It was a good dozen or so years ago, but I still fondly remember sitting down with my buddy to play Spec Ops games on the PSOne and the Dreamcast. They weren’t what you would consider “quality” games, but they did feature local co-op gameplay that was simple yet fun. That co-op gameplay really was the only remarkable thing about them—that and the discounted price tag. They weren’t bad, but they were generic and instantly forgettable. If I had written a review of those games, it would not have been pretty. Spec Ops: The Line is anything but.
The original Spec Ops games for the PC were a different story and featured a higher level of quality. Still, it was a franchise that was not crying out for a revival, and yet here we are. German-based developer Yager Entertainment takes over the duties of development under the publishing banner of 2K Games. The result is a game that shares only the most basic and fundamental of similarities to the previous titles in the series. But that doesn’t really matter, because Spec Ops: The Line is a legitimately great game on its own right, and one that will not be quickly forgotten.
There is no connection between any of the stories in the previous Spec Ops games and that in The Line. It is a totally unique and original plot that has more in common with several war movies than war games. Apocalypse Now is an especially obvious inspiration, but it is just one of many influences that is drawn upon to present one simple idea that gaming has rarely explored: War is hell.
The Smell of Sand in the Morning
Spec Ops: The Line takes place in the very near future, but months after a series of devastating sandstorms rendered the city of Dubai uninhabitable—or at least mostly uninhabitable. A distress call from the city leads a group of three Delta Force operatives to investigate.
You step into the combat boots of Captain Martin Walker (brought to life by Nolan North, the voice of Nathan Drake from the Uncharted games), and from your first moment in the ruined city you know something is horribly wrong. Streets are lined with hanged corpses, and the survivors are living under the brutal regime of Colonel Konrad who controls the unit known as the Damned 33rd.
Despite orders to the contrary, the 33rd decided to stay in Dubai and try to help the people, but their rule comes at an extremely high price. The deeper Walker and his crew get, the more disastrous their mission proves to be and the more questions about why you are there at all, and who is really the bad guy surface.
The Line does not offer the typical “let the bodies hit the floor” mentality that most war shooters offer. It forces you into situations where there is no “best case” solution, and generally your actions lead to tragic, and sometimes even horrific results. Each new chapter feels more and more oppressive, and the consequences of your actions continue to mount up. Tensions amongst your team are strained, tempers flare, and even the physical toll you take is cumulative.
The game wants you to feel the weight of your decisions–even if they aren’t really your decisions. The Line presents you with the illusion of choice, but the truth is that it is a very linear game that takes you throughout the remains of Dubai—or a very idealized version of Dubai, but it works.
Dubai is a city that is becoming more and more opulent as its wealth increases. The buildings are new, the locations are modern, and the largest building in the world is now located in the heart of the city. The Line uses that opulence as a counterpoint to the almost crushing sense of desperation that the survivors of Dubai face as you continue through ruined night clubs, offices, shopping districts, and even a yacht graveyard that used to be a thriving dock.
In this contrast come some of the best looking visuals on this generation of consoles. The art design is amazing, and there will be more than a few times where you will simply take a moment to stare at the skyline of the once magnificent city, or gaze at a once beautiful building shattered and partially reclaimed by the desert . But then you will come across a ditch filled with rotting corpses, flies buzzing overhead, and that graphical prowess takes on a far more sinister feel.
The game wants to confront you with the horror of war. It comes across more than a little heavy handed at times, but there is also a dark vibe that continues to push you forward to see what will happen next. The level design, while never straying far from that of a traditional third-person shooter, manages to keep things varied and interesting throughout. The pacing is handled extremely well, and there are rarely any dull moments.
It all leads to an ending that will be somewhat controversial and leave people talking. I could spend paragraphs going over the pros and cons of the finale, but it does have a definite sense of completion. Spec Ops: The Line is all about the presentation and the story, and it does not fail to deliver. It is a bit much at times as it hammers home the horror, the horror, but it is a somewhat fresh and original take in the saturated war shooter genre.
