Five seconds into Spec Ops: The Line, and you’re already thinking about ejecting it from the disc tray and tossing it into the pile of games with interesting premises that you bought but will never play, like Timeshift or Dark Sector. Opening with a playable how-to manual on creating the wrong impression, Spec Ops’ first act is to subject players to a phenomenally boring on-rails helicopter section, and then the gall to have Nolan North and his dull, ubiquitous voice play the lead character. As first impressions go, it’s a shocker.
It’s also, thankfully, by and large out of step with the rest of the game. Give it time – and you’ll want to, thanks to a gorgeous, ruined Dubai setting and the accompanying post-apocalyptic theme – and Spec Ops matures into something quite different. It’s not often that third-person shooters (or first-person, for that matter) ask their players anything other than to press fire and not stop until Uncle Sam wins the day, but Spec Ops also asks some interesting questions. It even approaches ‘thoughtful’, of all things, amongst the killing and swearing and headshotting.
That opening out of the way, players take control of Nolan North Walker and his two subordinates, Lugo and Adams. Walker is a Captain in the US Army, and along with your two charges you’ve got to size up the situation in sandstorm-ruined Dubai. Before long you’re investigating rumours that a legendary US Colonel is holed up in the city, running his own rogue mission. John Konrad (subtle, Yager) is a decorated veteran with ties to Walker’s past. At the outset of the game he’s not yet to be terminated with extreme prejudice, but it isn’t long before you’re on a collision course with the Colonel like a fat kid falling off the wagon.
It’s this conflict, along with the constant stream of Bruckheimer-style apocalyptica that has befallen Dubai (leading to some stunning, stark imagery) that elevates Spec Ops from a so-so shooter into an intriguing experience. At its core, there’s nothing to celebrate over and above a solid shooting system and satisfying mechanics. Spec Ops doesn’t try and reinvent anything, and we’re absolutely fine with that: it has its eyes on other prizes.
With this solid – and let’s face it, Gears Of War inspired – base the game is free to focus on its true hook, which is storytelling in both the visual and narrative senses. As with the gameplay, it has a clear and identifiable inspiration and doesn’t try to hide it. Again, Yager chose well: Heart Of Darkness (well, more Apocalypse Now). Where most shooters simply pit players against aliens of communists (and there’s no difference really) Spec Ops turns American friendlies against each other as Walker’s recon force finds itself at odds with Konrad’s praetorian guard, with both sides going slightly more insane as the hours tick by.
It enables Yager to plot its set-pieces less around rousing action sequences and more the disheartening realities of war. Walker, Adams and Lugo start off as a bunch of merry men, bantering their way through the mission, but before long they – in an allegory for the American forces at war with each other – soon come to bitter disagreements regarding the direction of their task. Walker believes that Konrad has gone crazy, is actively harming the remaining citizens of Dubai by ordering them to stay put. Konrad believes that escape is impossible. And as for the CIA agents inserted into the mix by a nervous US government, it’s safe to say they’re not to be trusted.
As the team proceed further ‘upriver’, to Konrad’s command post in Dubai’s tallest building, things disintegrate further: rules of engagement are questioned, civilians are killed, moral choices are made, and the narrator becomes increasingly unreliable. It’s a welcome change from the gung-ho grunting of the norm, and although some tonal mis-matches are present (brutally executing so-called friendlies is starkly ‘gamey’ next to the narrative) it’s enough to lure players in and keep them interested.
As are the environments this all plays out against. The cover-and-fire, two-guns-and-grenades system may be familiar, but Dubai is a great locale, filled with exotic technology, architecture and largesse all mixed up in the wash by the sandstorms that wrecked the city. Visually, it’s one of the best backdrops we’ve seen for a long, long time, the surreal environment matching that of the story: seeing gigantic yachts beached in the middle of nowhere is striking, and that’s just one example of many that Yager implement very well indeed, keeping the battleground fresh. It’s not the most polished game out there: the cover system is sometimes janky, checkpointing is aggravating at times, anytime you’re in a vehicle you’ll want to kill yourself more than Konrad, and the ending could be considered one trope over the line. But these are irritations, and pale when considered against the whole.
There was a time when we thought that Spec Ops The Line wasn’t going to make it out of development hell, or that it would simply drift off into the land of vapourware, to spend its time hanging out with Final Fantasy Versus XIII and the like. We’re very glad it didn’t, and that 2K gave Yager the time and money it needed to finish the project.
It’s not particularly new or innovative in its core mechanics, but it marries the dependable and familiar with the not-so to create one of the year’s most interesting titles. At its heart it’s still a shooter, but at least it’s also one with the brains to ask you to shoot something different.