Publisher: 2K Games
Within seconds of firing up Spec Ops: The Line, with an overdriven and slightly sneering cover of "Star Spangled Banner" greeting gamers over the opening title screen, there's a palpable feeling that in spite of the desert backdrop - depicting a Dubai landscape submerged beneath millions of tons of sand after a freak storm - we're in firm Vietnam territory here.
From tense, vicious firefights that play out to the sounds of Deep Purple's "Hush" being streamed over a makeshift PA system, to the brooding and atmospheric, guitar-led soundtrack that sounds like it could have been plucked from any number of 'Nam films, it's a game that reflects upon the horrors of war, and how shock and revulsion can turn a man's mind. At its core, Spec Ops: The Line is a game all about three rather altruistic Delta Force operatives, tossed into a frying pan of physical and moral conflict, and left to try and find their way out...with their minds and bodies somehow intact.
Given the desensitising nature of violent video game culture, and the rather flippant attitudes of the majority of action titles out there, it's refreshing to see a developer strive to take a slightly different look at warfare. This is a game seemingly at odds with the flippancy and casual attitudes to mass murder found in most military shooters these days, and at times Spec Ops: The Line appears to indulge in a spot of self-awareness - asking questions of the very industry and genre of which it is a part. Taking on a third-person perspective with their shooter, Yager allows us an everyman we can project onto, before breaking him down in rather brutal fashion, and forcing the player to consider what they have done.
From the offset, it's clear that narrative has a huge part to play in Spec Ops: The Line, with Apocalypse Now (and therefore Heart of Darkness) looming large over the game as a rather obvious inspiration. Captain Martin Walker, and his two slightly cliched and one-dimensional Delta Force companions Lugo (mouthy sniper) and Adams (heavy MG-wielding black guy), pick up a distress signal from a Dubai overrun by an apocalyptic sandstorm - the centre of opulence and financial excess torn asunder by the elements. The city should be deserted, classified as a no man's land by surrounding nations and interested parties, but the signal has come from a man Walker once served with in Afghanistan - a military icon of sorts, who commanded respect and loyalty from his platoon - one John Konrad. Though under orders not to enter Dubai, Walker and his team deviate from their mission to investigate what's been going on in the city, find Konrad, and evacuate any survivors that they find.
It's not long before Walker and his team start to run into civilians, starving refugees, and also fellow Americans; none of whom are supposed to be in Dubai. It's not long before misunderstandings lead to barrages of bullets, and before long Walker, Lugo, and Adams are fighting for their lives and witnessing horrors that they cannot understand nor fully explain. Only one thing is certain: if there are answers to be had, Konrad will have them, and it is this which propels the narrative onwards, as the casualties of war and the actions such scenes provoke in the name of survival become ever more aggressive and outlandish.
Dubai itself is a provocative location for such a game, but it works perfectly, even if some of the unique features explored and highlighted in preview sessions seem a little underused. The sand plays a moderate part in firefights, with frag grenades and other explosive weapons never having the blast radius they might indoors or on more solid ground, but always throwing up clouds to stun your foes and impede their vision as you scamper towards fresh cover.
Elsewhere, there are some windows and glass ceilings to be shattered that will let a wave of sand in, to stun or drown enemies, or to reach new areas by changing the landscape, and once or twice, the sand beneath you will be swept away (or indeed give way completely), revealing the "ground" you were standing upon to be a submerged skyscraper or sumptiously decorated hotel. Though the lush jungles of Conrad and Coppola give way to scorching desert scenes here, Spec Ops: The Line is a surprisingly colourful game, with well placed reminders of Dubai's lavish excess interspersed with street scenes and highways littered with political graffiti and some extraordinary art.
Sadly, the action itself is relatively ho-hum. There are no surprises to be found here on a technical level, and anyone even remotely familiar with a third-person shooter will feel right at home with the bulletfests in this game. The level design, for all of the brilliant art design, is sorely lacking; the weapons are your bog standard military affair; and the action can be broken down into cover shooting, turret shooting, and on-rails shooting. The AI, at least, offers up a challenge, but it's the same one each time. Watch out for the flanks, take care of the snipers, the shotguns, and the heavies first. It's admittedly made more challenging by the fact that the cover system is clunky at best, and controller-threatening at worst. Once snapped to cover, the slightest movement away will make Walker stand bolt upright. Worse, is the archaic angle of entry, which often leaves you dry humping a sandbag wall under fire rather than crouching behind it. There's also the irksome matter of mapping melee and vault to the same button, particularly when you have the gall to assume that a waist-high barrier can be vaulted, only to start beating the hell out of it with the butt of your rifle. When you're not really sure why, or even who, you're fighting, coupled with the occasional controller frustration, patience is a precious commodity that Spec Ops is often in danger of squandering.
