Spec Ops: The Line

Developer: Yager

Publisher: 2K

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.

SCORE: 96/100

Mass Effect 3


Developer: BioWare

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360

Estimated Date of Game Release: 6th of March 2012

It seems to be a time period for closures. There have been a few major franchises who recently came to an end and so now Mass Effect 3 is finally upon us, well almost, and it brings to a close Commander Shepard’s story of saving the galaxy from the Reapers.

Shepard certainly has his hands full this time around. It’s not just the Reapers that have it in for him but it appears Cerberus was not as trust worthy as the second game made them out to be (surprised anyone?).

In Mass Effect 3 we are back on a trusted hunt across multiple star systems chasing down leads and trying to recruit entire civilizations to the fight against the Reapers.  We finally get to see the home worlds of some of the better known races, such as the Asari, Turians and the Quarians along the way.

In a change in dynamic from the second game, Shepard this time has a smaller crew to choose from. While it was nice to have quite a few different characters in Mass Effect 2, a lot of them felt empty and like filler material, so going back to a slightly smaller roster is a solid choice. Once again Shepard is able to form relationships with the characters he encounters. In a t-turn, probably due to the outcry of numerous fans, and after a disappointing try to appeal to some religious nut cases in America for the second installment of the series, Mass Effect 3 does allow same sex relations again (queue FOX news outrage).

For the first time in the series the player also has the choice to start a new campaign in a pre-set mode. Action Mode focuses on combat and every conversation has an automatic reply. Story mode allows for manual conversation replies but severely dumbs down combat, while RPG mode has manual conversation replies and normal combat difficulty. It is the last mode that is most like what we have seen in the previous 2 games. Frankly I have no idea why they would ever include the first 2 options, since it would take someone completely uninterested in either story or combat to choose one of the new modes. And to be honest – anyone not interested in either combat or story is very unlikely to pick up a Mass Effect game in the first place.

There have been a few other changes for the last outing of Shepard. It seems his combat awareness and prowess improved over the years. Combat certainly is different, though it might not be noticeable as easily as BioWare wants to impress on us judging by the amount of marketing that has gone into that area alone.

Cover movement has improved and is a lot less challenging and far more intuitive. Gone are the times where you needed to slide into a cover before getting over it (something that has been spotted in other games using the Unreal Engine). The cover, sprint and movement system is a lot more akin to what we can find in Deus Ex, though by no means as refined. BioWare clearly has had a look at how it’s done properly in a 3rd person game, they just did not get there completely.

In more Deus-Ex-Deja-Vu, ME3 introduces melee take downs for each class. Most prominently of these, a tech-blade in the wrist armor for a solider class Shepard. Even the take down looks copied sadly. And while the melee take down in Deus Ex feels solid and gratifying, ME3’s frantic style of combat almost always makes it feel rushed and choppy, despite animations and point of contact lining up almost perfectly. And of course we are all to ignore the fact that a holographic, digital tool on your arm can extend a deadly 10 inch holographic blade.

There certainly was a lot of hype around combat in ME3 prior to launch. Run and gun play finally got a round of polish and attention and it works!  Well sort of. It only really works if are up against freshly spawned in AI, that have to go through their starting animations before they engage you. Try running and gunning AI that has been sitting behind a crate for a while or moving quickly in an area with several enemies and you’ll quickly find out that at its heart Mass Effect will always be a cover shooter.  A blind fire option was included now as well, probably more to tick another box then to really add any proper meaning to combat.

What can be said about the new combat is that it is epic in scale. Enemies are often massive and you can clearly see the shift from small scale combat scenarios to large scale set pieces. Visually this is great, but from a gameplay point of view? Well if you think designating a target or spending time on rail shooters is fun, then you’ll love the changes.

The AI has not moved on much with the years. If you expect them to do much more than stand there or cover behind cover, occasionally peaking up to reveal their head for a game of whack-a-mole, you will be sadly disappointed. There is some flanking, but this, together with the AI’s use of any special attacks, is highly scripted and will play the same every time you try a scenario. This helps when dying and learning how to beat an encounter, but does little to impress.

Unfortunately this shift to grand set pieces also means a lot more of a linear approach to encounters and a considerable increase in “hands-off” time, where results of your actions are shown in mini cut scenes. In some of the larger battles this constant hands-on/hands-off approach can be quite frustrating and what should be a fluid encounter turns into a stop and go show of visual effects.

