Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360
Estimated Date of Game Release: sometime 2012
I have seen horrors, horrors that you’ve seen.
You have got to admire a studio that develops a game which might well end up being banned in the country that their office is based. This makes Spec Ops: The Line interesting from the start. Yager have created a harsh, brutal game that deals with some issues other games often try to avoid, or simply don’t have an interest in exploring.
Spec Ops: The Line is a 3rd person cover based shooter, set in a post-apocalyptic Dubai. Largely destroyed and buried by catastrophic sandstorms the city no longer is the jewel in the Middle East, but a massive tomb. Somewhere in that tomb US Army Colonel Konrad is holed up with his training unit. Konrad stayed behind, defying orders of evacuation, in order to help the local population during the sandstorm catastrophe. At least that’s the official story.
Enter the player’s character. Captain Martin Walker and his Delta Force team are tasked with finding and evacuating Konrad.
The game starts at the outskirts of Dubai and, it has to be said, the view is spectacular. There are plenty of distinct landmarks in the skyline to ensure we know exactly where we are, but the amount of destruction and devastation the sandstorms have caused is blatantly obvious and awe inspiring. From there Walker and his team track through a beautifully crafted game world, unravelling the story one fire fight at a time, getting ever closer to Konrad.
The player will traverse a city that offers a brutal mirror to reality, experience a story that ultimately shows the potential for darkness in every human heart. In many ways it is up to the player if he wants to contain that darkness or make a friend of horror.
Built with Unreal 3, Spec Ops: The Line obviously will draw some comparisons to the Gear of War series. Similar to Gears, the cover system is excellent and particularly moving from cover to cover feels solid and satisfying. Firing from cover, blind or aimed, also feels good and realistic. The developers have done a nice job when it comes to collision as well. Cars for example are not modelled in one big chunk, but actually allow the player to fire through open doors and through windows. This works both ways of course, and many players will have to adjust to the fact that a car is not simply one large block of cover.
The environment itself offers plenty of opportunity for the player as well. Shooting glass or wooden panels might release an avalanche of sand on unsuspecting foes, burying them alive and clearing what could be a potentially lethal situation. It pays off to pay attention to your surroundings and it is immensely satisfying when you spot a particular environment feature that can be used to your advantage.
While destruction is by no means as detailed and game changing as we have seen in Battlefield 3, using Frost Bite 2, what Spec Ops delivers, it delivers very well.
Another big environmental feature of the game is its sandstorm system. Sandstorms are created dynamically and vary in location, direction and strength. They can literally happen anytime and anywhere. They will influence how an encounter plays out. Initially they can be frustrating and disorienting, seemingly giving the enemy the advantage. But once you adapt to it, it’s clear that both sides are faced with the same problems, and opportunities.
In a sandstorm I might lose contact to the rest of my team, but so will the enemy and it feels oddly good to slowly find your way through the thick wall of dust, only to stumble across a similarly disoriented enemy and then taking him out with a quick blast from your shotgun.
Sandstorms will also alter the lay of the land, forcing you to adapt and often find different routes. Since these storms are random, this bodes well for replay-ability.
Combat is solid. It might not be as fast paced as one of its first person brethren, but fire fights are intense and varied. Guns are modelled well and impacts on the enemy have a wide range of realistic effects. As can be expected a variety of guns can be found as you progress through the game and even the occasional rail shooter segment or emplaced weapon features.
Using cover, instructing your team to take out specific targets, using the environment to your advantage, or simply engaging an enemy in close combat – it’s all there and it’s all very solid and gratifying.
Of course there is some measure of scripting involved, and the areas you run through are, to a certain degree, linear corridors. However Yager has managed to present a plausible illusion of adaptive AI and Terrain and you will rarely feel like you are playing a corridor shooter, unlike Modern Warfare or Rage for example.
The AI is also surprisingly good. Yager has most definitely surpassed anything Gears has offered to the genre. The AI is fast, accurate and above all smart. It uses cover and the environment just like you and your team do. They also take initiative, so if you just sit behind a piece of concrete and blind fire too long, they will simply get enough and charge you with knife drawn. Generally that will get you moving quick enough.
But perhaps this should not come as a surprise, as your own team AI is also very strong. I am always weary about team AI. Because either they don’t do what I want them to, they get in the way; they steal my kills or plain and simply suck, only offering crappy comments and one-liners from time to time. In Spec Ops: The Line the team AI is solid. Don’t get me wrong, AI controlled team mates will never replace proper human co-op players, but in this game, they do their job.
