The military-themed first-person shooter is a crowded genre. There are relatively few on consoles, but on PC, there are approximately sixteen thousand, and they all try for the same quasi-realistic approach pioneered by the early Rainbow Six games. The general idea seems to be escapism and immersion, to make it as easy as possible for the player to pretend he's some kind of black-ops badass.
Spec Ops: The Line takes a different approach. According to producer Greg Kasavin, it's an attempt to bring Take Two's "signature sense of narrative depth" to the military shooter. It focuses on storytelling more than absolute realism, giving you control of a trained military soldier in a scenario that, while fantastic, does not appear to involve aliens, nanotechnology, zombies, mutants or the apocalypse.
I know. It's weird.
Spec Ops is set in the near future. At some point, the city of Dubai was hit with a series of powerful sandstorms, forcing most of the population to abandon it. It's theoretically empty, with many of the buildings and streets completely buried under massive dunes.
You play as Walker, the leader of a small group of U.S. Special Forces troops. Your mission is to investigate what's left of the city and find Colonel John Conrad, the commander of a battalion that was stationed in Dubai before the sandstorms hit. One team, led by a man named Gould, has already entered Dubai to find Conrad, but they've gone MIA.
The sample of gameplay shown at E3 picks up about halfway through the game, when Walker's mission has gotten more complicated. Gould's men have begun showing up dead throughout the city, engaged in pitched battle against the armed refugees that aren't supposed to still be in Dubai. For some reason, Gould seems to have abandoned the mission and turned into some kind of warlord, fighting for territory in the streets. Conrad, on the other hand, is still missing.
Spec Ops is a cover-based infantry shooter, which is a fairly common subgenre at this point. Running and gunning tends to get you perforated, and the game focuses on finding something to hide behind while your NPC squadmates help you out. Both the enemies and your AI-driven allies seem relatively intelligent and competent, allowing you to flank an entrenched opponent or provide cover so somebody else can do the flanking.
At this point, though, the setting is really the star of Spec Ops. Dubai is already the sort of high-concept wonderland that seems like it belongs in a video game, like Las Vegas turned up to 11. When you dump a few hundred million tons of sand on top of it, you get a really weird postapocalyptic setting without the actual apocalypse. There are some surprisingly effective visuals in Spec Ops, such as an area where Walker and his team take on a group of armed refugees in what's left of a choked highway.
You can also occasionally use the sand that destroyed Dubai to your advantage. At one point in the E3 demo, Walker shattered a window to let in a sand dune, allowing his team to climb up the resulting slope. At another point, during the highway gunfight, a grenade in the right place destroyed a weak section of guard rail, drowning an unlucky enemy underneath a few hundred pounds of sand. It looks like the lion's share of the fighting in Spec Ops will be time-tested infantry-shooter gameplay, but the sand offers a couple of options.
The aforementioned narrative depth also plays a role. At various points throughout the game, you have the opportunity to make significant choices that will reportedly affect the rest of the game. The example scenario in the E3 demo involved finding an enemy soldier interrogating a number of refugees, executing those who didn't play ball. One of Walker's teammates advised holding back and letting it happen, avoiding getting into a fight when they didn't know the odds. The other drew a bead on the soldier's head and begged Walker for permission to take the shot, saving the refugees at the possible cost of his team's lives. Which option Walker picked would reportedly have an effect across the rest of the game.
It's odd that Spec Ops seems sort of like a crossover game. Cover-based, relatively realistic military shooters aren't hard to come by, but ones that actually have something resembling narrative depth are nearly unheard of.
Spec Ops: The Line is currently in alpha, so there are months to go before its release. Many things are still undetermined, such as the details concerning its heads-up display. It is very much up in the air right now, so any or all of this could change before the game's release. For now, though, it's another example of how people are making interesting games by bolting elements of one genre onto another. Here, it's taking the usual counterterrorist shooter and giving it a plot.
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