Using Joseph Conrad’s classic, and bane of college students everywhere, Heart of Darkness, as a jumping-off point, Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line seeks to deliver a dark tale of death, madness, and desperation by mixing elements of disaster fiction and psychological horror into a standard modern military shooter. The end result is a cocktail of big ideas and fundamentally sound gameplay that makes Spec Ops: The Line one of the more surprisingly positive gaming experiences of the year for me.
Set in the Middle East’s capital of opulence, Dubai, on what could be today, tomorrow, or sometime next week, we find a city destroyed by a sandstorm of truly biblical proportions. Civilization has ended. Law and order comes at the end of a gun and life for the survivors is grim. Enter the US Army’s “damned” 33rd regiment commanded by Colonel John Konrad. They were sent in before the storm to handle the evacuations, but never came out. Konrad served in Afghanistan with our protagonist Martin Walker where something very bad happened neither man is willing to talk about. That’s why after six months of silence followed by a radio signal that hinted at the possible survival of Konrad, the 33rd, and their civilian protectees, Walker and two other Delta operators were dispatched to the region to ascertain the situation. What follows is one of those “worst day ever” scenarios Hollywood action films love so much that will make you question where the line between soldier and monster truly lies.
Story-wise, there aren’t a lot of new ideas at work. Bad stuff happens to people during wartime. We’ve all seen this countless times before in works of fiction and often those individuals are left changed for the worse. However, the scale of the bad stuff that happens to Walker, the men under his command, and the poor survivors over the course of the game’s 15 chapters and roughly 7-9 hour-long story, is probably bigger and darker than your average videogame. Many of the things you’ll be forced to do during the campaign may leave a bad taste in your mouth, and at several points, you’re faced with moral choices where neither option is particularly positive. These moments too, may leave some players feeling off-put or disturbed. However, their inclusion doesn’t feel shoehorned into the narrative to make you feel. Instead, they seem like perfectly reasonable scenarios that might spring up organically given the other events. I wish there was more I could tell you about the story. I really liked it, but I’m afraid too much could be implied from what I say or don’t say for this review to remain spoiler-free. Just make sure you stick around for the after-credits. That’s all I’ll tell you.
Gameplay-wise, Spec Ops: The Line follows the action from a standard third person POV and the combat is cover-based and very similar to Gears of War and the Uncharted games. Besides simply taking cover, Walker can execute cover slips, swat turns, mantels, and sprints that allow him to slide into cover and get out of the line of fire faster. I was not a fan of how close I had to stand to a wall before I could take cover, and there was no quick way to get away safely when a grenade landed nearby. Both of these instances led to several frustrating deaths, but overall, didn’t provide the control-scheme death-knell you might expect.
When Walker is the one doing the shooting, you’ll find another conceptually very familiar style of gameplay. Walker can carry two weapons at a time, pop-up to fire, or blind-fire, and he can carry three types of grenades (frag, sticky, and stun). There are also a lot of turret sequences that helps break up the combat a bit. He even has the ability to duck and blind-fire the turret so he doesn’t have to sit there and soak up enemy fire like in most other shooters.
The guns themselves follow the standard “pistol, assault rifle, smg, shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher” format that has been codified into shooter-law for many years now. The guns themselves are all fun to handle, which is something so many shooters get wrong that it bears highlighting how right Spec Ops: The Line gets it. The guns are detailed, feature fully animated functionality (the bolt and shell-ejection port visibly functions), and the reload animations vary from weapon to weapon and feature details like locking the bolt open before removing the magazine. These may seem like insignificant details, but go a long way toward selling the action in ways shooters that ignore those details can’t.
The game gets gun-damage pretty close to dead on as well. For most enemies, one burst aimed at center mass is enough to kill, and headshots come with a fun-but-oh-so-brief slow-motion flourish (along with quality grenade kills). Later on, you face enemies wearing body armor, and the requisite “heavy” outfitted to survive a bomb blast. These enemies require more work to kill. Headshots still kill fast, however. Even the heavy, wearing a blast proof helmet and face-shield is vulnerable once the face shield is shattered.
Guns and explosives aren’t the only way Walker can dispatch enemies either. He can command his two teammates to target specific enemies. One handles far enemies with a sniper rifle, while the other handles close targets with a precise grenade toss. This attack command will make whomever carries it out take more chances and that means they have a higher chance of getting hit and requiring a revive before they bleed-out from either you or the other uninjured teammate (luckily, they have a long bleed-out time - so long that I never once failed to revive them even when both went down). Other times when you find yourself pinned down, you’ll get the option to command them to flash the enemies and stun them so you can thin their numbers. Both of these actions can really make the difference between success and failure for the player; however, the game lacked orders like “move” and “take cover” that I would have liked to see.
