Spec Ops: The Line Review (Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
[This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game]
Spec Ops: The Line is publisher 2K’s first foray into the realm of modern military shooters, and despite stepping into the fray with goliaths such as Modern Warfare and Battlefield, Spec Ops takes a different approach and side-steps the usual clichéd global settings and most important of all, the stereotypical Middle-Eastern and Russian extremist villains. How does it fare as one of the most interesting shooters this year?
The plot follows Captain Walker, a Delta operative, and his two man squad as they entire Dubai after a cataclysmic sandstorm has essentially swallowed up the whole city. Upon arrival, they realise that the survivors are hostile and the Damned 33rd, led by Colonel Jon Konrad, has gone rogue after being ordered to abandon the city.
With a lunatic broadcasting music and madness over the city, the CIA dragging Walker and his men deep into an already volatile situation and the 33rd standing ready to kill anyone, Dubai is a melting pot of flawed ideologies and insanity, but who will be left standing when the dust settles.?
It may bear more than just a passing resemblance to the plot of The Heart of Darkness, and Apocalypse now of course, but it’s one of the very few shooters to look at the personal war the character’s are waging, and depicts the visceral horror and tragedy of war. It’s safe to say it pulls no punches.
Spec Ops’ story is intense. It’s clear from the outset that rules and the codes of honour that soldiers live by have been long forgotten by the time Walker and his men arrive. The player will experience this first hand and will be forced to make moral decisions based on whether it’s the right thing to do, or duty demands it. This is The Line the title speaks about.
These situations become increasingly more violent and shocking as the game progresses, where the player will start to question the motives behind their actions; are they driven by rage and anger, or guilt and honour?
All of this leads to a series of varied cut-scenes, reflecting the choices you’ve made. It may not affect the overall outcome, but it’s a series of subtle difference that shape the game. The outcomes tend to leave a lasting image, and that’s where Spec Ops is at its strongest.
Does this make the game replayable? To a certain degree it does, and with multiple endings, it could be worth playing through to experience every cut-scene and each ending in a different way.
Spec Ops plays, and handles, like many 3rd person shooters and doesn’t bring anything exceptionally new to the market, but it does manage to make a robust and useable series of mechanics. Thankfully the cover and movement systems are solid and keep in line with the most popular third person shooters, Gears of War 3 being the best example, and it complements the gunplay.
Players can cut through hundreds of enemy soldiers in set-piece after set-piece, but there are some nice touches to the standard fare of third person shooting. Scoring a headshot, for example, slows time for a couple of seconds allowing the player to redirect their fire to another target. Work fast enough and you can bring down a whole squad in this way.
Thankfully the AI is more than competent. Ordering your team to attack targets is intuitive and they respond quite well in every situation, but they’re not overpowered killing machines. The enemy is smart enough to flank and given the chance and use grenades to flush the player out.
The choice of weaponry is quite lacklustre, obviously focusing on realistic guns, but there’s a distinct lack of weight behind them. Aside from rate of fire, it’s hard to notice any real difference from one rifle to the next and they just don’t have that visceral punch they need, and there are one too many on-the-rail sections with mounted guns; a staple of the genre at this point.
The game looks great, there’s no denying that. Dubai’s beauty has been reduced to sand and rubble, and is essentially a ghost town littered with the dying, the dead and the crazy. It’s also a game that has a love affair with zip-lines and these moments are used to allow the game to transition from one area to the next, and also to show off some of the impressive vistas on offer.
A great deal of the imagery is harrowing, but it’s also very detailed. If you pay attention to your surroundings, there are subtle clues that tell the player more about the situation in Dubai.
There are great visual touches that are also practical in combat situations, explosives will send sand and dust into the air for example. This obscures the players view slightly, but it also stuns and disorientates the enemy.
Despite claims that sand would play an integral part in shaping the battlefield, it’s actually quite static and scripted. While situations allow the player to decide to use environmental attacks or not, it’s not a huge part of gameplay and becomes more of an aesthetic touch that looks great and moves like you would expect.
The sandstorms are used to great effect, creating tension as you battle it out in the middle of a sandy blizzard and adding a sense of urgency in parts of the narrative.
Each enemy type is varied and distinctive enough to set them apart from their comrades and the character animation is spot on. It’s implementation creates realistic reactions to bullet hits, grenades and movement around (and over) cover, not to mention the frequent use of fast ropes and ziplines.
Beyond the visuals, the voice acting is great and in a very surprising way. Nolan North (the man of many voices) provides the voice of Captain Walker, and there’s an evolution in the dialogue of the main characters as the game progresses, enhancing the mood and tone and there were no instances of poor acting, which is a credit to the team and the scripting, bolstered by a stellar soundtrack inspired by the war movies of the 70s and 80s.
It’s clear that Spec Ops: The Line draws inspiration from classic war movies such as Apocalypse Now and Spec Ops follows in a similar vein without the need to preach to the player. While the game is linear, the story does a fantastic job of drawing the player through each set-piece and to its conclusion.
It’s not the longest shooter, coming in at around 7-10 hours depending on difficulty and skill, but there’s some replayability thanks to moral choices throughout the game and collectibles if that’s your thing, but on the story front it’s one of the most compelling shooters to grace consoles in some time.
Beyond the campaign, there’s a chance to extend the life of the game through online multiplayer. Five on five competitive matches are the order of the day and it does present some interesting game modes.
The standard deathmatch modes are present with a series of objective based game modes, the most entertaining side of online play, but it’s not the greatest online game ever. Despite the modes managing to capture the dusty theme of the game, they are only slight variations on game modes we know and love.
It’s in the multiplayer maps that the much touted ‘sand dynamic’ comes into play, with enough opportunities to take out that camping sod hiding in the corner leaving them entombed. Sand storms plague online play, and create a little tension by obscuring the player’s view, but along with the flowing sand, it becomes gimmicky.
Map design is quite symmetrical and somewhat bland with ziplines dotted rather liberally throughout, creating a risk vs. rewards scenario for players travelling across the battlefield. It’s a nice touch, but not a game saving mechanic.
Despite the persistent character creation, it’s not an exceptionally deep character development system. The guns lack any form of customisation, and the same lack of serious distinction between guns rears its head again.
There are some benefits to choosing specific class types, from the sniper’s invisibility to the gunner’s armoured body, and there’s a noticeable attempt to match current squad shooter Ghost Recon Future Soldier but it doesn’t manage to reach the same standard.
Spec Ops online will provide a little distraction, but it doesn’t have the long term appeal that the established front runners on the market have. The mechanics are little more flaky than they are in the campaign, and quite wooden.
It doesn’t detract from the campaign in any way, but perhaps the development time would have been better served on shinying up the campaign a little more. There are better multiplayer games out there, and chances are you’ll play those instead.