Moments of deep emotion and realism are scattered throughout
During this generation of consoles we have witnessed the explosion and saturation of one sub-genre in particular – the modern military shooter. You know what I’m talking about; games like Call of Duty, where you play as a soldier who’s part of a highly trained, highly skilled, elite military group. You’re surrounded by manly, bravado-filled combatants; the kind who shoot first and ask questions later. You take down bad guys, all in the knowledge that you’re making the world a safer and better place.
Yet these games never ask serious questions, or reflect upon the larger and more complex issues surrounding warfare. Instead, you’re given an orgy of violence, manly-bluster and testosterone-fuelled Michael Bay set pieces where you merely move from point A to B that amounts to little else other than popcorn entertainment – and we all know that popcorn, while very tasty, isn’t a very nourishing or stimulating source of food.
It might be very easy then to dismiss Spec Ops: The Line, developed by Yager and published by 2K, as another generic modern military shooter. It would be wrong to do so, however. Players take on the role of Captain Martin Walker leader of Delta Force. Walker and his team are sent into Dubai, which has been wrecked by sandstorms, to investigate a distress call from Colonel John Konrad. Before the sandstorm struck the city, Konrad led the 33rd Battalion in assisting civilians with evacuating the city. When Konrad was ordered to abandon the plans however, he refused and instead tried to lead a convoy from the area. It all went horribly wrong however. After months of no communication from Konrad or the 33rd, the US Army presumes they are missing and dead. Then the distress call is discovered.
The demo begins with an on-rail turret section where Walker mans a minigun and fires at enemy helicopters that are trying to shoot his own helicopter down. As you weave your way through the derelict skyscrapers and ruined building cranes, you understand just how badly Dubai was wrecked. As this section ends you’re brought back in time to when Walker and Delta Force first arrived at the city and thus the proper gameplay begins.
Spec Ops: The Line plays like any other third-person shooter. You’ll be firing a variety of weapons including pistols, shotguns, assault-rifles, machine-guns, sniper rifles and RPGs. You’ll take cover, blindfire and move from point-to-point. You’ll be accompanied by two squadmates, who exchange banter and then roar at you when under fire. At first glance it all seems very standard, however, as you go further down the rabbithole you’ll begin to notice its darker edge.
Yager has stated that Spec Ops: The Line draws its inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Much like that novella, Spec Ops: The Line explores the darker side of humanity and what we’re capable of when civilised order is broken down. As the demo goes on you realize that the demo’s opening, in fact, tricks you into thinking that it’s merely another military bravado-filled shooter, when in fact it’s much more complex than that. In many ways it’s a revisionist take on the genre as a whole. Rather than gunning down the usual bad guys you’re gunning down civilians and US Army soldiers – all of whom are caught in the middle of a terrible disaster, where hate, misinformation and chaos has turned them against one another.
One particularly memorable moment during the demo is when you happen across two enemy soldiers who are unaware of your presence. If you stop and listen to their conversation, you’ll realize that they’re merely two ordinary guys who just happened to unfortunately get caught up in the shambles of Konrad’s evacuation attempt. When I was forced to gun them down, I felt a twang of guilt because I knew I was gunning down soldiers who were merely trying to survive a post-disaster crisis, both of whom also missed their homes and previous lives. A moment like this is in many ways a credit to how the developers are tackling the game’s narrative. From the demo at least, it seems like Spec Ops: The Line’s is trying to be much more like BioShock rather than Call of Duty.
As stated earlier, Spec Ops: The Line is a standard cover-based shooter yet it’s also a very competent one. The animations and sound design give the game a particularly visceral feeling. There’s also an attention to detail that enhances the experience – when you fire at enemy soldiers they’ll take a few seconds to collapse on the ground, sometimes grabbing the parts of their body where they’ve been hit. Other extra touches include the slow-motion effect when you pull off a headshot, fitting a silencer on certain guns to take down enemies stealthily, and other weapons allowing you to change their firing mode (which can be useful whether you’re fighting at short or long range). Basic squad commands also feature in the game, which allow you to order your squad to throw a grenade or focus their fire on a particular enemy. Little touches like these are everywhere
The game’s aesthetic also nicely creates a sense of a city that has been destroyed by a natural disaster. You’ll move through ruined wrecks of cars, busses, lobbies, apartments, and rooftops. Sand is everywhere and can be used to give you a tactical advantage at times. The lighting effects are also a notable feature – the hue and color saturation really made it feel like I was fighting in a scorching hot desert.
As a third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line’s mechanics feel well-crafted and finely tuned. Although I was impressed by the maturity of its narrative in the demo, it remains to be seen if the game’s single-player campaign will truly be able to achieve its lofty story ambitions.