Spec Ops: The Line hands-on preview

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After spending more than an hour playing through a sizable chunk of Yager Developments’ Spec Ops: The Line last week, I found that a peculiar sensation had set in, one that I don’t typically associate with my gaming habits. It was such an unfamiliar sensation to go with a game that it frankly took my a few hours to pin a word to the state the demo left me in. I was drained. Emotionally drained.

What Does It All Mean?

It’s hard to say how the game’s full story will feel as it unfolds in sequence, but there’s no denying that Spec Ops is filled with moments designed to make you feel truly uncomfortable. Like “walking along a narrow path that doubles as a gore-soaked mass grave” uncomfortable. I’ve had plenty of games leave me feeling uneasy, but this was markedly different. When the final scene in the demo played — a scene, I might add, that I’ve been asked to only hint at — I was left staring at the screen for a few minutes, almost speechless.

The cynical perspective on Spec Ops is that it’s just courting controversy. We’re talking about a game in which American soldiers, albeit AWOL ones, are the enemy you’re frequently tasked with gunning down. The actual play is familiar enough, a cover-based third-person shooter, sort of a cross in feel between Gears of War and Uncharted, only with some light squad tactics thrown in as well. It doesn’t redefine gameplay for a new generation or anything like that, but it plays well enough.

I’d like to think, however, that calling out Spec Ops for its controversial and heavy subject matter is missing the point. What’s wrong with having narrative aspirations that extend deeper than “let’s make people hoot with glee while they blow sh*t up!”? Just because games generally haven’t done so well with that sort of thing before, it doesn’t mean they can’t. Just look at BioShock. It’s hard to say until the full narrative tapestry of Spec Ops is unfurled, but the story that I’ve been shown so far certainly nods in the direction of a more thoughtful — and thought-provoking — tale.

A Journey Into The Heart Of Darkness

For those who don’t have any background, here’s a rough synopsis. Players commandeer Captain Martin Walker as he leads his three-man Delta Force squad into the sandstorm-shattered city of Dubai. The trio is there to aid in the relief efforts and locate Colonel John Konrad, the highly decorated officer who commands the so-called Damned 33rd. As Walker and his team explore deeper into Dubai, they discover that Konrad is off the reservation and he’s taken at least some of his men with him. Those who chose not to follow their commander are dealt with harshly, as much of the game’s chilling scenery reveals.

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I’m going to skip spoiling any more of the story than that, and instead share the bits of the demo that continue to stand out in my mind. Like the part where Walker and his men look out over a sand-covered freeway filled with wrecked cars and lightposts that have been converted into gallows for those who defied Konrad. A big firefight unfolds here, beneath the many dangling corpses. A firefight that ends with the Delta Force squad walking slowly through a mass grave housed in a shallow valley of sand that is walled in on both sides by large concrete slabs.

At another point, our Delta Force squad spies the CIA agent who’s been helping them as he’s tortured and pumped for information by some of Konrad’s men. Lugo, one of the men under your command, wants to take out the captors and rescue the G-man. Adams, your other teammate, pushes instead to let the torture scene unfold so you can sneak past and rescue some nearby civilians. Konrad’s men had been using the civvies to cajole the CIA agent into answering questions; when that plan fails, he orders the innocents killed.

You’re presented with a choice here, and more importantly, you’re siding with one of your teammates over another. Spec Ops has a linear narrative with multiple variations on how the end can play out. Yager isn’t commenting on exactly how that will work, but it’s been strongly suggested that Walker’s relationship with his squad and the deteriorating mindset of all three men plays a key role in how everything turns out.

War Is Hell, Proven Yet Again

The final section of the demo really drives home the idea that, as hardened as Walker and his men might be, they’re facing some horrific, psyche-changing ordeals in Spec Ops. The Delta squad comes to an elevated position overlooking a sizable chunk of Konrad’s forces, both ground troops and armored vehicles. In a game filled with choices, this is a rare moment that strips it all away. You are badly outnumbered and simply can’t survive a frontal assault. There is, however, a nearby mortar and a healthy supply of white phosphorous rounds.

Walker and his squad have already borne witness before this moment to Konrad’s use of white phosphorous, a highly flammable incendiary munition that, when fired from a mortar, will slowly burn affected targets alive. In the sequence that plays out, you control Walker as he directs the locations of each strike using a nearby laptop. Throughout the sequence, Walker’s reflection is clearly visible on the screen’s surface, with the man’s haunted eyes staring back at him as he condemns fellow American soldiers to death.

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That’s just the start, however. The entire point of laying waste to those forces was to clear a path. Once the strike is concluded, Walker and his men must advance slowly through the white phosphorous-spawned graveyard. Half-alive soldiers cry for help in their American accents as they pull themselves along the sandy ground using destroyed limbs. It’s horrifying.

In a game where ammo is at a premium, I felt compelled while walking through the scene to expend valuable bullets on putting the dying troops out of their misery. Sure, it was a preview, so who cares about resources? I know for sure, however, that the next time I’m walking through that scene, presumably in the final retail version of the game, I’ll do the exact same thing.

The demo ended shortly after that with a brief cutscene that reveals there’s more fallout from the attack than Walker and his men witnessed during their walk through the white phosphorous graveyard. I’ll say no more.

It’s impossible to say how moments like these will help to propel the overarching narrative in the final game, but there’s no denying the simple gut-punching power of each one taken on its own. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m really pulling for Spec Ops to deliver on its promise of a game story that breaks from the usual conventions in order to deliver something with more significance.

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