- Format: 360 (version reviewed), PS3, PC
- Unleashed: Out Now
- Publisher: 2K Games
- Developer: Yager
- Players: 1 (offline), 2-8 (online)
- Site: http://www.specopstheline.com/
Spec Ops: The Line is a difficult game to judge. In many ways it is a remarkable examination of the military shooter genre and yet in other ways it panders to the same conventions it attempts to scrutinise. In terms of game mechanics it appears to tread little new ground yet thanks to its setting, script, voice acting and anti-set-pieces The Line does manage to delve – at least for portions of its campaign – into the heart of darkness. War, death, psychological trauma and man’s desire for power are all themes here. So are we playing a pacifist’s third person shooter? The answer appears to remain missing in action.
But let’s start with the boring stuff. Why is The Line not that great? In terms of gameplay Yager has developed a game which plays a lot like Gears Of War meets SOCOM. The player takes on the role of Captain Walker who, along with companions Adams and Lugo, is exploring the devastated city of Dubai in search of an evacuation party who’ve mysteriously vanished. Quickly the party comes under fire from rebels and the game’s principle mechanics are set up. Take cover, aim with one trigger, shoot with the other, throw the odd grenade.
Like GOW, combat involves moving from one piece of cover to the next and slowly but surely clearing the area of bad guys. There are several weapon types to use – pistols, rifles, heavy weapons – but they aren’t particularly exciting to pick up. Combat can however be quite challenging and Walker’s susceptibility to bullets often leaves the player having to re-think their tactics. This makes the majority of encounters satisfying to complete and reaching the next checkpoint can feel like a real achievement.
Unfortunately, the challenge doesn’t always feel fair. One of the clearest criticisms is the game’s cover system which, though serviceable, never feels completely reliable. It’s easy to find yourself clipped out of cover without knowing it or unable to take cover even though you’ve just hammered the ‘cover’ button. Coupled with Walker’s predilection for dying when shot, this system can lead to frustration and unwarranted replays.
And yet, despite the largely unremarkable gameplay, The Line is at times hugely memorable. First of all the game world is anything but the standard military setting. The entire game takes place in a devastated Dubai ravaged by an apocalyptic sandstorm worthy of the planet Arrakis. The game counterpoints its devastated scenery with Dubai’s infamously flush architecture and interiors, brewing a surreal yet adroit mixture of affluence and death.
Dubai is therefore the perfect backdrop for the game’s major themes – themes which have ultimately plagued the representation of war throughout the last century. The annihilation of the moral and rational order instigated by an apparently morally stable society. In The Line the initial reconnaissance mission to find survivors quickly becomes an exercise in murder and chaos. Decisions made by Walker (and the player) are constantly being questioned and undermined both by your fellow teammates and by the game’s fearless depiction of their harrowing consequences. When you bomb a garrison of enemy troops with white phosphorus you will be forced to walk among their burning corpses.
These set-pieces, in which the overriding feeling is not one of ‘fun’ but misery, can be incredibly affecting. There are a few moments where ‘the horror’ can become slightly ham-fisted but even at such times the quality of the voice acting and character animation hold it together. The script and acting are excellent throughout and help to portray the psychological trauma our characters go through. This is expertly captured in Nolan North’s role as Walker (another tick for all those North spotters) as well as Adams (Christopher Reid) and Lugo (Omid Abtahi).
It’s all these seeds of doubt which work to undermine the overall shooter experience which underlies the genre. Unfortunately (or perhaps not so) the game is truly relentless in its insistence on shooting and action. It could possibly have helped to have more quiet moments for the player to walk around, take in the surroundings and reflect on the game’s events. The lack of these moments means that gun fights can feel both tiresome and lacking in meaning. This dissatisfaction with combat is especially the case when coupled with the problems of the cover system and when, for all its surreal beauty, Dubai devolves into another room filled with another (surprisingly numerous) bunch of soldiers.
There are also several touches which likewise undermine the more thoughtful side of the game. One in particular is the absurd mechanic in which if you ‘execute’ an enemy – a brutal, up-close and personal kill – the game gives you more ammo; essentially rewarding you for instigating graphic violence. The mutliplayer also slightly negates the message of the campaign. It’s decent enough and fits well into the setting, with a good class system as well as perks, bonuses, leveling and the occasional sandstorm to make combat a bit more interesting. But it’s hard to be entirely convinced of the game’s commitment to depicting the horrors of war when you’re scoring points off head shots.
Overall it feels like The Line is too tied to its generic principles. Too much of the game remains a shootout in a room filled with cover and ammo stashes. Despite this it has its moments of serious emotional power and in a way provides a good affront to games such as Modern Warfare, where gunning down swathes of soldiers and civilians (in the case of MW2) carries little weight beyond shock value. It is therefore an essential game which should be played – but not particularly for its gameplay. As such it’s incredibly hard to rate The Line. At the very least it is a good, if not particularly great, game. At its best Spec Ops: The Line is one of the most absorbing and fascinating shooters made to date.