Middle Eastern delight?
The course of this generation has seen, amongst other things, an explosion of games within the shooter genre, and more specifically the military shooter subgenre. No genre is more saturated, no genre is more competitive. For a new franchise to really make it in this market would require something unique – but also one which could boast longevity to compete with games which, through online modes, can last many hundreds of hours. Enter a new contender, Spec Ops: The Line, a third person cover based shooter cataloguing Martin Walker’s fight across Dubai, and his descent into madness.
Game: Spec Ops: The Line
Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games
If there is any part of Spec Ops: The Line which really shines, then it’s the story and narrative. While other areas of Spec Ops try to imitate genre leaders, the story is something new, and for the most part something stronger than what shooter fans will have got used to over the last five years. What starts out as a rescue mission detours then entirely derails as the mysteries of what has happened since the major sandstorm in Dubai are revealed.
The protagonist, Martin Walker, is joined by Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo, as they search for Colonel Konrad and his battalion, the 33rd. Having fought through countless insurgents in search of the 33rd, Walker finds them to have gone rogue. The Damned 33rd, has apparently assumed control over what remains in Dubai, and this has lead to a civil war between the insurgents, the Damned, and the remainder of the 33rd, the Exiles. It makes for a serious pace change from the now humdrum fights against generic Arabs and Russian nationalists – the fight is now between your small squad and an army of Americans to rescue the locals from them.
The real story though, as you fight through Hell in Dubai, is the way the war affects the characters involved, and most of all Martin Walker – or you. If Spec Ops is about anything, it’s about conflict, and who wins in it: no-one. There isn’t a great deal of subtlety about it, but nor is the subject matter dealt with disrespectfully or cheaply. It’s not the newest concept, but it’s one that tends not to be dealt with in video games.
Spec Ops has, as games go, a linear story, but you do have a few choices to make. Unlike a lot of the choices presented in games these days, there are very few easy answers and even once you’re decision has been made and the consequences seen, it’s not necessarily clear whether your decision was correct. The game doesn’t judge nor punish you for them – but these decisions play visibly on the minds of Walker, Adams and Lugo.
The effects of the war are felt most closely by Walker himself, who, as the game progresses, is showing clear signs of mental breakdown. It was notable as the game progressed, and as my character became more visually and mentally battered, that my characters dialogue, delivered by Nolan North, became more and more desperate. It becomes decreasingly clear what is, and what isn’t real as the game progresses, and it isn’t until the very end that this mystery gets truly resolved.
All told, and not wanting to spoil too much, Spec Ops: The Line’s story is one which aims higher than the average shooter. It’s not often you can say that you’ve played a shooter and experienced character development and difficult moral dilemmas – and even if it does lay it on a bit thick, this is infinitely preferable from the story having no such depth at all.
The problem is that while Spec Ops does have one of the better stories out there, it is painfully short. I completed my first run through in little over 5 hours on the third of four difficulties (the fourth is locked ’til after the first playthrough). Having a short story is not on its own a problem, and I think there’s enough quality in the game to just about justify another playthrough, but there is no doubt that the Campaign mode isn’t worth a full retail pricetag on its own.
If you consider what Yager Development was attempting with the visuals in Spec Ops, you’d have to say it was pretty ambitious. There are plenty of games which show you what a post apocalypstic city might look like, but combining Dubai’s extreme, modern, somewhat alien skyscraper dotted landscape with the results of an unimaginably large sandstorm would have posed a unique challenge. Spec Ops isn’t likely to win any awards for its graphics, but it pulls off the look very well.
Arguably though, it’s the audio which really shines, particularly with the vocals. Nolan North delivers well as the main character, but, if anything its the amount and believability of the contextual communication throughout the levels between your squad, and between your enemies which take things to the next level. Your character is barking out orders, and your teammates are responding back, pointing out threats and other useful information.
Much of the music in the game is provided through speakers dotted throughout interior levels – the radio network and the Radioman are of major plot importance – which makes for a change to just having music playing in the background. Fighting the Damned 33rd to a mutated rendition of the Star Spangled Banner doubles down on Spec Ops: The Line’s theme – it really, really works.
