Spec Ops: The Line was developed by Yager Development and published by 2K Games. The game is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. As well as the review presented here the game sparked thoughts on the role of narrative connections, which will be the focus of a future article.
Spec Ops: The Line is, at first glance, a fairly generic third person shooter and in many ways it is. The game however also offers something lacking in most games, something that only truly becomes apparent when you play through the entire game. It is this something extra that raises this game from a solid but generic shooter to an excellent and compelling experience. Before I discuss that aspect in detail lets look first at the setting and game play.
Six months ago Dubai was, for all intents and purposes, wiped off of the map by the largest and longest lasting sandstorm ever recorded. Most of the population were presumed to have been killed, as was an entire battalion of U.S. soldiers who had been sent in to assist in the evacuation. With the storm finally beginning to subside a radio signal has been detected, the source coming from within the ruins of the city. A three man Delta Force team, led by Captain Martin Walker (the main protagonist and player character), has been sent in on an initial recon op, to find evidence of survivors and locate the source of the signal. Not surprisingly conditions on the ground are not as simple as the team had expected…
Spec Ops: The Line is first and foremost a third person, cover based shooter with some basic squad command mechanics. In this respect the game is solid, offering all of the required functionality and game play expected but with little innovation or mechanics unique to the game. You are limited to carrying two weapons, a relatively small amount of ammo and a few grenades. Squad commands are relatively simple and focused primarily upon selecting targets for your comrades to focus their fire upon in addition to occasional special actions.
The game possesses the usual range of difficulties and on the default normal mode enemies provide a sufficient challenge. Playing through the game on this difficulty there were a handful of points where I required multiple attempts to progress but they were infrequent enough that they felt challenging rather than frustrating. At this difficulty most unarmoured enemies can be killed with a couple of shots and during the course of the game there is only a single type of enemy (excluding vehicles) which cannot be killed with a single headshot. One of the nicest touches is the inclusion of what is best described as sand damage, shoot out particular windows or parts of ceiling and the sand which is piled up against them will come crashing in, potentially on top of enemies stuck behind cover.
Based on game play alone I would score the game as a 7.0, a solid but generic shooter.
That extra something
What makes the game stand out from virtually every other third person shooter (and most other games) is the narrative connection forged during the game play. The actions taken as you play the game have a clear impact upon the characters and are designed to generate an emotional connection between the player and the events as they unfold. In saying this I’m not, primarily, talking about the typical make choice A or B points found in most games, the do I take the good option or the evil option. No, I am instead referencing what is arguably the central game play mechanic of every shooter, namely the killing of enemies.
Let me say this again, this is a military shooter designed to make you feel something when you kill people.
I think the importance of this is perhaps best clarified by a comparison with the Uncharted series, arguably one of the biggest third person shooter franchises at the moment. The hero of that series is Nathan Drake, a gun slinging, wise cracking rogue who is generally portrayed in the cutscenes as a loveable good guy. If you’re unfamiliar with the series imagine Drake is basically a modern day Indiana Jones, both in career choice and personality. In contrast to the cut-scenes most of the game play is spent diving behind cover and killing the hired henchmen sent at you by the big bad evil guy. Over the course of each game you’ll end up killing hundreds of these goons, so much so that the final boss of one of the games remarks during his obligatory monologue something along the lines of:
“Are we really that different? How many of my men have you killed in order to get here?”
The point is valid, to the extent that either Drake has two distinct personalities (loveable rogue and merciless killer) or perhaps, more worryingly, that Drake the hero is in actuality an insane psychopath who takes pleasure in mass murder. Not surprisingly the fact that the protagonist of the game is a brutal killer isn’t something that the developers have focused on much, lest we start thinking of him as anything other than the basic Hero archetype.
In sharp contrast Spec Ops takes three highly trained soldiers, people whose job it is to kill and places them into a situation where they are forced to do so. It does this so it can pull you in to the realities of war, showing the effect that killing can have even on those trained to do it. The consequences of your actions are revealed not only on the level of the unfolding story and visible impact on the psyches of the characters but also in smaller ways. The civilians terrified by your presence or the scribbled graffiti on the collapsed walls. Perhaps one of the most effective ways is that fallen enemies will often lie on the ground writhing in agony from non-fatal wounds. Easy enough to ignore perhaps, except that if you want to loot their weapons or ammo you must first complete the job, making that conscious decision to execute them where they have fallen. In a similar manner melee attacks can often be followed by quick kills, which are once again executed in such a way that they reinforce the brutality of what you are doing.
And you know what? The emotional connection the narrative builds works. It works to the point where I felt bad for enjoying the game. It works to the extent that more than once I had to turn it off and take a break, because I didn’t want to know what came next, what horror of the battlefield I would be forced to actually stop and think about.
But I kept coming back to it, for the simple reason that it was a compelling experience. A game where in many ways the game play was secondary, a mechanism by which something bigger was delivered to the audience. The last game to do this for me was Heavy Rain, an excellent game where once again the story dominated. The difference between the two, however, is the game play. Heavy Rain made use of quick time events, a style many gamers are not fond of. Spec Ops, however, retains the mechanics of the genre, emphasising the contrast between itself and what players have come to expect from military shooters.
I realise that in this review I’ve been extremely vague as to the events which occur during the course of the game, as I believe that too many details would spoil the impact of the story. Suffice to say the way in which Spec Ops: The Line manages to get you to emotionally connect with it is what raises it from that generic 7.0 to, in my opinion, something nearing a 9.0. It’s why I would whole heartedly recommend it to anybody looking for something more than a game, for somebody who wants an experience they won’t forget.