Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games
A lot of expectation has been placed upon Yager Development’s shoulders with Spec Ops: The Line. A franchise that has previously been hounded by mediocre reviews, and being in development for two and a half years, will do that you see. However, we are just a few months away from finally seeing what the end result will be, and I had to chance to get hands-on at this year’s Gadget Show Live to see if this one was worth putting on the radar.
The demo began with the team of three soldiers (the lead voiced by… you know what, I’m not even going to write it, you KNOW who it is) exploring the outskirts of what was once Dubai, now reclaimed by the desert and covered in sand. Sent in to find missing Spec Ops teams, it doesn’t take long before the locals show up and turns what was a lovely walk in the sand into a bullet-ridden battle amongst the ruins of a crashed airplane. It is during this starting sequence that the mechanics of the game, from sprinting to shooting, are slowly presented to the player in an exposition-heavy sequence that also introduces the personality of the lead character and his teammates.
The movement and shooting mechanics thankfully don’t attempt to mix things up, staying in familiar territory for Third Person Shooters, but the player is armed with the ability to issue orders to their NPC teammates. Holding the shoulder button down, players can aim at a target or enemy (even while in cover) which places a red square about it to confirm the target, and as soon as the player releases the button the teammates engage. I found it simple yet effective, allowing players to execute crossfires and flanking manoeuvres as necessary.
The assault rifle I was initially given got the job done, with handling that felt right in a mix of fun gameplay and gritty action design. While I did find I was able to stick out of cover for a fair while as I lined up shots, the damage soon piled up and I was forced to retreat to cover again while I regenerated health. It was at this point I scored my first headshot, and was unexpectedly rewarded with a brief moment of slow motion, complete with sound-dampening effect for good measure. It allowed me the opportunity to line up a second headshot, before finally returning to real-time for the rest of the action. It’s a nice twist that rewarded me beyond the normal visual sense of precise targeting, and had me wanting to land more cranium ventilation opportunities.
Cover mechanics rule the battlefield in a manner most will be accustomed to, but I did enjoy the ability to slide into cover when running at chest-high wall. Likewise, emerging from cover allows players to turn around a corner or vault over the top, which can allow players to knock back an approaching enemy. This is where the melee action comes into play, providing brutal visuals as the enemy is knocked back. God help them if they fall to the ground though, be it from the players melee attacks of from a hail of bullets, as foot stomp executions are available to permanently put them out of commission.
Considering there is a lot of it around in this version of Dubai, sand plays a part in the overall experience. One of the first things I was able to do in the demo (indicated in the tutorial steps) was shoot out the windows of a bus filled with sand, unleashing it in a grainy avalanche upon my foes below. There are scripted moments as well, with one cutscene engaging later in the demo as I opened a door, filling a corridor with sand and forcing me to take an alternate route. While I understand the game has the ability to randomly generate sandstorms which can hinder friend and foe alike, I unfortunately didn’t encounter such a moment in my playthrough and as such I cannot comment on how their contribution affects gameplay.
Weapons appear to have alternate modes as well, with my assault rifle able to be equipped with a silencer. During one of the later stages of the first part of the demo I was prompted to equip a silencer to dispatch a group of unaware enemies before they finally clued up on my arrival. Such elements provided more tactical opportunity, and will most likely be key to survival on tougher difficulties settings.
A second area from later in the game, which had the Spec Ops team using zip wires to travel between skyscrapers, provided more of a challenge with tougher and organised troops descending upon my position. It also gave me the first look at picking up and using a new weapon; a sniper rifle. Players will only be able to carry two weapons at a time, and I was a little thrown when the very next section after using the sniper rifle involved enemies charging at close range, I was forced to switch to my secondary weapon of a Desert Eagle. It could have easily have been called a “portable hand cannon” as I was able to blow away my digital opposition with satisfying ease like some sort of Dirty Harry impersonator.
This lead to an intense fight in what looked like a dining area of a restaurant, with enemies engaging from every angle. With support pillars being the only cover, I was forced to remain mobile to avoid being taken down, made even more challenging by the fact I only had my Desert Eagle to hand. It was around this point I was suddenly up against a new type of enemy that went beyond “just another grunt with a gun / rocket launcher” as I had a knife-wielding maniac charging at me. Melee moves seemed to be ineffective, so I was forced to gun them down in a panic instead. It changed the pace of the action enough to mix things up slightly, and I hope there are similar yet different moments throughout the full experience to avoid it becoming a repetitive shooter.
Overall I found my playthrough of the demo to be a fun and easy to play experience, although a linear one. There was no sight of ‘moral choices’ during my hands-on time, only gun-based combat, but there was a heavy focus on narrative in the cutscenes, and Yager have clearly spent time crafting the characters with personality that, despite being somewhat generic, felt natural. While I found the gameplay fun with some scope for various different approaches, and the demo did enough to get me intrigued in finding out what the finished product will have to offer, I hope there is more variation beyond the cutscenes and shooting sequences I saw in the demo, and that the moral ramifications of war that 'the line' represents really do get explored. Here’s to hoping there will be enough to push Spec Ops: The Line above the rest in an already oversubscribed genre, and not end up buried in the sand.