Spec Ops: The Line feels like it’s been in development forever. I first saw the game in a hands-off demonstration at E3 2010 – after which the game was sent back for more development and polish and now I’ve played through the final version. Did that polish pay off or was it too far gone to save?
Spec Ops: The Line’s original claim to fame was that it was being set in Dubai; that towering city of glass in the desert that never really looks like it should belong. Well, the desert agrees and is taking it back. The city has been overrun with huge sand storms that are destroying everything in their path and you’ve been sent in to try and find out what happened to the 33rd company that was sent there to organise an evacuation.
However when you arrive you find out that the city is in a state of anarchy with your first experience being a not so friendly meet-up with some local vigilantes. This is the perfect time for the game to run you through a training experience you will likely not need.
The controls are your standard generic shooter controls, right trigger shoots while left trigger aims, right bumper throws a grenade (or was it left?). A makes you sprint, X is reload, Y is change weapon, B is contextually melee or vault over conveniently placed waist-high blocks and the left analogue stick is movement while right is targeting; you don’t get more standard than that.
So after taking out the vigilantes you notice that all law and order has broken down and that Dubai is no normal evacuation.
As you continue you come across scenes of a massacre, there are dead bodies everywhere and quite a number are strung up and rotting in the sun. There are civilians, insurgents and soldiers dead and dying throughout the levels of the game and your job is to first survive the city – and then to save the citizens and hopefully whatever is left of the 33rd battalion.
As you progress through the story you collect mission intelligence that is strewn around the levels; once you’ve collected something you can hit the back button to hear a part of the story of what happened in Dubai from the perspective of a journalist who was in the city covering the evacuation. It’s very much like the Bioshock recordings and while I’m not usually a collector in games I found myself searching every nook and cranny to try and piece together what had happened in this city and how it had come to this.
The story twists and turns throughout the 5-6 hour experience and you’re never to sure what or who to believe. Throughout the game you meet the local populace, the 33rd battalion and the CIA and each has a different viewpoint. Your 2 squad members are also continuously putting in their thoughts on the matter and as the story unfolds they, and everyone else, become more and more frantic.
While the story is based on a 1902 novel called The Heart of Darkness it doesn’t follow that story but rather the ideas in the story and forges its own path and the story is easily the strongest segment in the game. It’s one of those games where I couldn’t imagine not finishing it as I needed to know why this had happened to Dubai and what everyone was doing.
Why had the 33rd gone rogue…had they gone rogue? What were the CIA doing here? Who were the good guys in all of this and why had we been sent in with only a team of 3 to save the entire city?
And the best part of all is that the story doesn’t let you down in the end; I feel satisfied with how it all turned out and while it does have some holes in it I can say it’s easily one of the better stories out there in videogame land. Now if they had just managed to implement a Gears of War, Ghost Recon or Call of Duty styled mechanic into the game it would have scored exceptionally well but where things start falling apart from Spec Ops: The Line is in the actual gameplay.
The gameplay is put forward as a squad-based first person shooter but there really is no squad to speak of; you are the leader and you do absolutely everything. You can sometimes tell your squad mates to throw a stun grenade, sometimes, and at other times you need to do something to let your squad proceed but that’s really as in-depth as the squad mechanic gets.
You can also use cover and there are a myriad of waist-high walls scattered everywhere to get behind. You can then swap between cover with the tap of a button… well a tap of a button and and some fairy dust as usually when you tap that button your guy decides that’s the cue to pop out of cover and charge the armoured vehicle head-on.
And lastly it’s a first person shooter except that the gun controls seem sluggish and targeting multiple assailants normally results in you lying flat on your face in the sand. The way to complete this game is to hide and target one person at a time as they break from cover. It’s not terrible but after all this time and with so many quality shooters available it’s surprising that they didn’t get this part right. It won’t stop you enjoying the story but if the story wasn’t as good this game would have been scoring really badly across the board.
Oh and I nearly forgot, the selling point for this game at E3 2010 was the sand mechanics. The idea was that you’d use the sand to your advantage; you’d alter the battlefield by smashing windows or walls and allowing the sand to change everything. That happens but it’s nothing more than scripted scene changes, it’s not exciting and doesn’t really work. I’m guessing that is why the game first went back into development as their selling point really wasn’t a very good selling point.
What I did really like however was how the game gave you options on the story line; instead of actually giving you a menu of options of any kind you would be told two different options by your squad mates while watching an ingame scene play out and then depending on which way you moved (which wasn’t marked out) the game would change.
So for example, we came across members of the 33rd beating a CIA agent and demanding to know where their HQ was. During this time some civilians were marched away to be executed and my squad mates started arguing over whether or not to save the CIA agent or the civilians. Once the scene ended I started moving forward and we intervened in the CIA agent’s beating. I then restarted back at the last checkpoint and as the scene ended I turned left to skirt around them and we then went down an entirely different story line and used stealth to save the civilians.
Both story arcs converged back into the same main story a little later so you’re not changing the main story but all your choices are stored and at the end when the entire story is revealed each one of your choices is played back to you and the emotional weight of what you have done is revealed.
This game is an emotional roller coaster and that is possibly the biggest compliment I could give it.
The game mechanics aren’t terrible but they aren’t great either and this lets the game down at times. Spec Ops: The Line could have been a great game if they had ensured that the movement and gameplay was solid.
Design and Presentation:8/10
This was a bit of hit and miss, some sections were gorgeous and made you want to jump onto the first plane available to go see Dubai before it’s all gone. And then other sections appeared to have been slapped together at the last moment
There is what appears to be an in-depth multiplayer section but I couldn’t find anyone to play against so I don’t really know, however with the gameplay being compromised I can’t see the multiplayer pulling many people away from Call of Duty or Max Payne right now.
The single player campaign is around 6 hours long and there would be no reason to replay it as it’s all about the story
We don’t normally score the story separately but it is such an important aspect of this game I felt it would be wrong not to. The story is engaging, emotional and well put together and I feel like I’ve experienced something everyone in gaming should experience.
Overall: 7.9/10 (Not an average)
Spec Ops: The Line is a game well worth playing but its failings drag it down a bit. In the end it is a bit like the main protagonist in the story; Not entirely stable but well worth the entrance fee and so close to greatness.
[Reviewed on X-Box 360]
Spec Ops: The Line releases this Friday on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC and once you’ve completed the game make sure you stay until the end of the credits
Spec Ops: The Line was reviewed by Gavin Mannion