The old saying goes ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’ – one the applies to the story of Spec Ops: The Line, and perhaps to a lesser degree, the game itself. Those of you who are avid listeners of the Monkey Tail podcast will no doubt recall my generally positive comments on the game- rightly given, but a more thorough review will expose several flaws that should be taken into consideration before parting with your hard earned cash…
The setting of the game is perhaps it’s most impressive feature. It all happens in Dubai, the modern playground of the disgustingly rich. Sounds nice? Well, not since it has been subject to apocalyptic sandstorms, most of it totally buried underneath the shifting sands of the Arabian desert. Effectively cut off from the rest of the world by a storm wall, it is now a crucible in which the collapse of societal norms occurs as the survivors shed the veneer of civilisation in a desperate struggle to survive. An American battlaion, the 33rd, led by the protagonist’s friend and mentor, Col. Konrad, volunteered to attempt an evacuation managed to enter Dubai and hasn’t been heard from since. The hero of the game, Captain Walker and two squad mates are sent in to discover everyone’s subsequent fate.
Understandably I cannot delve to deeply into the plot in a review, but the well known comparisons between it and ‘Heart of Darkness’ are entirely justified. There is no gutsy G.I. glory to be found here, just a gritty, blood-soaked descent into a madness born of necessity. Ever wondered why willie-pete (White Phosphorous munitions) are still subject to humanitarian debates regarding their use in war – play this game and you will get an inkling of the sheer horror of using WP based explosives. I really like the way all that tedious trumpeting about elite forces or heros has been done away with- like the action scenes in Saving Private Ryan, the fighting here is brutal, dirty and desperate. Chapter by chapter, Captain Walker finds himself making ever more morally dubious decisions in order to preserve the mission. But there lies a problem… In order for the game’s finale to really impact home, it must at least seem as a result of your decision making at certain points in the playthrough. But there are no real choices to be made- ‘choose’ the wrong option and BAM! You are killed by the GUARDIANS. Alright, there are no GUARDIANS here, that’s a Halo thing, but you get the idea. A little nugget of deus-ex machina will kill you or otherwise end the game all the same. It’s probably the only way to make it work in an shooter, but it cheapens the end sequence somewhat. Brave is the game that constantly encourages you to question the moral validity of your actions, clumsy is the game that follows a cutscene debate with your squadmates about shooting fellow US soldiers with a gratuitously violent option to execute stunned enemies while shrieking.
Enough of this story line analysis, is there an actual game to be played here? Well… there is, just not a fantastic one. Heavily dependant on the cover system as most 3PS’s are, it plays a little like Tom Clancy’s Advance Warfighter with a dash of Gears of War. I remember being impressed when in a fire-fight, my rifle rattled off rounds at the enemy, bullets impacting with a satisfying Thwack!, allies and enemies alike shouting orders and profanties at anyone who will listen. The chaos of war is suitably represented and the fighting reasonably immersive. Despite the decent NPC voice acting, I was occasionally jarred out of the moment when enemies repeatedly bellow orders at each other about how they would provide covering fire while his mates should flank me, however the promised flanking attack never materialises. The enemies are ultimately content to keep playing the victim in my digital game of whack-a-mole, albeit with guns rather than a mallet.
Your squad mates aren’t entirely decorative- left to their own devices they can offer reasonable, if light, support. Yager development have tried to shoe-horn in a very light squad management system vaguely reminiscent of the Ghost Recon series. However, this is limited to giving the odd kill target designation to your chums and the random, infrequent option to instruct them to throw a stun grenade. Half the time this uncommon prompt popped up on my screen, I wasn’t in a position to make the most of the results…baffling implementation if I’m honest.
Still, Spec Ops is paced well throughout, suitably frenetic at times but still allowing me the time to savour the brilliantly realised game world and explore for intel items- these help flesh out the story as well as farming achievement/trophy points. The game encourages you to fight a little cerebrally, often threatening you that ammo will be scarce (which it wasn’t) and by sprinkling everywhere what is the now obligatory red shapes of death- the barrels full of flammable liquid, crates of explosives and so on. There is at least a new environmental element to play with- sand. Shoot the right window or ceiling tile out in a fight and you can expect several tons of sand to come flooding in, burying your foes. Much was made of this mechanic in pre-release, but in reality the occurrences are infrequent and often scripted. It’s kind of cool when the opportunity arises but it doesn’t define the game. Still, I found the idea that you can be fighting in the 24th floor of a skyscraper and still be underground thanks to the sand dunes, deliciously absurd.
I’m not usually a fan of on-rails sections, but if developers insist in putting them in their games, then they could do a lot worse than learn from Yager’s offerings. They are few, short in duration and suitably bombastic, earning no irritation marks from me as a rare change.
Graphically, Spec Ops: The Line straddles a fence- the backdrops, lighting and general ambiance of the game are excellent. You and your squad however have been modelled from clay with a spade and some details are a little fuzzy. Grenades, for example detonate with a unassuming puff of dust, which may be realistic but not very cool. I can’t recall much about the music except it was fairly standard Vietnam War era type radio, which means at least it wasn’t intrusive. Sound in general is ok, especially worthy in some scene settings but weapons lacked a little oomph.
Since we don’t judge Battlefield or Call of Duty by their single player campaigns, perhaps Spec Ops: The Line’s multiplayer can push it into something truly noteworthy? Umm… no. A rather limp offering to be honest. Your gun accuracy, in the campaign and in multiplayer, is terrible when moving or even standing, only appreciably stabilising when in cover. So… it’s a game about a group of players all camping in corners behind concrete blocks during the early stages… not entirely fun. The problem is alleviated buy levelling up and unlocking better, more accurate weapons. Yes, SP:TL punishes newbs with a rubbish weapon set, only rewarding the better players with easier and more myriad ways to kill the newbs. A cure that is worse than the ailment… I thought we were past this sort of thing in multiplayer shooters, but I was wrong. A lot of people must have agreed with me as the lobbys were largely quiet, random elite players who I’d played a round or two with kept inviting me to their games in a bid to flesh out the teams. Even the odd in-match visibility reducing sandstorm didn’t really liven things up- most gamers just freeze where they are and wait them out, rather than run inside to force some CQB as I presume the intent was. I’ll probably give some of the other modes a try if any other players show up, but otherwise I’ll stick to other MFPS’s.
In summation, Spec Ops: The Line is an average third person shooter, carried by a fresh, interesting if sometimes clumsily delivered story, in a excellently realised and deliciously improbable setting. I would heartily recommend playing it, if only to hint to developers that they are on the right track with this sort of thing, but would caution you to wait until comes down to £20… tops.