Hell Hath No Fury Like a Broken Cover System
The controls are standard third-person mechanics. They move well enough, and the combat is furious and intense. Cover needs to be chosen wisely, as some of it can be destroyed if you stay there too long. Enemies are also dogged and determined, and will rarely stay in the same place long enough for you to get a bead on them easily.
The enemies are tough too, and generally armored. They still only take a few shots, but you’ll need to practice your headshots—and be prepared to replay sections again and again until you learn the smartest pathway through a heavily defended area.
Joining you on your trip are two other Delta Force members, both of which you can use to your advantage. Choose an enemy and you can mark them for your teammates to kill, and at certain points, you will get a notification that your squad is in position to throw a flashbang. This marking isn’t quite as intuitive as some other squad based games, but it is best to think of it as a bonus rather than a necessary function of the gameplay. Most of the game you don’t have to worry about them at all, and they are balanced smartly, so they neither dominate the encounters, nor do they become a problem you have to constantly fix.
The cover system, however, is flawed and it will get you killed. Often. When in cover it is fine. You can blind fire, duck out from cover, and you will generally spend much of your time ducked behind a wall or car. The problems begin when you attempt to switch from one piece of cover to the next.
You can’t just push right and hit a button to roll to the cover on the right, you need to adjust the camera, line it up precisely, then wait for the icon to do a roll. The same is true for running up to the next piece of cover, but once you are running you will need to hit the sprint button again to make sure you slide into cover, otherwise you will be left standing up in the open.
Trying to run back is an issue too, as you awkwardly stand and sluggishly attempt to move to another piece of cover, which will regularly get you killed. This generally isn’t a major issue until the later levels where you need to use the cover constantly—there is no other option.
Spec Ops: The Line(s)
As you might expect, there is a multiplayer component. It features all the trappings you might expect: deathmatch, team deathmatch, objective modes, and plenty of unlockable perks and weapons. You can level up, prestige, and there are also classes, each with their own abilities that can help your team.
The games are fun and the levels are well designed, but there is the inescapable sense of familiarity here. If you are looking for a new third-person shooter to try online then Spec Ops: The Line is a quality offering, but it is nothing you haven’t seen before.
There are also no co-op gameplay modes—at least not yet. For a squad-based game, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that it should feature an online component of some sort. A horde/survival mode would fit in nicely here, but its absence doesn’t hurt the game.
Yager has also promised that online co-op play in the campaign is coming via an update. That would have been nice to have at launch, but the campaign is such a singular experience that it would be best to play it alone at first anyway before you go back and replay it with friends. Again though, you can’t criticize a game for not having certain things while it offers so much else.
Spec Ops: The Line is a step towards maturity for war games. Make no mistake, it is a minor step that beats you over the head with the horrors of war presented through tailor made shock-filled moments, but it is an fresh look at the disturbing side of combat. There are even moments where it veers towards survival horror, but it is grounded in reality instead of monster attacks. That makes it more disturbing and horrific to a degree, but it may also make it more interesting.
This game has the potential to create a lot of controversy, and there will be those that think the blood and gore are disrespectful and maybe even gaudy–and to a degree, it is. It is a simplistic look at the cost of war wrapped in an action packed shooter like many that have come before it. But it is so well paced that the game will keep you glued to it. The drama won’t be for everyone, but the psychological terror is fascinating and beautifully rendered.
There are a few design issues holding this game back and the multiplayer won’t blow anyone away, but The Line is still a superior experiment in narrative gameplay. It helps that the game is beautifully bleak and imaginatively designed.
Spec Ops: The Line is one of the best games of the year, and the franchise that was primarily known for its price tag is likely to be remembered for its incredibly mature and disturbing nature. There have been so many games out recently that have added so much blood and gore that it is hard to shock gamers anymore, and yet The Line still manages a way to push the envelope and try new things. And it is an experiment worth trying out.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by 2K Games)