Within 20 seconds of starting Spec Ops: The Line, you’re gunning down choppers as you fly through the ruined city of Dubai. It’s the sort of mission you normally find two thirds of the way through the campaign in other war games. But not here, there’s no pussyfooting around the fact that this is war.
Like Bioshock, a previous 2K Games title, Spec Ops: The Line quickly establishes the look and feel for the entire game. Immediately in front of you, you’re presented with a formerly magnificent metropolis situated in a harsh environment. Due to a series of catastrophic sandstorms forcing the city to evacuate, Dubai has succumbed to Mother Nature with just a few people left behind. One of those is John Konrad (named after Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness which this game is inspired by), a founding member of Delta Force who has stayed behind to help evacuate the remaining civilians. After weeks on no contact, the US Army sends you in, Captain Martin Walker, to find out what happen to Konrad. However some of those left behind in Dubai includes plenty of armed bandits who don’t take kindly to your presence.
The general style, plot and tone of the game is very similar to the very best war films that cinema has produced. What makes those films so great aren’t the action scenes, but the human cost of war. Sometimes it’s the innocent civilians who get caught up in the cross-fire, or simply butchered in some heinous act, but also the struggles of the soldiers coping with the events around the and the death that they witness at every turn. And it seems like gaming may finally have something that could be uttered in the same sentence.
Spec Ops: The Line does a very good job of portraying the horrors of war with some very shocking imagery. I’m not going to list them here as I would want you to feel the same way I did when I came across them, but this is one of the few games I’ve ever played and thought about the pain and suffering that’s gone on. You can also see the physical toll on your team, with cuts, bruises and burns marks slowly covering their entire bodies as the events of the game unfold. And through a series of well written scenes, the torturous mental side-effects of your actions are visualised, like doing things awful things for the greater good.
Another feature that singles out the best war films is the soundtrack, and this is another aspect that Yager have nailed. Early on in the game you’re shooting your way through a television studio whilst Deep Purple’s Hush is playing in the background. It touches like these that add so much depth and character to the game and so much more immersive for the player. Later on in your mission, there’s a piece of classical that’s used to great affect, again echoing some of the best war films around.
And the best thing about all of storytelling is that’s is strung together by very good game mechanics. It’s certainly up there with the best controlling third person shooters, with a polished cover system, melee attacks and satifsfying firefights. It can be quite relentless at times but at no point did I get bored. Maybe it was the interesting environments. To assist you in these fights, you can task your two squadmates to target specific enemies and heal each other and on the whole the work well, especially tasking them with taking out a distant sniper. Enemy AI does have it’s moments when soldiers just stand around and not use cover but 95% they act in a realistic manner.
Although the graphics are not the greatest seen, the artistic style employed throughout the game is wonderful. The yellow sand contrasting against the glorious blue sky and towering and opulent buildings, it’s certainly a visually striking game. I also liked the use of Bansky style graffiti which gives a stylistic insight into the mind of those left in the city. Despite the less than amazing graphical detail, Yager have done a superb job of creating a decaying city, with buildings crumbling, motorways filled with rusting cars and rotting corpses, there is no doubt that that your walking through a city being assimilated by nature.
On the mulitplayer side of things, you’ve got the pretty standard fare of options with Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and a variety of objective based modes available to play. You also get the option to unlock the hardcode mode which adds friendly fire, removes HUD elements etc and also a mode where sandstorms are always on. This is all backed up by what you’d expect; with loadouts, ranking up, titles, badges and everything else that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare pioneered in the modern shooter.
It’s difficult to predict whether people will be playing this game online much beyond the next month or so, but it certainly has everything it needs for a good blast of online fun. Everything that made the campaign so great has been successfully transposed to the multiplayer arena. Sandstorms come and go, forcing everyone to go inside unless you’re fine without your radar. The scenery can be lightly destroyed, bringing tons of sand down on your foes and the unique environments all work very well here. These aspects, combined with decent map design and the solid gameplay mechanics from the campaign, make for an decent addition that will provide hours of fun for lots of people. I just wish there was more content to be had here, limiting this to a couple of weekends of fun at the most.
To sum up
Spec Ops: The Line does for third person shooters what Bioshock did for first person shooters. It’s a very grown-up and serious game that touches on the human suffering that goes on in wars in a meaningful way. Although it’s a on the short side at around five hours long, it is everything a videogame based on war should be; a polished and thoroughly enjoyable game wrapped up with an interesting and daring plot, combining to make what is undoubtedly my favourite game released this year.
[Version reviewed: Xbox 360]
Spec Ops: The Line is released on today in the US and 29 June in the UK for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. You can order it now from our online store.