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Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops The Line cover.png

Trivia:

-Spec Ops: The Line is actually the ninth instalment in its series, reviving the series after a decade of dormancy

-While the game’s writer Walt Williams claimed the story had many influences, the greatest of note was Joseph Conrad’s famed novella Heart of Darkness – coincidentally the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s award-winning film Apocalypse Now

War is hell.  It’s not a glorious crusade for personal pride or nationalistic ideals, but rather a brutal and relentless series of horrifying events that slowly yet surely mold even the best of us into cold, scarred beings barely above our most basic instincts.

This is the message The Line seeks to convey.  And holy s**t does it work.

As a reboot of a series that went dormant a decade ago, Spec Ops: The Line already had its work cut out to make itself relevant in this age of AAA-blockbuster games.  The fact that this game seeks to tell a story inspired and informed by the famed Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness only emphasizes The Line‘s need for success, as such a deeply intense and emotionally complex story would (and ultimately does) set this game apart from the rest.

The Line kicks off with a concise recap of background events: Dubai has been overwhelmed by the largest sandstorms in recorded history, the 33rd U.S. Army Battalion goes in to provide aid, and all contact is soon lost.  The 33rd and their commanding officer, Colonel John Konrad, are labelled as traitors by the public and are disavowed for all intents and purposes.

However, a chance transmission from Konrad declaring a massive loss of life and the “FUBAR” nature of the situation convinces the Army to directly intervene.  That is where the player comes in, taking on the role of Captain Martin Walker, leader of a three-man team tasked with locating the 33rd and evacuating survivors.

Initially, the game makes a middling first impression.  It acts very much like the average military shooter: a team of American soldiers walks into a foreign country, gets into a tiff with the locals, and responds with extreme, though professional, prejudice.  Five of the game’s fifteen chapters are spent building up the upcoming horrors within Dubai with the most generic of plot threads, namely hostages being taken and constant firefights breaking out.

With that said, the hook comes around that fifth or sixth mission, as Walker’s team starts having to make some snappy and rather morally questionable decisions.  Technically, from a gameplay standpoint, these choices won’t affect how the game plays out as a whole, but the sheer brutality of these sequences are worth the price of admission.

And the price won’t stop being paid.  From then on, the story puts more focus on Walker’s increasing instability and his teammates’ resulting estrangement.  The team’s mission to retrieve any survivors becomes Walker’s personal damned crusade into the depths of hell, throwing aside any remaining chances for redemption or even escape just for resolution.

Which is to say nothing of the lead-up to the finale, or even the finale itself, which is indeed just as no-bars-held as everyone says it is.  It takes a game with great ambition to pull off any ending as intriguing and powerful as this – it’s an even greater achievement when that game manages multiple endings like that.

As for the remainder of the story, there’s high quality around the board.  The themes of humanity being lost on the battlefield and morality being relative to the individual are heavily present and accounted for – perhaps to a degree that sacrifices subtlety for impact, but which is never unwelcome.  The script shares this directness, giving Walker and his teammates Lugo and Adams incredible depth and humanity from right off the bat, as well as providing us with the twisted wisdom of Colonel Konrad.

If there’s anything to note as a weak link, it’s the side characters.  Sure, they add some flavour to the game’s brand of insanity and give more emotional meaning to the no-win situations Walker and company end up in, but they never feel fleshed out beyond their outward personalities (except, perhaps, the dark self-aware humour of the Radioman).

Gameplay-wise, much of what you see is what you get.  The Line fits the mould of your typical third-person shooter, complete with a two-weapon inventory, a cover mechanic and an over-the-shoulder camera.  At its most basic, the combat is very typical but generally well designed.

I say generally because there’s some design choices that could have used some more time on the drawing board.  For instance, there’s a squad command system that lets the player give Lugo and Adams orders to snipe enemies or toss grenades, respectively.  However, it’s such a simplistic one-button system with fluctuating usefulness that the player, as Walker, would be better off doing the work themselves.

Controlling Walker also tends to be problematic, particularly where cover is involved.  In combat, the player will often have to charge to pieces of wall or debris for shelter, which might require some finagling with the movement controls to get a precise target.  Once in cover, though, the trouble comes when the game fails to distinguish between the player simply sliding from one edge to another and the player leaving cover.  Basically, it feels a little unpredictable, and it will lead to some cheap deaths.

Death is something that you should get used to, in fact, because the enemy AI is absolutely relentless.  They come from all directions, they pop in and out of cover when it’s appropriate, they charge when you least expect it.  I’d even argue that they impressed me more than my allies’ AI, which seemed less consistent in firefights.

There’s also the matter of sand, which was made out to be more important to the game’s structure than it actually is – not that it doesn’t have its moments.  Some of the most intense and jaw-dropping firefights utilize the sheer insanity brought on by exploding window panes flooding with sand or massive storms kicking the stuff around.  It’s just that when it comes to gameplay, the prompts for environmental kills tend to be less dynamic and rewarding than we had hoped.

So why do I reserve my arguments here? Well, because the rest of the gameplay not only serves the purpose of the story, but is also quite impactful in its own right.  There are signs here that the developer, Yager, really knew how to approach the physical elements of an emotionally intense story.

For instance, there are a few set-pieces in the game, like a recurring helicopter battle and riding with a convoy through hostile streets, that serves as pivotal moment with grave repercussions.  These scenes also highlight the brutality of the moment-to-moment combat, which typically has Walker and his allies blasting enemies’ heads to smithereens and beating downed foes with their guns.

Then there are the aforementioned branches in the story, not to mention what occurs in the finale.  It may be as simple as letting one man live while another dies, but the shift in gameplay and tone isn’t lost on me or other players.  There’s also Trophies and Achievements linked to these actions (which I considered protesting, but decided worked for the “showing spite for the player’s actions” angle), so replay value does exist here.

All in all, the campaign doesn’t last long – clocking in at about 6 to 8 hours – but it’s an effective length considering.  That leaves the multiplayer, which is about as tacked on and generic as one can get without just defaulting to another form of “Horde Mode”.

The online suite features a limited number of maps and modes, the former being rather preferential of large areas with sniper-friendly terrain and the latter being restricted to “classics” like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag until the player levels up enough.  There is a progression system with unlockable weapons, gear and other neat items to help in combat, but it feels artificially extended to keep people playing longer than this game deserves.

Visually, the game suffers from pop-in, and its graphics might not be quite so impressively detailed up close, but the art design and the quality of the character models truly sells the experience.  Dubai’s increasingly ruined beauty has to be seen to be believed, as does the physical toll that Walker and his team start to display.

Lastly, it should be mentioned that Nolan North and the other voice actors deliver incredible performances in their roles, fitting the warped realism that this game aims for.  There’s also an abundance of heavy rock music used at various points in the game, usually as a way of increasing tension and fitting the mood of firefights.

There’s games in the world for shooting up s**t, and they are allowed to exist.  But Spec Ops: The Line reminds us that there’s a person behind the barrel of that gun, and they may not always be right in the mind once they pull the trigger.  Even with its flawed and undercooked gameplay, the sheer magnitude and emotional significance of this tale makes it a worthwhile purchase.

Score: 8/10

Recommendation: Buy It

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One comment on “Spec Ops: The Line

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