Despite the fact that there are no big shocks and surprises with the combat, it was thoroughly enjoyable for me because the combat is competently and confidently executed. From its standpoint as a function piece of software, you couldn’t ask for more - just don’t expect a lot of bells and whistles.
For example, the only real advanced way to dispatch enemies is to execute wounded or melee’d enemies. Those moves net you bonus ammo for your weapons or grenades. It’s a nice touch; I just wish it were less random. It seems impossible to purposefully wound enemies and they only lay wounded for a certain amount of time before they bleed to death. The only sure fire way is to melee enemies and knock them down but that’s like playing Russian roulette with six bullets in the cylinder because Walker cannot absorb a lot of damage, and his health doesn’t recharge that fast.
There is one other aspect to Spec Ops: The Line’s gunplay and that’s what I’m going to call “sand-based” gameplay. These moments take two forms: sandstorms that may or may not be scripted (I couldn’t tell for sure) and leave both you and the enemies disoriented and unable to fire accurately, and triggering sand avalanches (sand-valanches?) to bury enemies. These instances usually involve using heavy weapons to destroy large windows or walls to dump a massive amount of sand onto the battlefield, killing many enemies outright. Smaller scale attacks can also be directed toward certain small windows, skylights, and vents to dump only a distracting amount of sand on small groups to gain the upper hand.
So it has a solid story and solid gameplay. Is there any part of Spec Ops: The Line that’s not solid? Well, yes. Graphically, Spec Ops: The Line could definitely be called mediocre. The graphics are not bad, but they are a bit dull and washed out. There are some nice-looking vistas, but you never get a good solid look at all of the city and how the sandstorm affected it. There are some scenes that make it look amazingly like the city-center is surrounded by sheer sand-cliffs as tall as the skyscrapers themselves, then other scenes seem to suggest otherwise - that the city is just mostly buried. Most of the game forces you inside as you creep from one wrecked room to the next and when you do find yourself outside, you’re surrounded by ruins and sand dunes. It looks fine, but there’s nothing really distinctive about what should be a very distinctive setting.
To balance out its one mediocre feature, the voice-acting goes above and beyond what you’d expect to see in a shooter made by an obscure German developer. It features the talents of the ubiquitous Nolan North as Martin Walker, and frankly, I found it comforting to have Nathan Drake’s voice lead me though the hell-scape that the game takes place in. Also involved are actors Bruce Boxleitner and Jake Busey. Every role in the game is excellently voiced, whether they’re well-known actors or not and that always helps strengthen a game’s story no matter its inherent quality.
Another strong aspect of the game is the soundtrack. It’s mostly classic-style rock and very evocative of the kind of images we associate with the Vietnam War and Vietnam War movies. Unfortunately, none of it seemed to be credited, so I can’t say for sure if that was an obscure Hendrix song that played over the end credits, but it sure sounded like it. Many other songs are far more recognizable.
Spec Ops: The Line also offers several multiplayer game-types, not all of which are unlocked right away (a mistake, if you ask me). That means you have to grind your way through deathmatch, team deathmatch, and another team mode that requires each side to destroy weak points until the enemy HVT is revealed. Whichever team kills the other side’s HVT first wins (that mode’s lobby was empty enough to make finding games impossible). There are several classes and factions to choose from (again, most are locked until you hit a certain level). Both classes and factions offer an assortment of unique passive stat boosts like weapon range or damage resistance. You can further customize your avatar with an assortment of faces, emblems, and titles once you get far enough to unlock them. To multiplayer junkies out there, it should be a hoot. As of the time of this review, however, the multiplayer is a little thin with players. I do want to, however, say that I seriously dislike the game’s extreme amount of basic components that need to be unlocked. You might as well flash a message on the screen that says only hardcore players should bother with it - because if you’re only a casual fan of multiplayer, you’re never going to get to fully experience it.
It does have one unique feature: multiplayer sessions are randomly beset by sandstorms. Honestly, they’re just as cool and kind of frightening there as they are in the single-player portion. More multiplayer games should incorporate random chaos into matches. That might be the most original idea in the entire game. Luckily, Spec Ops: The Line is executed well enough that its lack of gameplay originality doesn’t matter.