Where Spec Ops is bold with its story, it is far less so with its gameplay. This is a shooter which derives almost every single mechanic it has from other well known games. It is most similar to Gears of War, with its coverbased pop ‘n’ shoot mechanic. Unfortunately, the mechanic itself is nowhere near as polished as it is in Gears. Cover controls are spread inexplicably across two face buttons, and everything just feels a bit unpredictable. Most annoyingly, the run button is a toggle rather than a hold-to-use, which frankly is a massive pain.
The cover issues aside, and Spec Ops plays smoothly, and the gunplay while nothing revolutionary feels very solid indeed. There is a fairly typical range of weaponry to utilise: plenty assault rifles, with a few shotguns, SMGs, and sniper rifles chucked in for good measure, as well as three types of grenade. Most weapons also have an alternative fire like a variable scope zoom, grenade launcher, or a silencer, so there is plenty of choice, but your weapon preference will often be overridden by practicality due to the scarcity of ammo.
Perhaps the most useful tool in your arsenal is the ability to give some basic direction to your squadmates. You can get them to chuck a stun grenade if you’re pinned, or indicate for one to heal the other if one gets injured, but most importantly you can indicate a target for them to work on. This allows you to take control of the battle tactics, and is particularly helpful when dealing with long range snipers and the pesky heavy soldiers.
There isn’t a great deal of enemy differentiation in Spec Ops, but then this is pretty normal for military based shooters. You’ve got a lot of general assault troops to deal with, but the variety is added to by snipers, more aggressive shotgunners, heavies, who can take 1001 bullets, and the one-hit-kill guy-with-a-knife ‘edge weapon specialist’.
Their AI is pretty good, rarely doing anything marvellously stupid and seeming to negotiate cover effectively. It’s a bit conservative for its own good at times though, which can allow you to win in a war of attrition. It would have been nicer to see the AI’s aggression increase for higher difficulties, rather than it just lowering your health and increasing enemy accuracy.
For the mostpart, gameplay in Spec Ops involves fighting through environments against this small variety of enemies. Had this been the umpteenth game of a series that might have been a problem, but its freshness does provide enough appeal to last a campaign and then some. The occasional sandstorms are something else altogether. They could have so easily been a gimmick, but when you are swept up into the oppressive, muffling and almost blinding browness, the games intensity kicks up a notch. Making out enemies through their silhouettes, unable to aim properly, run or communicate with your teammates – it feels extremely genuine.
A lot of games these days break up the endless combat with big setpieces or on-rails segments. Far too much of the time, these look a lot better in a trailer than they feel to play, and the same goes for Spec Ops: The Line’s two helicopter segments. They’re extremely dull, and make you yearn to go back to the ground and the comfort of a better-than-average cover based shooter. The brief stint on top of a moving truck holding a grenade launcher is even worse.
Spec Ops comes with a fully fledged multiplayer mode which, on paper, boasts a featureset comparable to that of any shooter. Multiple game modes, loadout customisation, classes, perks, armor, and a big set of weapons. Problem is, it feels like the basics have been lost in a pursuit of equalling the Call of Duty featureset.
There are two major areas of frustration for me. The first is that the infrastructure simply isn’t that good. Getting into and out of games is painful, contributed by long loading screens and, bizarrely, a three minute downtime between matches for voting, and there is no host migration. I wasn’t too convinced by the netcode either, some games I was put into were horribly laggy, and even in the ones which weren’t too bad there was an inescapable feeling that my movement was compromised.
More importantly though, I just don’t think the gameplay mechanics are formulated that well. The combination of map design, gun mechanics and health levels just don’t really mesh, at least for me. The first thing to note is you have extremely low health – similar to the enemies you experience throughout the campaign. You die in a tiny number of shots, or a single shot in the head. The person who sees the other first almost always wins, and as you can sit hidden behind cover while looking over it, it all feels a bit unbalanced.
As with any review, the crux of the issue is whether or not Spec Ops: The Line is worth buying. Unfortunately, however much I’d like to praise Yager Development for its campaign, it’s always difficult to recommend a full retail purchase on the basis of such a short experience. The five-or-so hour story and its satisfactory gameplay might justify a second playthrough, but I don’t think it justifies the full retail game price.
Due to the lacking multiplayer, it’s hard to recommend Spec Ops against many of the ‘AAA’ shooters on the market. For those who are yearning for a shooter with a more meaningful story, I would certainly recommend picking it up when it gets cheaper, or perhaps as a rental, because Spec Ops’ story genuinely is one of the best.