Review: Yager’s new third-person shooter SPEC OPS: THE LINE tries to tell a serious story about how good soldiers can do very bad things. But itdoesn’t quite hit the mark…
What do you reckon would actually happen if Dubai, one of the richest, most populous cities of the Arab world, was buried under a colossal sandstorm? If a famous general and his entire US Army division went in to help with the relief efforts – against orders from on high, no less – and subsequently disappeared without a trace? If thousands of Emirates citizens were thought to have lost their lives?
Yager’s third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line definitely features one of the most distinctive premises in quite some time for yet another game ostensibly about angry men riddling each other with bullets. It’s both unsettlingly real and so far off the wall it’s nosedived into the floor.
There’s a lot of potentially juicy material in there given this is a story the writers have openly stated is supposed to make you think. The gulf between East and West; the divisions between the haves and have-nots; the suggestion the American military have no idea what they’re doing out there; the chilling effect battlefield combat has on the human psyche. Whether or not you believe videogames need an Apocalypse Now, Yager step up to the plate with a look on their faces suggesting Spec Ops: The Line is intended to be serious business. The singleplayer campaign is pretty short, but still manages to pack in madness, copious helpings of profanity and some truly disturbing acts of violence.
You play Delta Force Captain Martin Walker who has been sent into the ruins of Dubai at the head of a three-man team to confirm whether there are any survivors on the ground and then get the hell out, pronto. It quickly becomes apparent the US soldiers you thought were dead are actually putting on their own version of Lord of the Flies, where anyone who fluffs their lines gets a summary execution, with multiple factions locked in pitched battle over the city’s corpse.
Walker has a history with the General in command, however, and decides he has to find out what on Earth led the man to do this. The deeper the squad go, the crazier things become, to the point it starts to look like a toss-up as to whether Walker’s going to be able to save himself and his men, let alone anyone else.
Is Spec Ops: The Line videogaming’s first war film? It’s definitely worlds away from the jingoistic pantomime of every new Call of Duty (“That dirty terrorist is going to detonate the nuke!” “Oh no he isn’t!” “Oh yes he is!” etc.) or the idiot posturing of Killzone. At its best The Line is arguably a far more gripping experience than any blockbuster wargame made so far.
While it’s relatively respectful of the military, it’s often hauntingly grim. The later battles are Killzone 2 with the monkey kicked out of the writer’s chair, frantic exchanges of fire where death comes in seconds if you’re not careful, and several key narrative setpieces have a hideous lunatic grandeur to them that’d do Francis Ford Coppola proud.
But Spec Ops: The Line takes way too long to find its feet, both as a story and as a game. It can’t seem to deal with how utterly ridiculous its premise really is; they’re sinking cities with a giant sandstorm! There’s barely any attempt to ground the story: where are the Predator drones that would be looking for the missing American soldiers? The Emirates or other Arab troops mounting a rescue? Scavengers picking over the wreckage?
All this gets five seconds’ exposition in the intro at best. And the quality wavers wildly in places, with some horrendous difficulty spikes and moments of fairly crude level design. It’s a pretty simple affair, under the hood, like the moral choices: for all they’re reasonably well-written only one of them matters in mechanical terms.
Might I request a flashbang?
To be fair, the mechanicals are largely pretty solid. We’re talking relatively standard for a third-person shooter, with Walker able to switch between two weapons and a belt of grenades, roadie run, snap to or peek round cover and all the rest of it. While you can’t directly order your squadmates around, you can single out targets, get them to heal each other or request a flashbang should you get pinned down. And while they can do everything you can, bar using mounted turrets or take out breakable pieces of the environment, most of the time you have to trust that they’ll keep their heads out of the line of fire.
Given the gene pool from which most AI allies spring is largely choked with weeds and pond slime, it’s a surprise to realise your teammates are actually pretty smart. There are definitely moments of frustration as they both charge ahead and promptly get cut down to bleed out before you can catch up, but by and large they can take care of themselves as well as leave you enough targets to make you feel useful. While the difficulty spikes are painfully sharp, if you can remember to tell your buddies: “no, shoot that guy instead,” then things do get significantly easier. It’s no coincidence the most aggravating section in the game comes when the three of you get separated.
Give it time and Spec Ops: The Line does begin to come into its own. Nolan North as Walker does sound a little too much like Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake in the opening chapters, but once everything goes to hell he really settles into the role. Along with the more open, genuinely challenging firefights in the later stages (as opposed to patently unfair monster closets) it’s immensely gratifying – and not a little scary – to hear a videogame make good use of swearing.
Shock and awe
These are frightened men fighting to hold on to their sanity as much as their lives, unlike Killzone 2′s pathetic, juvenile heroes. Again, the script is nowhere near as complex as the developers seem to think, but despite the awkward opening chapters it does eventually manage the kind of power most gun porn can only dream of, openly skewering Call of Duty: Modern Warfare not once but twice and with multiple endings that each feel as if they offer some real closure.
But even given time the game only just scrapes into very good. It’s a solid third-person shooter, but nothing exceptional, open to all the usual exploits, not least too much casually popping off enemies as if the whole thing were a giant game of Whack-A-Mole. It talks about choice but although in theory its moral dilemmas are far more mature, thought-provoking and complex than something like The Witcher 2, in practice The Line still frequently railroads you down a straight line and proves much less polished, coherent or consistent. And despite the stunning art design and one or two jaw-dropping visual moments, the fairly stilted, jerky animations, the number of low-detail textures and the copy-pasted scenery are constant reminders this is only Yager’s second game.
You want to applaud Yager for what they’ve done here, but while their failings don’t break the game, they do stand out. You don’t want people thinking about how the game trapped them alone in a tiny room with heavily armed enemies attacking from all directions. You want them to come away reeling with shock and awe. Spec Ops: The Line gets closer to that than most popcorn videogames have ever managed, but for too many people this will still just be a snack you can eat between one Call of Duty theme park ride and the next – and while this is still a very worthy shooter, it’s hard not to see that as a failing of sorts.
Spec Ops: The Line, from Take Two Interactive, Yager and Darkside Game Studios, is available on the Xbox 360, PS3 (reviewed) and PC now in the US and on 29th June in Europe.