Review: Spec Ops: The Line
Yay just what we need, another shooter. Strangely enough I was actually quite excited to get my hands on Spec Ops: The Line. Maybe it was the sand getting in-between my ears or the promise of gallivanting around Dubai as it crumbled back into the desert, but there was something strangely alluring about this game.
Powered by the Unreal Engine, Spec Ops places you in control of Captain Martin Walker. Right from the start menu the game wastes no time in kicking off the action as a frantic battle between helicopters unfolds, as the intro credits roll you take up the minigun to repel a wave of attack choppers. And so starts the classic game mechanic we’ve seen so many times before, a high action scene followed by “Earlier…”, that’s right just as the action hits a crescendo you are thrust back to the beginning.
This is the story of a recuse mission gone wrong. Originally a recon team, you and two team mates are sent into Dubai to find out what happened to the 33rd battalion and more importantly Colonel John Konrad, these guys originally went in looking for survivors.
Spec Ops is a cover based third person game and it’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Gears of War and most recently Ghost Recon Future Soldier. This adds a slight damper onto the game, even though it’s an enjoyable 7 hour campaign it just doesn’t live up to the action and gameplay found in those most similar to it. One thing that Spec Ops does do particularly well is the lighting effects. The game is full of lush lighting effects that penetrate through the battered skyline. Light also tries to force its way through sandstorms or as sand pours through broken buildings. Dubai looks pretty impressive in its current state of destruction and everything still carries that golden posh sheen which is quite ironic given that it’s now a ghost town. This lends itself to quite an interesting level design. Collapsing buildings, insurgents springing out at you and some great set pieces help to diffuse the strict linear paths you embark on. It’s certainly no more linear than Call of Duty or Gears of War, it’s just they do the smoke and mirrors so much better.
As you hop from cover to cover down the strict corridor levels you will soon begin to get frustrated by a cover system that works brilliantly in one moment and awful the next. A single press of the A button sends you into a sprint, approach cover and you automatically slip in behind a concrete block or burnt out vehicle. From here you can slip out of cover and dive into the next piece of cover, similar to Ghost Recon Future Soldier, just not as slick. Of course you can also pop out of cover to fire at the enemy or hit the B button to vault over it. While running into cover looks pretty cool and for the best part of the game works perfectly, getting into cover from a standing still position when the air fills with bullets seems somewhat of a difficulty and often caused me to die as I fumbled about trying to snap behind a concrete block or blown out car. With fairly long load times this became quite a niggle for me at some of the more tough sections of the game.
As leader of your team you give your two-man squad commands through the RB. You can designate targets to attack or stun, although you have no control over which one you may choose. If one of your team goes down you can also order the surviving member to heal his buddy or you can do that yourself. These minor commands can help you out of a sticky situation or neutralise a particularly stubborn enemy who might be dug in, but leave your team to act on their own and they do a reasonably good job although it seems stragglers that flank them will avoid their attention and beeline straight for you, so expect a few sharp melee attacks when you least expect it.
For all the competence of your team’s attack patterns they are a little too gun ho and I often found that the harder situations of the game were the parts I had to dive into a mass of enemies and rescue both my teammates before they bled out. One particular scenario had me restarting the checkpoint a fair few times – each time my teammates charged ahead and ended up on the floor, this really did highlight some glaring errors in the AI and instead of feeling like the AI was dynamic to the situation at hand, it was running what seemed like a pre-determined pattern.
My favourite part of the gameplay had to be the sand, although I feel it could have been used far more in the gameplay as a tactical option. Exploding grenades not only cause a mess of your enemies but have a secondary effect of scattering sand, giving a sand screen to hide behind and blinding any nearby enemies fortunate enough to survive the blast. Sand also plays a tactical part to the environmental gameplay. At key parts you can shoot out glass to let the sand pour in and swallow whole teams of enemies or create a large enough diversion to turn the tides of battle. Again it seemed that the sand was there as part of the script rather than playing a larger more dynamic role to the game which could have made for some really interesting combat scenarios.
The story by far eclipses the rather plain combat. The cover to cover combat never gives much more feeling than a rather floaty run and gun affair but the story keeps you plodding on particularly as you are given choices. The first choice I stumbled across was an American soldier pointing a weapon at me, friend or foe? It’s unclear but he is shuffling towards a repel point – quite simply I shot him in the leg. Although it did kill him it showed that Spec Ops has included moral choices in the gameplay but such that they aren’t overtly obvious as to when you have to make them. These choices play a bigger role to the games conclusion and Captain Walker’s hallucinations
By the end conclusion of the game, crazy hallucinations have set into Captain Walker’s mind but like the morality choices, these are spread thinly throughout the campaign I feel the subtlety will be missed by many especially with the heavy-handed overtones of the gun battles throttling the story such that it suffocates the true nature of the game’s direction. The conclusion is quite a clever one, twisting your perception of what really happened – unfortunately the somewhat weak pace to the journey of the story doesn’t quite do the climax justice. There are also Intel items hidden throughout the levels which help to get into the boots of some of the characters and give a little background to the story and the 33rd battalion but I felt that this had little effect to my emotion of the characters stuck in Dubai.
Spec Ops comes packed with a full set of competitive multiplayer modes and includes all your standard modes, perks and weaponry seen in just about any other shooter, it doesn’t feel tacked onto the single player, it’s just that compared to the behemoths of the online shooter space it doesn’t feel as slick or polished. Multiplayer is certainly worth a look, although not a highlight to sell the game against. I’d expect the online competitive modes to be as empty as the deserts of Dubai once the game has been out for a few weeks.
It’s a fun enough shooter but with a plethora of shooters out there the storyline and gunplay needed to be so much more solid for this to have been one of the more memorable shooters of 2012.
Review: Spec Ops: The Line Results
What we liked:
Light effects and “sandplay” are excellent
Great conclusion to the story
Dubai is a great setting to run amuck in
What we disliked:
The story gets lost within itself
Cover system can be frustrating
Squad AI can be a little stupid