Most RPG elements the original Mass Effect had have been shed by the time ME2 came around and it’s unfortunately not any different with ME3. Inventory, weapon types and upgrades lack the complexity and variety one would expect in a true RPG. This is certainly no Skyrim, and the best weapon/mod/ammo combo is quickly realized and exploited. From then it’s just a matter of switching out a few mods and ammo whenever a better one becomes available, but even if that’s not done at regular intervals it’s not a big problem and combat does not become impossible.

Even character customization was stripped down and streamlined. Instead of having multiple options to choose from at the start, now you only have 1 which branches out to a grand total of 2 paths later on. So be careful when picking a class, because this time around there is not much versatility within a class, even less so than in the second game.

For the first time in the series, Mass Effect not only boasts a single player campaign, but also a multiplayer mode. I hope this is not a sign of where the franchise is heading, because to be honest, the multiplayer is sub-par compared to other options on the market. Mass Effect has never been a truly outstanding 3rd person shooter. And ME3, despite some changes, is no exception. So creating a Co-Op game mode that purely focuses on the combat aspect is a bold and slightly ridiculous decision.

It has a big fancy dressing, as a Co-Op “Galaxy at War” mode, but essentially what it boils down to is that it’s a good old fashion Horde Mode. This, as we all know, is best played in Gears of War.  Similar to Battlefield 3 recently, Co-Op is linked to the main game mode. In BF3 players have to complete Co-Op missions to get certain weapons to be used in multiplayer. In ME3 finishing Co-Op missions will give you a better chance to attain a perfect ending in the single player campaign.

It feels like it is EA doctrine to ensure a largely un-attractive and underdeveloped game mode is somehow propped up by linking it to something else and making it is less-than-optional. Not sure how I feel about that. No wait, actually I am, I hate it. It feels like I am forced to play something I don’t want to play, even though I know I am not forced outright. The other problem obviously is that at some point, maybe in the later lifespan of the game, there might not be enough players willing to go through the laborious task of taking on boring wave after wave of enemies. So those poor gamers, who are not early adopters, might not get the additional help for single player.

So this just leaves the packaging left to describe. And again, ME3 does not really push the boundaries. Using a slightly updated version of Unreal the game looks and feels like any previous installment. It is slightly prettier and certainly grander in some areas, but largely the same. Music, VO and ambient audio in the Mass Effect series have always been outstanding and M3 is no different. From an Audio-Visual point of view the game is immersive, beautiful and believable. Though I still often wonder why buildings, installations and environments in the future are all so empty.

Overall ME3 is a decent game. It certainly delivers an audio-visual spectacle that is bigger and louder than either of the previous 2 games in the series. Sadly this often comes at the cost of direct player involvement and the ME3 often shuts the player out from any input when it goes through the set pieces. Anyone who has played the previous games and has enjoyed the ride so far will have a good time in ME3. It can just be nice to simply find out what happens next and to achieve a sense of closure.  People who have never played a ME game before might enjoy the presentation but I can’t help but wonder if they won’t feel left asking themselves what all the fuss was about.

And this is why I do not understand some of the changes BioWare have forced into this product. Making it more appealing to the mass market by providing 3 campaign game modes, adding a low value Co-Op Horde mode and further tuning down RPG elements do nothing to make the game better for long term fans of the franchise. Anyone new to the franchise will wonder what these changes are all about, and it might actually turn them off from buying the previous games to delve deeper into a fantastic game world and explore what Shepard has been up to previously.

BioWare once again has put together a good product with a fitting end to the story. The atmosphere is great and the game looks and sounds fantastic. But once again BioWare seem to struggle determining their core audience. It might have been a better decision to drop the Co-Op completely, listen to the fans of the series and increase, rather than diminish some of the RPG elements of the game and just focus on delivering the best possible game to end Shepard’s antics in the galaxy.

One would have thought lessons could have been learned by Dragon Age 2. One would have thought that lessons could have been learned from Skyrim’s success. It almost feels like BioWare is scared of creating a proper space RPG. And that’s despite really having laid the ground work for it in the first game.

As it is, the game is a must buy for anyone who really wants to know how the story ends. For everyone else: there are better RPGs out there, and there are better 3rd person combat games out there. Despite its grand moments, it simply does not deliver anything outstanding. It’s really just more of the same, only with a bigger bang.

SCORE: 73/100


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