Spec Ops: The Line Preview – The Horror! The Horror!

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The Spec ops games have a bit of a chequered history. The critically acclaimed first games in the series, by Blacklight developer Zombie Games established Spec Ops as a premier tactical shooter franchise – but subsequent games bearing the Spec Ops name have been poor-scoring, low budget affairs. It’s been ten years since the release of the last game in series – so it’s not a stretch to say that Spec Ops has all but faded in obscurity.

A Spec Ops game under development at Rockstar, cancelled in 2005, further plunged the series in to the depths of irrelevance. That made the 2009 revelation that a new Spec Ops, subtitled “The Line” from German developer Yager Development seem an odd choice – but the announcement was accompanied by a gameplay trailer and an intriguing demonstration at E3 in 2010. It’s been relatively quiet on the Spec Ops front since then, bar a few trailers and the recent release of the game’s single player demo on Xbox Live and the PSN.

I’ve had the opportunity to play through an extended section of the game’s single player campaign, and I’m happy to say that there’s more to the game than the demo would have you believe.

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Set in a near future Dubai, one ravaged by cataclysmic, biblical sand-storms, Spec Ops: The Line comes across as your average, cinematic nearly generic scripted and linear team-based third-person cover-based shooter. You’ll shoot a variety of enemies in the face with an impressive array of real-world guns from behind conveniently located things to hide behind, occasionally throwing a stun, sticky or frag grenade in to the mix or hiding behind the relative safety of an infinite-ammo turret before moving to another area to do it all over again. It’s fun, even if it does feel familiar.  It tries to distinguish itself from the countless other games that share its genre in a number of ways; the most immediate being its apocalyptic depiction of Dubai – no longer a place for tourists to buy cheap gold and handbags, but a desolate, uninhabitable wasteland submerged in sand and permeated by death. It’s certainly a nice change from the countless recreations of a destroyed New York we’ve been subjected to – in both film and videogames – over the last few years

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Spicing up the familiar gameplay is an interesting dynamic weather system, that’ll conjure up huge consumptive sandstorms in the middle of open gunfights –  and interesting gameplay modifier making enemies obviously significantly harder to see, and forcing you to find cover of some sort.You’re almost always surrounded by sand – even when you’re entrenched deep within a building – and you can use it  to your advantage, often being presented with opportunities to shoot the windows that hold the deathly dust at bay, deluging unfortunately placed enemies under an avalanche of terra not-so-firma. your squad comes in to play, and you can issue a few very light tactical commands their way; having them concentrate fire on a specific enemy, or stun a party with a flashbang – but that’s it really. don’t expect anything like Rainbow Six.

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The game’s biggest differentiator though is its narrative. Based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops sees the player take on the role of Delta Force’s Captain Martin Walker – a seemingly one dimensional decorated, gung-ho US army dude. Voiced by the ubiquitous Nolan North, he sounds like a sombre, humourless version of Nathan Drake. Apt, because the gunplay itself reminds me most of Uncharted – just with the humour and light-heartedness sucked out of it.  He and his squadmates – the mouthy Lugo and the straight-as-an arrow Adams – are sent in to Dubai through the sand-wall that envelopes the fallen city  to look for the presumed dead 33rd Battalion, a group of soldiers lead by the decorated war hero John Konrad after a weak distress signal 6 months after their disappearance punctures the silence created by the engulfing sandstorms.

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It soon becomes apparent that not only is the 33rd alive – but they’ve disobeyed orders and gone rogue – establishing themselves as the law amongst the thousands of refugees still trapped within the city. As they share the same source material, the narrative feels a lot like a modernised retelling of Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic Apocalypse Now – and like Heart of Darkness ably explores the darkness within mankind and the duality of human nature; pretty heavy stuff stuff for a game where you do little else other than shoot at people. Moments of levity (because when you’re surrounded by misery and death, there needs to be somebody cracking jokes) are provided – perhaps too often – by Lugo and the quite probably insane Radioman.

At certain points in the game you’re presented with choices of a moral or ethical nature that leave you – in the role of Walker – questioning your own humanity, and may impact the story. One scene in particular – among the many that demonstrate the horrors of war and the potential evil that people harbour –   left me feeling uneasy, nearly sick to my stomach. It’s this, the gruelling, dark examination of peoples’ psyches under duress that left me wanting more when the preview cut cruelly out – just two chapters from the game’s end.

I need to know how it all ends.

Unfortunately, the preview code contained none of the multiplayer – but developer Yager describes the multiplayer as one that expands upon the single-player experience. The single player itself is certainly worth playing – and even though its sparkless gameplay might not do enough to elevate it beyond the dozens of other shooters releasing this year, its compelling narrative gives it an edge.

Last Updated: May 25, 2012

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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