Spec Ops: The Line review (PC)

Spec Ops: The Line marks the revival of the franchise after a decade on hiatus. 2K Games is at the publishing helm, with Yager Development handling single-player and co-op, and Darkside Game Studios rounding off with multiplayer.

No longer an FPS like its predecessors, The Line is a third-person shooter with standard cover mechanics built on the Unreal 3 engine.

What sets The Line apart from the malaise of third-person shooters is its use of a relatively unexplored setting for video games, Dubai, and its engaging, visceral, mature, psychologically-charged narrative. I was particularly impressed with the attention to detail and polish evident throughout. For me, the game found that sweet-spot of gameplay, visual style, and narrative delivery that kept it compelling throughout, and even invites future re-plays.

The Story

Spec Ops: The Line is built on a solid story-driven foundation, and it’s one of the more enjoyable and captivating storylines from a shooter in recent memory. Elements that Yager got right include protagonists with personalities you can get behind and root for, and antagonists that are suitably contemptuous. However, as with the shifting of the desert sand, things aren’t as they appear in Dubai for very long, and the characters evolve and surprise you throughout the misadventure.

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 powerful, wealthy, and influential citizens fled the worst, but thousands were left behind. Enter 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, burying Dubai and creating a treacherous new landscape punctuated by the skeletons of skyscrapers. The city 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 a simple routine mission – 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. Likewise, the rest of the voice cast performs expertly with convincing, emotional delivery.

Delta squad arrives to find the devastated Dubai being slowly reclaimed by the desert sands – seemingly void of life. However, it’s not long before they face off against armed bandits who don’t much like the sight of U.S. 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.

Spec Ops: The Line

The Line

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 by forces out of your control.

As one progresses through the game, these themes are echoed in gameplay, environment and narrative. For example, in a fun yet harrowing portion of the game, players are both attacked by, and resort to using white phosphor weapons – a pivotal moment in the narrative.

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.

Spec Ops: The Line

All around, players will discover signs of recent human tragedy and the internal conflict that is ravaging the city. This ranges from subtle touches such as a child’s toy dropped in the sand, to the brutality of mass execution. The player will also find themselves entwined in the tragedy as they progress.

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.

This is by no means the extent of the story, and there are many twists and turns to be experienced, with new characters adding to the dynamic, and the psychological manifestation of the situation reaching a mind-boggling climax. There are even a few alternate endings to explore, so players can decide how Captain Walker should end his story.

Spec Ops: The Line

The Gameplay

As mentioned, the mechanics are third-person cover-based shooter – something which can prove wretched when done poorly. Thankfully, The Line hits the mark with its implementation, combining a simple control system with smart level design.

Many shooters in this genre leave you blatantly aware of manoeuvring down a restrictive corridor of conveniently located chest-high walls, but the The Line deftly side-steps this. Dubai is literally crumbling around you, and there are plenty of half-buried concrete chunks, cars, and an assortment of sand-storm detritus to duck behind. The care taken with level design shows here, and nothing seems out of place, to the extent that the cover locations all tell part of the environmental story.

That said, the cover-mechanics don’t break the mould in any way, bringing nothing new to the equation (aside perhaps from the ability to duck and shoot blind while using a mounted gun).

Players will feel right at home with the two primary weapon setup (expect a familiar array of military hardware) augmented with a selection of three grenade types (frag, sticky, and stun), and the essential melee attack. Combat is frantic, packed with action, and well-paced.

Delta squad can take orders when the action starts, with the player issuing basic commands, such as flanking and flushing out entrenched enemies with grenades, providing cover for repositioning, or sniping a particularly nasty enemy while the player is pinned. Likewise, the player will have to watch their squad-mates, as they can be taken down and will need reviving.

Spec Ops: The Line

The environment isn’t just for show, and regularly comes into play. Grenades kick up sand and blind friend and foe alike. The glass façades and crumbling concrete of Dubai’s hotels can barely hold back the sand, and a few shots will send a dune crashing over entrenched bad guys.

While these features are entertaining on normal difficulty, they become almost essential on the two harder modes, which will demand players make each shot count and master the environment.

Then, of course, there are sand-storms which, although scripted into the game, arrive with force, fury, and drama. The particle effects are excellent, coupled with blistering sound effects, the maelstroms are a convincing and harrowing segment of the game.

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.

On-rails sections make the occasional appearance, providing cinematic shooting galleries as a break from the core gameplay. Madcap helicopter battles among the Dubai skyscrapers and impressive set-pieces show off explosive large-scale destruction.

On normal difficulty, across 15 chapters and an epilogue, I racked up just under 10 hours of entertaining gameplay. The singleplayer will be supplemented with a free launch-day DLC that adds 2-player co-op across four missions, and an extensive multiplayer mode is built-in.

Unfortunately, as the game was reviewed pre-launch, I wasn’t able to find any opponents to test the multiplayer portion.

Spec Ops: The Line

The Sights and Sounds

Accompanying the player through the harrowing narrative journey is the omnipresent desert sand and the decaying city of Dubai. Despite this, the colour palette isn’t dull and brown as one may expect, and many scenes are vibrant and varied.

While exploring the outdoor environments, the city retains a haunting beauty, with clear blue skies hanging above the sand-blasted city, a scene punctuated by bright desert sun. The grim storm-wall looms ominously in the distance, ready to fall across Dubai and wreak its devastation.

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, scenes of execution, and grim wards of dead bodies strung from lampposts mark the journey into the desperate heart of Dubai. To juxtapose these scenes, players also find the surviving inhabitants of Dubai clinging to life and hope, searching for loved ones lost in the storm.

The grand buildings still retain a semblance of their former glory internally – stunning lobbies, open-plan walkways, and rooftops showcase the extravagance of Dubai, but the sand works to reclaim it all. These areas make for some fun and colourful environments for gameplay.

Spec Ops: The Line

Throughout, the textures appear crisp and detailed, with character models also being impressive. The battles take their toll on Delta Squad, and the character’s appearance changes as the game progresses, with fresh flesh wounds healing over, bruises appearing, and torn clothing and damaged equipment being undergoing make-shift repairs.

Sound effects are top-notch, with nothing to complain about. The flying bullets crack into concrete, shatter glass, and thump into sand. The wind often howls through the levels, and the audible sand-blasting effect leaves your eardrums tingling.

The accompanying rock n’ roll soundtrack is cleverly woven into the gameplay as an element of the narrative. One of the key protagonists, The Radioman, accompanies players throughout via loudspeakers rigged across Dubai, delivering a combination of taunts, wry humour, and incongruous jams serving as battle-music.

Spec Ops: The Line

The Conclusion

I was pleasantly surprised with the single-player offering of Spec Ops: The Line, which exuded care and polish.

The gameplay proved solid, fun and smooth, keeping things simple and functional to the benefit of the shooting action. The sound effects and voice-work are top-grade.

Visually, the game impresses in terms of the technical execution of stunning graphics, along with artistic direction that brings the game-world to apocalyptic life.

The storyline carried me through, with its strong themes and visceral delivery. It breaks out of the mould of typical “Go Team America!” military-based shooters, with a dark and intriguing thread. You aren’t asked to save the whole world, and it quickly becomes about individual survival. Without giving away the rest of the story, suffice to say that I think most players will be satisfied with the journey and its conclusion.

Spec Ops: The Line comes with my recommendation for gamers seeking a well-rounded, action-packed story-driven romp through a unique environment.

Spec Ops: The Line hits South African retail on 29 June 2012, for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.

Update: It has emerged that the co-op DLC will only be available sometime in August.

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