Spec Ops: The Line preview – explore the darkness of humanity

Spec Ops: The Line marks the revival of the Spec Ops franchise after a decade of hiatus. 2K Games is at the publishing helm, and Yager Development is bringing the title to life.

MyGaming was given the opportunity to get a hands-on preview of a solid chunk of the game – and it’s shaping up nicely.

The Line has taken a few steps back from its first-person Spec Ops roots, and is now a third-person shooter with standard cover mechanics. Players will also feel right at home with the two primary weapon setup (expect a familiar array of military hardware) augmented with a variety of grenade types, and the essential melee attack.

What looks to set The Line apart from the malaise of third-person shooters is its use of a relatively unexplored setting for video games – Dubai – and its gritty, mature, psychologically-charged narrative.

Spec Ops: The Line

The story goes that the awe-inspiring boom-city of Dubai – a jewel of the UAE and a symbol of wealth, opulence and human endeavour – has been devastated by vicious sandstorms blowing in from the Arabian desert.

The city was evacuated, but some people remained – among them U.S. Army Colonel John Konrad and the 33rd Infantry. The Colonel made an apparently noble move and volunteered to take his division, fresh out of a tour of duty in Afghanistan, into Dubai to assist in the evacuation.

Then the sandstorms came and Dubai went silent for 6 months. The 33rd presumed dead – until a weak distress signal was picked up.

Enter the player, filling the role of Martin Walker, Captain of Special Operations Force Delta Squad, sent on a scouting mission with two of his detachment to find out if Colonel Konrad is still alive. It’s more than simple routine – Konrad was a founding member of Delta Force, and Walker knows him personally.

The ubiquitous Nolan North voices Walker, lending a comfortable familiarity and professionalism to the voice work.

Spec Ops: The Line

Delta squad arrives to find the devastated Dubai being slowly reclaimed by the desert sands. It’s not long before they face off against armed bandits who don’t much like the sight of US military personnel, if the trail of dead 33rd Infantry is anything to go by.

As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that there is more than a simple struggle for survival taking place in Dubai – devious machinations are at play. Militias, civilians, the 33rd Infantry, and even the CIA all vie for control – and Delta squad is caught in the middle of it all.

It’s pertinent at this point to mention that the narrative of Spec Ops: The Line takes inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness”. The central themes of that story are of literal environmental darkness; the “dark”, cruel physical treatment of humans unto each other; and the unfathomable internal darkness that enables humans to so easily commit acts of evil. The latter, one could consider “the line” – that internal compass which guides actions, weighted against duty and honour. Like the desert sand, the line is easily shifted.

As one progresses through the game, these themes are echoed in both gameplay and narrative. In a few fun and harrowing portions of the game, players are both attacked by, and resort to using white phosphor weapons.

Spec Ops: The Line

This is a particularly brutal and painful way to deal with enemies, as the deep tissue burns and toxic smoke make for a drawn out death. The visual and audio cues reflect this, as enemies and innocents continue to writhe and scream in agony. Delta squad moves through the carnage, covering their mouths – the player can decide whether or not to put the victims out of their misery.

Walker finds himself questioning the use of this weapon, with apparently deep-reaching internal psychological consequences.

Spec Ops The Line

To reinforce all of this darkness in human nature, your Delta squad AI companions also go through their own developmental arcs as the game progresses. Starting out as professional and jovial soldiers on a rescue mission, their demeanour changes as the death toll rises, and the tension spills over into conflict within the Delta squad itself.

Luckily Delta squad remembers how to take orders when the action starts, and the player can issue basic commands, such as flanking and flushing out entrenched enemies with grenades, or providing cover for repositioning.

Spec Ops: The Line

The Line also presents players with the occasional moral choice, such as rescuing civilian hostages versus obtaining crucial information – the outcome of which will initiate different gameplay paths, such as a stealth section versus a brutal gunfight. These choices only have an effect in the moment, but one can consider them as adding to the overall arc of the characters.

Accompanying the player throughout the harrowing narrative journey is the omnipresent desert sand and the decaying city of Dubai. Despite everything, the colour palette isn’t dull and brown, and many scenes are vibrant and varied. Players will discover macabre scenes that tell the tale of the sudden apocalypse, such as highways full of cars, their occupants still strapped into the seats, choked with sand.

Mass graves, executions, and grim wards made from dead bodies mark the journey into the desperate heart of Dubai. To juxtapose these scenes, players also find the regular inhabitants of Dubai clinging to life and hope, searching loved ones lost in the storm. Unfortunately, the presence of Walker and Delta squad is an ill-omen for their tentative situation – another narrative consequence of action that the player will uncover.

Spec Ops The Line

The grand buildings still retain a semblance of their former glory internally – making for some fun environments for gameplay – but the façade is crumbling, and players can use this to their advantage. The sand can be a powerful ally as well as an environmental enemy.

There are a number of areas in which banks of sand, held back by a flimsy barricade or glass windows, can be used to turn the tide of battle. Grenades kick up plumes of dust that blind and stun both the player and enemies. Similarly, paths through the levels can be opened and closed – many of which are discovered by accident during the madness of gun-battle.

Sandstorms supposedly make their appearance with an element of randomness, so you never quite know when your vision is going to be obscured, and previous tactics have to be abandoned.

Unfortunately my time with the game didn’t afford the opportunity to test the extent of this environmental variety, but the developer assured me that there was enough to keep things interesting on subsequent play-throughs.

Finally, add in a healthy dose and variety of on-rails shooting segments (madcap helicopter battles through the Dubai skyscrapers and mortar raids guided by airborne cameras) and impressive set-pieces showing off large-scale destruction.

Spec Ops: The Line might just have what it takes to be one of the more entertaining and memorable shooters of 2012.

2K and Yager remain tight-lipped about multiplayer modes, but one certainty is that there won’t be a co-op mode. The developer explained that they did not want to detract from the single-player story by shoe-horning co-op into the game.

Spec Ops: the Line is currently pegged for release around the Q1/Q2 2012 mark, for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC (Windows).

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Spec Ops: The Line preview – explore the darkness of humanity

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