Your team mates pick their fights and manage to hold their own quite well. Their accuracy and damage output seems a tad low, but you feel like you are being assisted. Controlling them is also relatively easy, all done through a few quick button presses. It’s never a hassle and you get into it quickly.
So all things considered, Spec Ops: The Line is a solid 3rd person shooter with good mechanics and nice gun play. There are 2 things though which make it stand out for me, and which I feel it will be well remembered for.
The first of these things is the setting. It would have been easy for Yager to create another run of the mill terrorist shooter set in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa. True, they did choose the Middle East, but Dubai is not a place that has featured heavily before and for their setting, their story, it is an inspired and perfect choice. Additionally Yager chose not to fall into the trap of trying to give players too many different locations, in a vain attempt to stretch the story and stress global importance of their mission. You won’t find yourself fighting in Africa, only to be in China the next morning, not really knowing why. You are in Dubai. You will remain in Dubai. And that is good. It is an amazingly well-crafted city that has plenty to offer for the entire game. The setting does not get old and individual parts are different enough to offer variety. There simply is no need to leave Dubai, and Yager has done well to understand that and use this to their advantage.
The second pillar which sets Spec Ops: The Line apart is the thematic and story. While being fictional it deals with real issues and real horrors. As sad as it is, these horrors are not so easy to dismiss as fiction. Initially the brutality and cruelty displayed in the game might shock you, but perhaps that is a good thing. Seeing bodies strung up on lamp posts is reminiscent to scenes from Fallujah. The story of the game is fictional, but the capacity of humans to do horrible, even evil things most certainly is not.
Creating a shooter that is not only about killing people, but also about moral choices along the way, is sadly not something we see every day. These days it is mostly about killing hordes of faceless enemies that pop their head out of cover from time to time. It is about huge set pieces that WOW the player. What we do and why we do it is often irrelevant – what counts is the adrenaline rush of firing a virtual gun.
I am not just talking about games like Bodycount, were as a player I simply don’t know who the enemy is and why I kill them, but also the giants like Modern Warfare and Battlefield don’t use their clout with the audience to introduce at least some level of morality and player choice. In my opinion that is a missed opportunity. Sure, delivering a fast paced and fun virtual gun experience is what sells millions of copies. Yet depth of story, moral choices and player decision making would not diminish the experience, but could actually infinitely enhance it.
Spec Ops: The Line seems to have achieved this, and without the benefit of several predecessors (yes I am ignoring the 8 previous Spec Ops titles, as I think they were something entirely different, being first person and all that). Using Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” as a rough base structure for the story of the game was a great move. Famously adapted in 1979 by Francis Ford Coppola for the film Apocalypse Now, the framework of the story is ideal for adaptation in a game and it is great to see that some studios draw inspiration from things other than big movie moments.
Spec Ops: The Line is a modern day adaption of Apocalypse Now. It is an adaption based on today’s realities and it deals with them in a fictional way. It presents today’s horrors to a wide audience in a way that audience can understand. Hopefully that audience will also learn some lessons from it.
But I can’t be all positive about the game. There are also 2 aspects that could have been done better.
Unfortunately there is no Co-Op. In my opinion this game cries out for a Co-Op mode. I can see where this might have created conflict with the moral choices and story, and if that’s the reason why it was out, then that is a very good reason indeed, but 3rd person cover shooters are made for Co-Op. It would have been amazing to weather the sandstorms with a buddy, to cover my team mate from a heightened position, to play with the environment and make sure it’s my enemies I burry in sand and not my friend. There is Multiplayer however, so at least there is some aspect of enjoying the game with friends. Co-Op though, that’s where it would have been!
The only other negative thing I can think of is the cover image. Another lone warrior, standing with his gun raised and all of his face, bar his piercing blue eyes, covered in a scarf. Honestly – is there only one artist in the world who creates these cover images or is everyone just copy/pasting shit from someone else?
Minus those 2 points above, Yager has delivered a beautiful game. Visually stunning and very atmospheric, with great audio and music, it is a feast for your eyes and ears. Gameplay, while not being revolutionary, contains enough new gems on a very solid base to make it a joy to play. But it is the choice of setting and the choice of story framework that truly stick out and make this a must buy title. One can only hope that more developers will dare to be different and get off the beaten track from time to time. Engaging more of the player than his trigger finger is a good thing.