But then again, this is one of the first games I've ever played where the shooter fatigue actually feels like part of the point. The action is engaging enough, and the controls work well most of the time, but it's very much in-your-face stuff. The bodies really do pile up, and there are several moments where the game slows Walker down to a crawl and forces you to reflect on what it is you're doing. It's heavy-handed at times (there's literally an Achievement called "The Horror" for when you come across a particularly mishandled corpse), but it's also fairly effective.
You see, as much as Yager often feel the need to spell things out for the player, there are some fantastically subversive aspects to this game. Many of them come via morally speculative conversations with Konrad himself later in the game, or over the airwaves from the Good Morning Vietnam-esque journalist-gone-mad, the Radioman. But it's in Nolan North that this game's strength truly lies. Initially somewhat irked that he was bringing his nondescript delivery to yet another game, it slowly dawns that this is entirely the point. North - a master of everyman voice acting, in creating characters onto which it's easy to project oneself - turns in a staggering performance as his character's humanity is stripped away both mentally and physically. His voice is a slightly gruffer Drake's at the start, and a gutteral, primal, wounded rasp by the end. He screeches obscenities at the enemies he kills with increasing brutality, removing their own humanity even as his own deteriorates, roaring sit reps and orders across his mic. If you ever wanted to see what would happen to Nathan Drake if he really thought about the hundreds and thousands of people that he'd killed, this is the game in which to see it. By the penultimate chapter, North is positively feral.
Spec Ops: The Line, then, deserves praise for trying something a little new. There may be a fair bit to moan about when it comes to a lack of ambition in terms of action, one or two glaring plot-holes that are never really explained, and a couple of technical issues that need to be straightened out, but it is a game that manages to be affective and thought-provoking, even if the tools with which it does those things are sometimes a little blunt and heavy-handed.
Spec Ops: The Line does have a multiplayer mode, and I managed to play several rounds of deathmatch, team deathmatch, king of the hill and infiltration before a sparsity of players gave me no cause to carry on, but I'm not sure I would have gone back anyway. Having played through the campaign, the multiplayer mode seems utterly superfluous. In fact, leaping into some frivolous PvP across arenas mirroring many of the campaign's levels almost felt wrong given what Walker, and by association I, had just gone through. There are unlockables to be had - weapons, roles, maps, and modes - as you rank up, but it's all fairly standard stuff. I almost wish 2K had removed it completely and maybe released the game as singleplayer only, perhaps at a lower price point.
You see, at the end of the day, this is a game that you really ought to play. It's not technically brilliant, nor is it particularly well-rounded. It's frequently clunky, it won't offer many surprises in terms of the action, and it's frequently confused by itself - with Yager often too vague where they need to be explicit and vice versa. But Spec Ops: The Line has stuck in my head, it's one of the first third person shooters that I've felt compelled to play through in a while, and it's one of the only shooters in recent times to actually leave me contemplative when the credits rolled. Though I wouldn't go as far as to call it profound, it's a game I want to discuss with other people, both with regard to the title itself, and where interactive storytelling can kick on to from here. For that reason, because it drags the TPS back to the watercooler, you really ought to give it a look.
- Delivers a strikingly mature story that's genuinely affecting and thought-provoking
- Solid action setpieces
- Nolan North is staggeringly good
- Occasional cover system issues
- Occasionally inexplicable invisible walls
- Multiplayer feels entirely superfluous
The Short Version: Spec Ops: The Line should be praised for daring to look beneath the casual approach to war so often exhibited in so-called "authentic" shooters like MOH or COD. Despite clunky aspects to both story and action, and a lack of inspiration in terms of third-person shooter design, Yager have created an unflinching look at war that manages to stand out from the crowd, and maybe even asks questions of the games industry too. It's no masterpiece, but hopefully it paves the way for more mature approaches to come.