Spec Ops: The Line Review: Create Your Own Truth
Spec Ops the Line is the first major title from developer Yager, and has had a rough development cycle with some significant delays during its creation. This lead to me having fairly tepid expectations for what Spec Ops The Line would offer, and its extremely generic appearance in adverts and gameplay sections that I had watched did not exactly help to make it stand out from all other modern shooting games in my mind. The major thing that Spec Ops had in its favour was that it was drawing inspiration from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and I was hoping that it would be able to include aspects of Apocalypse Now in its setting, though I was never confidant that Yager would succeed with doing these sources of inspiration much justice. Yager managed to far surpass my expectations by not only crafting a fun third person shooter but they have also provided one of the most interesting and powerful gaming experiences of 2012.
Spec Ops The Line stands out thanks to the strength of its storyline and tightly focused narrative. You play the role of Captain Walker, a delta squad commander leading a 3 man recon team into Dubai. The once affluent and decadent Dubai has been consumed by the desert sands, leading to the destruction of its society and population 6 months before the start of the game. "The Damned" 33rd battalion of the US army under the command of Colonel John Konrad, defied their orders and refused to abandon the city without evacuating it. The rising sand storms had cut off the 33rd from communicating with the outside world, and they were considered lost. However, a distress signal from Konrad has been detected, and Walker is sent in to investigate the status of the missing soldiers. This set-up is not overly different from any other third person shooters, but the story quickly takes some turns that enthral the audience. Things are very grim in Dubai, with rogue soldiers fighting against native insurgents in a battle over supplies and resources. The city has become a living hell and Walker finds himself and his team trapped right in the middle of it. The Line explores the dark side of war, showing that there are few heroics and a lot of suffering, not shirking from some extremely powerful and dark scenes. The plot has some amazing twists, and the game puts a tight focus on the affect that the actions they are forced to take have on Walker and his team. Its a personal story with a lot of impact, and it is a fascinating journey.
The characters are humanised in a way that few to no other shooters have managed to do, and the visceral portrayal of war and its consequences that The Line dives into is captivating as a result. Dubai itself seems like an entity in the story, with its abandoned streets and the symbols of its lost decadence. The game asks plenty of hard questions and is not afraid to explore dark themes in its story telling. Spec Ops The Line shows how shooters should be telling their stories, and is a narrative triumph. It also manages to avoid the increasingly simplistic morality bars that many games with decision moments are opting for. The game does not tell you which decision is the "right" one at any given point, and the consequences are often not what was intended in a really organic way. It is the moral quagmire that Spec Ops puts the player in, and the way in which it contextualises its scenario that makes Spec Ops the Line a special experience that demands attention.
Spec Ops The Line begins as a fairly dreary looking desert location, but once you get into Dubai it becomes a personable and colourful world full of light and some great locations. The sand is not as good looking as the extraordinary Uncharted 3 or Journey, but its contrast with the glittering glass buildings of the city is a great sight to see. The game also uses colour to enhance some of its major moments and events, with green and red having powerful connotations with certain scenes. The game also has some really impressive interior level designs, with great use of colour bringing the localities to life. Character models are also well detailed, and I especially enjoyed the physical decline of Walker as the game progresses towards its climax. Spec Ops The Line also has plenty of visual problems, despite its aesthetic successes. Animations are very stiff and don't flow well, with awkward jank and unnatural movements being far too common. Slow texture loading and weak particle effects take away from the strong visuals in other areas, making for a mixed visual package overall. The game also does a poor job with some of its big set piece moments thanks to bad explosion effects, and sandstorms look remarkably tame considering the premise of the plot. The cutscenes are also compressed and look downright bad at times, making me wonder why they didnt just use the in-game engine for them.
The music of Spec Ops The Line is extremely effective. The music is crucial for the games atmosphere, with rock music creating a pumping and powerful feel for the early part of the game. Licensed music is used to set some scenes in a really intelligent way, and the way the rock tracks give way to more sombre acoustic tracks in the late game really fits with the declining state of Delta squad and enhances the plot of the story. Besides the soundtrack setting an incredible tone throughout the progression of the game, the voice acting holds up its end of the bargain. Nolan North plays Walker and does a great job in the role, managing to endear what is seemingly an extremely boring and generic character, and make his decisions throughout the game matter all the more. All the characters are done well, with Konrad really standing out as a strong driver for the game with an exceptional voice performance.
Spec Ops is less ground breaking in its gameplay than its narrative. Yager played things relatively safe, allowing Spec Ops to rest on a control scheme that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who plays third person shooters. You dive into cover, pop and shoot and blind fire when its required, fairly run of the mill stuff. The weapon selection is standard and the enemies are all just guys with different weapons, including the odd heavy enemy. The gameplay is still very satisfying, though the controls could be more responsive. I had a few occasions were Walker would jump out of cover without me wanting that to happen, or failing to get into cover despite my button prompts. The game also has a team dynamic, as you can give orders to your squad mates, though this is limited to circumstantial stuff most of the time. The promised sand mechanics are really completely immaterial, and completely situational depending on where you are in the game, but The Line is a completely competent shooter with some extremely fun gameplay. Walker is very vulnerable to damage, and enemies will rip you apart in a few shots. They also get killed very quickly, and this wakes the game fast and satisfying as shoot-outs do not drag out too long and enemies are never bullet sponges, making for intense combat.
Spec Ops is a well designed game, though Yager made no great innovations or risks with its core gameplay. The weapons all work as intended and the enemies serve their purpose. The A.I. is questionable at points, especially with the heavy foes who don't bother using cover and just kind of walk straight towards you. Even on higher difficulties the enemies don't behave in a particularly tactical way. Its not a big problem, but the game would have longevity if the enemies were a bit smarter with the way they attack the player. The multiplayer is fairly weak, lacking the drive of the single player narrative with a focus on its pedestrian mechanics, and can be safely skipped as far as I am concerned. Spec Ops has some very good level design, especially with the way some areas make use of vertical shoot outs. The narratives pacing is strong and the game has no major technical issues that I experienced.
Spec Ops The Line is a unique shooter thanks to the strength of its storytelling. It explores what war can do to those who are involved in it, and tells a grim story which will captivate many that experience it. The game has solid shooting with staple mechanics. It works well, though its no were near as fluid or smooth as Gears of War or Uncharted. Spec Ops is short, running for around 5 hours at the high end of things, but its a sweet experience that is not about saving the world, but the consequences of your actions and makes killing people mean something. In a genre of so many mindless shooters this fact alone makes The Line worth experiencing. However, its hard to recommend at full price due to its short length and relative lack of replayability. Having said that, its is essential as a rental and is worth purchasing when its price gets reduced. A familiar framework surrounds a great core that demands a playthrough, despite lacking the polish of the major budget games.
- Well written story with good pacing and an interesting twist on player agency
- Lovely music that perfectly synchronises with the tone of the game
- Interesting environments with good level design
- Enemies and the player take damage fast
- Stiff animations and some control issues
- Relatively poor A.I.
- Short and unpolished in some areas
- A shooter that hates shooters
- 7/10 - Good