Arguably one of the worst titles for a game in many years, Spec Ops: The Line arrives at a time when the the military shooter appears to be at a crossroads. Call of Duty and Battlefield fight it out every year for your online multiplayer time, neither being particularly successful at producing a thought provoking single player experience, leaving almost every other shooter scrabbling around for the scraps, sadly most of which quickly finding themselves at a twenty pound price point ten days after launch. The big franchises dominate and iterate rather than strive for new experiences begging the question, is the single player shooter dead or is there room in the market for something a little less “you have ranked up, you are now a super mega soldier, kill some noobs” and a little bit more, dare we say it...grown up?
Spec Ops: The Line wastes little time on setup with a nice on rails introduction sequence which sees the main star of the show blasting a mini gun from a chopper on approach to Dubai, a city now in absolute chaos due to huge sandstorms - we pick up the story as our three hardened Delta members begin their rescue mission, the task is simple, find the 33rd and find out why the evacuation has gone all types of wrong.
The setup lends itself perfectly to a thoughtless romp but thankfully this third person shooter is not only serviceable in the combat department, it has a narrative which conveys the horrors of war; detailing a man's descent into a psychological hell which evokes memories of Apocalypse Now. Brace yourselves, this shooter is not just simply about shooting people in the face (although it’s a solid strategy throughout) it has something to say, is thoughtful and really not afraid to show how damaged these individuals become when confronted with such horror.
Putting narrative aside for a moment and concentrating on the game play, everything is very familiar. Standard third person shooter controls are fairly easy to pick up and roll with, aside from some imperfect elements which throughout the game will mean some cheap deaths in a big battle with unforgiving opponents. In an attempt to purvey realism you cannot combat roll, throw back grenades or dive for cover and sadly such realism sacrifices fun, ultimately frustrating in big firefights. There is the ability to sprint and with a swift double tap when running you can slide into cover but it’s too hit and miss to be used reliably in a situation which lends itself to being a bit gung ho - if the button is tapped at the wrong moment it does in fact do nothing, leaving you standing there exposed which inevitably results in instant death.
Whilst technically you are able to state that Spec Ops is a squad based shooter the interactions with your squad are simply limited to pointing at enemies and requesting one of your two team mates take them out. Past this you can ask the team to stun your enemies or at a push lob a grenade at a specific target, sadly that is about it. Your team mates are reasonably handy in big firefight, particularly if faced with large groups and/or turrets but generally the feature is underused. One nice touch is the way in which your squad mates interact with you throughout the course of the game and in turn how this changes once things turn a little ugly.
There isn't really a sense of any boss fights throughout the fifteen chapters and for the most part the enemies you face are remarkably similar - in fact the only enemy type you may have some bother with is a heavy but a few choice grenades will put them down fairly easily.
Minor gameplay element changes are thrown into the mix but they are quite few and far between; the odd turret session never hurt anyone and can be briefly entertaining but for the most part it’s all standard fare...enter kill room, kill everyone, move on.
Graphically it’s a bit of a mixed bag, ranging from stunning sand strewn vistas to bland, frankly dull internal environments which are instantly forgettable. The effects are much the same, grenades whip up a realistic band of sand filled smoke when they ignite, blinding the on rushing bad guys but these nice touches are accompanied by comedy body explosions when you man a powerful turret. It’s imperfect, far from stellar but overall does a decent job.
During the marketing campaign for the title the interaction with sand was heavily pushed but unfortunately throughout the game it’s a bit of a let down, and at a best a novelty which soon wears thin. Some objects can be destroyed bringing down huge amounts of sand on positioned enemies and there are a handful of staged sandstorm events. By no means is any of this a real negative it simply feels like a letdown given the amount of hype that was placed on it during the build up to release.
The sound throughout the game is a highlight, mainly due to the vocal work provided by game industry regular Nolan North, or Drake from Uncharted if the name doesn’t ring a bell. In general the script fuses witty banter and soul destroying horror in equal measure throughout and you do genuinely feel a connection with the lead character, particularly from the midpoint of the game. It takes a little bit of getting used to hearing Drake telling an enemy to “stay the **** down” but after a few hours you come to accept it given what the character is witnessing around him.
The multiplayer component is about as tacked on a multiplayer component as you will ever see, drab playlists combined with a real lack of options make for a really underwhelming experience. It really is best ignored, spend your precious time taking in every nuance on the story and its replay value with see you entertained for many hours.
Whilst the campaign itself is easily beaten in under five hours, yes it’s not particularly long, there is replay value within. Multiple endings are available depending on key choices made throughout the game along with unique moments only triggered through a certain course of action. There are also some collectibles if you like that sort of thing, strewn throughout the levels and they attempt to add further weight to the already fantastic story. Multiple difficulty levels are present if you don’t already see enough motivation to take on the campaign again, although it is worth noting that cheap deaths will be aplenty at the higher difficulty levels due to those pesky controls. Worth sticking with it though if you love an achievement or trophy as each difficulty level is awarded a unique one. While on the subject it should also be noted that this game dishes out achievements and trophies like candy and is a very easy 100%, the only real challenge in achieving that would be the aforementioned difficulty achievements.
The real winner here is the story and the replay value found within - it isn’t often you conclude a game and instantly want to either see how differently it plays out when alternate choices are made or hop online to discuss it with others in an attempt to make sense of it all - many a forum debate will ensue. Any game that has the ability to get in your head and make you think about it long after completion is a game worth playing.
There are some really difficult decisions to be made throughout the game, along with some horrific moments which will tug at the heartstrings of the most hardened soldier (FPS veteran) but it is these decisions and these moments that drive the player to continue on - Where is this going? Where will it all end? What the hell are these guys doing?
For all its technical faults, control mis-steps and at points downright averageness, Spec Ops: The Line remains a title that deserves to be played with its head spinning narrative and excellent jarring “woooah” moments.