has consequences.”However, this will need some seriously impressive scripting and the lightest touch to pull off... because it'll otherwise be an obtrusive and thoroughly depressing grind if the game clumsily reminds you about the gravity of your actions every few seconds.
It's hard to make an impression from a pre-alpha build, but quite frankly, there's real scope for Spec Ops to provide a cerebral shooter that forces you to weigh up every tactical decision… or a staggeringly cliched grind-fest with an overbearing and aggravating morality vibe. At this stage it could go either way- so we'll be keeping a close eye on this one as it develops.