Game Review: Spec Ops The Line [Xbox 360/PS3/PC]
I’m willing to bet that anybody reading this review of Spec Ops The Line is a fan of military action, and so I am willing to bet that anybody reading this has seen Apocalypse Now. It would be a losing battle to assume that most of you have read Heart of Darkness, especially considering it was written with the intention of being hard to read, so most of my reference to Heart of Darkness will be through Apocalypse Now, a Vietnam re-imagining of the basic premises of Conrad’s novella.
Why am I telling you about Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now? Spec Ops The Line at its core is a modern day retelling of the story about the darkness of man and the consequence of killing. Yes this is a third person shooter, yes things explode, and yes it is often a huge exciting rush, but its story also drags your conscience kicking and screaming into uncomfortable territory. You may even come out of the credits having changed a little.
You see, Spec Ops isn’t just yet another ooo-rar military heroism adventure. It starts out that way, there’s no doubt. The banter between your squad of three is all very routine, as is the cover based combat. The mechanics work very well but it’s just very similar to the majority of things on the market right now. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, like I said, the mechanics behind the shooting work very well to make this a fun and satisfying game, but the main draw for anyone here after the first couple of chapters is the story.
I won’t go into too much detail because to do so would be to deprive the player of the experience, but what I will say is that eventually the typical over-confident norm that permeates the genre starts to get broken down. The characters themselves go through events that injure them physically, and have even worse effects mentally. Even by half way through the game they will look beaten down and will already be starting to sound broken. By the endgame this becomes even more obvious, with simple in-game dialogue such as reloading dialogue going from the basic “I’m out, cover me” to simply just swearing at the weapon.
At the start of the game, Nolan North voiced Walker is leading his three man squad comprising of himself, Lugo and Adams, into the Dubai outskirts to recon the disappearance of a battalion of troops serving under Colonel John Konrad, a man who saved Walker’s life back in Kabul. What starts out as recon, though, quickly turns into rescue as the “Damned 33rd” appear to be at war with the locals in the midst of a disastrous sand storm. Eventually events start twisting and turning and the characters are dragged through events that will cause them to question their humanity, their sanity and even start to shut down as human beings, instead turning into stone cold killers. This transformation brought on from the events they witness, the events they have a hand in and the untold amount of killing they go through is the very core of the story of Heart of Darkness – the absurdity of the lesser evil. It’s something games have never truly tackled before, and will be remembered as the first to really explore what having such an explosive story can do to the people involved. If this is the last game to explore the consequence of war, and the last to feature standard dialogue that changes over the course of the game to show the mental breakdown of its characters, I will be shocked, because not only does it work, it’s a brilliant and immersive storytelling system.
It isn’t just the characters that have to go through these events either, but the player as well. At specific points in the game choices will be presented. While these aren’t always an obviously choice (one early game choice involves shooting someone or letting them go, but beyond being able to aim and fire is never indicated as a choice. Most players would be listening to the dialogue waiting for some kind of marker to tell them to shoot and will instead watch as the person in question goes away). What all these choices have in common, however, is the fact that they are never easy choices; unlike every other game that comes to mind this isn’t a good choice – bad choice morality system, the choices presented here revolve around what you personally believe is the lesser evil at that point in time. In this way the game often manages to make the player feel uncomfortable and helpless, taking away the common option of being able to the good thing and save the day for everyone involved. No matter what you do here, someone will get hurt, and someone will be pissed at what you did.
The choices aren’t just there to present choices and potentially cause the player to think about themselves either (a late game choice I personally made had me feeling guilty and caused me to regret my actions for example), but rather all add up to present one of a number of possible endings. While these endings are mostly similar, they do alter details to make sure that they make sense within your selection of paths. The twist at the very end of the game, which is revealed during the flashbacks of the choices you made, is one we’ve seen before, but the way it’s handled in Spec Ops makes it non-the-less a powerful and painfully obvious conclusion. A second playthrough with the knowledge gained as to what is going on is almost a necessity as little hints can be seen throughout and the story and character interaction takes on a whole new level.
