It seems like a month doesn't go by without a game featuring military personnel from a first- or third-person perspective gunning down enemies in the name of freedom and justice. Aside from the shooting aspect, one thing most of them share is the lack of a meaningful story. Despite the name and its lineage, Spec Ops: The Line stands out from the pack by having a story that is really intriguing — and slightly disturbing.
Spec Ops: The Line is set in Dubai, the Middle Eastern playground of the rich. It's also home to some of the deadliest sandstorms in the region. With the politicians and the wealthy having secured safe passage out of the area, there was an international effort to rescue the remaining civilians. Colonel John Konrad and his 33rd Battalion volunteered, but the storms grew worse during the rescue attempt and the group went incommunicado. The government presumed the team was dead until a recent radio transmission said that Konrad and his group were alive but the mission had failed. After receiving the mysterious broadcast, the government sends in a three-man team to go into the remains of Dubai and discover the truth.
Upon starting the game, you'll immediately see the inspirations from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and the film "Apocalypse Now," and those comparisons never let up. You'll question how everything could go wrong while you keep Colonel Konrad, your former commanding officer, on a pedestal. Brutal executions and immolation can generate a stronger sense of disgust here than it has in other games. You'll make decisions that feel like moral choices until you realize that neither choice is less despicable than the other. All the while, you'll witness the mental decay of everyone around you; your enemies seem to have deranged motivations while the psyche of your teammates begins to fade away. The beauty is that the pacing and style of the story doesn't become preachy. The narrative that you encounter in the gameplay and cut scenes doesn't drone on about the idea that war is hell. The plot makes you care about the proceedings instead of giving you an excuse to blow up more stuff.
The story might be daring and uncompromising, but the gameplay is still familiar. This is a third-person, over-the-shoulder shooter straight from the Gears of War mold. You'll only have access to two weapons at a time, and you'll also have a limited cache of grenades and a standard melee attack. There's a cover system with blind fire capabilities, and you can sprint and vault over objects with little to no delay in momentum. Your squadmates go without for a majority of the journey, and they're intelligent enough to call out potential targets and handle the opposition on their own. It's a tried-and-true formula for third-person shooters.
Spec Ops: The Line doesn't play completely by the book, though, as there are a few tweaks to the formula. You can, for example, command your teammates to either stun opponents via flashbang grenades or have them snipe a target of your choosing. That's the full extent of the orders you can give, so don't expect Ghost Recon. Taking cover and administering blind fire can be done on turrets as well as your regular assortment of firearms, so commandeering turrets is advantageous rather than an opportunity to act like a bullet sponge. Environmental kills are also part of the game, as you can shoot out windows to bury the opposition in a torrent of sand. This isn't exactly a new gameplay mechanic, but it's nice to use once in a while. The sandstorms that pass by act as both a destructive element and temporary camouflage during the various firefights. Their occurrences are scripted, but they certainly liven up things.
The straightforward game can be a dividing point. The workmanlike game mechanics mean that you won't find anything wrong with the way guns feel and fire. The limited number of actions you can deliver to your team means that you'll pay attention to your own actions while rarely worrying about your squad's position. The regenerative health system is a staple, and the uncomplicated cover system means you'll be instantly familiar with how everything works.
That'll be fine for some people, but for those looking for something beyond the tweaks mentioned earlier, this title will feel similar to other shooters. This is especially true when you encounter areas with enemies seemingly pouring out of nowhere before things come to a sudden end. Without any deep gameplay outside of the cover system, there isn't enough for the gamer who wants something with a little more meat. Even if you accept the simple nature of the game and its mechanics, the AI is often frustrating. Enemies have a bad habit of running to the same position where their comrades were shot and performing the same actions as their predecessors. Your mostly capable AI partners will sometimes stand in front of you or shoot at the barriers protecting the enemies instead of the actual enemy. They'll even let a soldier or two flank you or get close enough for a melee hit, concentrating their fire on faraway foes instead of the guy rushing at you. It's a well-oiled machine most of the time, so these lapses are puzzling.
The multiplayer is both quirky and familiar at the same time. Character class choices are important because of their various perks, such as increased defense against melee attacks and increased accuracy while on zip lines. What's interesting is that your faction choice also factors into your perks, so your decision is more important than simply figuring out who has a cooler-looking uniform. Levels are packed with plenty of things, like zip lines and rappel ropes, so it feels like there's more to play with in every stage.
There are six modes, including the standard deathmatch and team deathmatch modes. Attrition turns team deathmatch into something similar to Counter-Strike, where you play three rounds and have one life for each round. Rally Point has you holding on to several different points in the map to score as many points as possible before the game ends. Uplink takes the Rally Point concept but reduces the number of points to only one on the map. Then there's Buried, where you have to destroy a number of enemy Vital Points to reveal and destroy the High Value Target.
The various modes are quite fun and the customization options are plentiful, but the whole thing loses its luster because of the leveling system. The system is fine, but lots of the modes and customization items are locked until your character reaches the appropriate level. It rewards grinders more than anything else, and during our review period, most players were in deathmatch while very few were on the other gameplay modes. The leveling system also doesn't do anything about game disconnects, so losing your connection in a match doesn't give you the opportunity to retain any gained experience. It can be frustrating if you gain a significant chunk of XP in one match.
Save for a few flaws here and there, the graphics look very good. There's really not much that can be said for the character design since they're in line with what you'd expect from a game powered by Unreal Engine 3, but they animate well and come equipped with lots of details, especially the guns. With a majority of the game taking place outdoors, the bright yellows of the desert stand out thanks to the lighting and heavy use of particle effects to accentuate the winds. Both the small sand clouds and the massive torrents of sand make the common backdrop feel fresh again. The destroyed city of Dubai manages to retain an odd beauty. The missing persons posters and cryptic graffiti are a reminder of how bad things have gotten, but the glass towers, torn advertising, and modern architecture adds to the magnificence of the city and acts as a good foil for the Middle Eastern desert villages in other war games. Delayed texture loading destroys the mood, and it isn't as bad as it was in some early titles, but it's noticeable in the in-game cut scenes and menus.
Like the graphics, the sound is well done despite a few stumbles. The musical score is quite sparse and doesn't play all the time. When it does, it hits the typical notes of an action movie, but with a more subdued volume than expected. There is a heavy use of licensed tracks with a classic rock vibe, making it reminiscent of Vietnam war movies rather than anything modern. The effects are done well, but it is the voice acting that really impresses. The cast, including some of the more famous actors like Nolan North, delivers performances that are believable and do a great job of showing how everyone descends into madness. It is curse-heavy toward the end, but it feels natural instead of forced. There are times when you'll be asked to keep your voices down, for example, but initiating a manual reload causes you to scream out your actions. The disconnecting lines don't happen too often, but they lessen the experience when they do occur.
For what it's worth, Spec Ops: The Line looks good and sounds a little better than your average shooter. The shooting mechanics throw in a few changes but otherwise perform just like its contemporaries in the market. The multiplayer is more geared toward the grinder than the average player, but otherwise, it works well enough. What really helps the game to transcend is the story. Dark and unapologetic, it is the type of tale rarely seen in war games, and the gripping story will stick with you even after you've played the title multiple times to get all of the possible outcomes. As a complete package, Spec Ops: The Line is highly recommended.
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