‘Done before but handled well’ is a phrase that can again be applied to the gameplay. Strip away the fantastic story and story-based set –pieces and Spec Ops is little more than an above average third-person shooter. All the buttons are as you’d expect, with sliding into cover, taking aim and pulling off kills being second nature to anyone who has ever played something such as Gears of War. What Spec Ops does try to add into the mix is squad commands, though these are little more than being able to select a specific enemy to be targeted or contextual snipe/flashbang/frag commands.
Co-op would have seemed to have made sense on paper as well, but once you start playing through the game it becomes obvious that between the choices and the moments your team is stripped away to provide a set-piece or story heavy section it just wouldn’t have worked, and as such the fact it hasn’t been shoe-horned in is a plus. Though this isn’t to say co-op won’t ever happen – DLC is said to introduce separate standalone co-op missions at a later date.
One complaint about the controls and gameplay mechanics is that cover can often be a little hit and miss during more frenetic sections, with Walker either refusing to take cover, taking the wrong cover or meleeing cover rather than vaulting over it (the vault cover/melee button is the same button), but these are often few and far between, with the majority of the cover based gunplay being better than many other titles on the market. Once you get your sensitivity set to your liking it feels smooth and responsive, and headshots should start coming with ease within minutes, punctuated by a unnervingly satisfying burst of slow motion and (with higher powered weaponry) a decapitation.
Ok, so maybe the thematic through line of “the horrors of war and violence” takes a side seat in the gameplay sometimes, but it will oftentimes be remedied with after combat banter or a jarringly uncomfortable cinematic. Even the brutal executions get referenced later in the game as a sign of just how far Walker has sunk to “win”.
Sandstorms, being the reason the story takes place at all, are another presence in the game, rolling in at scripted moments to reduce visibility to near nothing, drown out any squad commands (disabling them for the section) and reducing accuracy to near diabolical levels, but rather than being frustrating these sections tend to be short and break up the otherwise routine gun fights.
Unfortunately the praise doesn’t carry over to the multiplayer, which while not offensive, lacks any of the polish found in the single player campaign. In Deathmatch, team deathmatch or objective based modes you go through the usual motions of a 4 v 4 multiplayer game with persistent unlocks etc etc you know the drill by now. What Spec Ops does try to add is the random sandstorms that will blow through the map occasionally, but unlike the tight scripted moments in the story, these serve more as efforts in frustration of waiting games than an actual game changer. Indeed waiting seems to be a very effective strategy as a piece of cover on the high ground can often dominate a match. It’s all very forgettable, though some people will find fun to be had here but it isn’t going to have the staying power of the genre heavy hitters. Though one nice touch is that there are no online based achievements/trophies, so people playing online are playing because they want to (and playing properly), rather than just being there to grind score.
Design wise the game is very nice. While graphically it isn’t the best looking game on the market, the location of Dubai adds a nice view to the proceedings. Oftentimes taking place outside the horizontal miles of sand and vertical miles of towers really add a sense of scale to the game. Even inside the destroyed glory of Dubai is evident, with locales such as museums and aquariums now playing home to refugees or tons of sand, it’s both beautiful and horrific all at once.
The character models leave a lot to be desired but are animated well enough to get their emotions and desperation across better than graphics ever could, helped in no small part by the excellent voice work that, as I’ve said, constantly changes throughout the game.
Even the loading screens have been given some special treatment, with artwork changing depending on the position of the game, as is normal, but also with the tips and comments changing as your progress and make choices, with late game comments including the likes of “Do you feel like a hero yet” or “A better man would have quit long ago”. It all adds a sense of personal involvement to the proceedings, actively taunting or reassuring you depending on the circumstances.
With its above average gameplay and exceptionally well told and presented story Spec Ops The Line is definitely a single player game anybody with an interest in shooters or military fiction or even just stories about the darkness of man and consequence needs to have a look at. It’s fun, it’s ruthless, and it will make you think about war, humanity, and maybe even yourself.
“Do you feel like a hero yet?”