Have you ever wanted to play a military shooter with a heart? Well, Spec Ops: The Line’s heart is a bloody mess and players are rewarded with an intense, often squeamish adventure that is all about the fight for human survival. It’s safe to say that the gameplay won’t win any awards, and it certainly feels like any number of shooters. But it’s effective enough, and luckily the story—more importantly, how Yager tells the story—will likely draw you in and keep your eyes glazed on the screen throughout the campaign. It’s not just an explosive ride, but it also plays with your mind and makes you question each decision, what constitutes a victim and a hero, and how far humans are willing to go to survive.
Spec Ops: The Line easily offers one of the best narratives in any modern military shooter. You’re tasked with leading a three-man team in search of survivors in Dubai, but it quickly steers from the typical modern war fighter storyline and delves into something of a character study. The character is Captain Martin Walker, and his mission becomes foggier as the story progresses. By the end, you’ll scratch your head putting the pieces together and wondering what could have been if you had only shot that other guy, or saved that other person. It’s a game full of moral decisions, but it doesn’t play out with straight good or bad directions; instead, you just live with your consequences.
Nolan North delivers yet another terrific performance voicing Martin Walker. Your team rarely offers the typical one-liners found in most shooters. In many ways, Yager is after a more mature audience that doesn’t want to kill baddies. Walker is in Dubai to rescue Colonel John Konrad. The original task of the military was to evacuate this emirate city, but within minutes of the first chapter, you’ll find out that things went drastically wrong. There is a war still raging in Dubai, and at times it’s confusing to know who your enemies are; but in truth, practically everyone is against you. Instead of rescuing Konrad, you simply need to survive and try to escape.
This gets even uglier the further you go. There’s a shade of rebellion stirring underground, there’s a rogue military branch, and the CIA are only making things worse. At times you’ll feel like an absolute war monger, and other times you’ll feel like a hero. But the overarching theme is that war is really hell, and it makes people down right crazy. The characters are never clearly good nor bad, and even your decisions fall in that gray area that makes you want to play the entire game one more time to see how your actions could change the sands.
There is a lot more to the story that we won’t spoil. Needless to say, we strongly encourage you to check it out for yourself and enjoy some clever narrative elements.
The dust-soaked Dubai setting is surprisingly unique and levels offer plenty of diversity. You’ll fight enemies on sparsely-populated, ravaged city streets, through a dilapidated hotel, and through newly-formed gravesites. Even though the game has that sand-colored hue throughout, there are plenty of moments where colors, sunlight, and smoke offer a change of pace. An exploding grenade will often kick up a cloud of dust, and catching the sun in your scope will make it hard to see advancing enemies.
Rarely will you get tired of seeing sand because, despite the hype, the element of sand is mostly used to assist your squad. For example, shooting out a window during a sandstorm will, as you can imagine, usher in mounds of sand to burry your enemies. That same sandstorm can blind both you and your enemies, giving you just enough time to run to cover. It’s not overly used, so it’s hard to complain that it’s not used as effectively as it could.
There is a lot Spec Ops: The Line gets right. It’s got a compelling narrative, well-thought environments and levels, and great voice acting. The gameplay department is a little more of a mixed bag. This is an extremely basic shooter, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The third-person perspective offers a solid view of your surroundings while the shot mechanics are solid. Controls, on the other hand, aren’t so solid. Everything feels a bit loose. You run and stick to cover with the X button, and can leap over cover with the circle button, which also serves are your melee attack. Cover is spotty, and leaping over cover is even worse. We found ourselves getting behind a half-blown-wall, and then looking like fools trying to bash it in with the butts of our guns instead of leaping over it.
It also offers a fairly mediocre presentation. It runs well on the Unreal Engine 3, but feels a bit out of date and blotchy at points. Draw distance is frequently an issue, and at times it feels like the game can’t render characters fast enough. You’ll also find random popping issues. Luckily the setting and level design keeps these graphical issues to only minimal annoyance.
The A.I. is rock solid. You can give simple orders to your two companions—like, go kill that guy—and they are pretty effective. If you give a dumb order—like, go kill that guy way, way down there—you’ll put them at risk and they could fall in battle. You can revive them, but in the heat of battle it’s easy to go down with them if you aren’t careful. They have no problem standing on their own, and it’s extremely refreshing to have an A.I. team that actually does their job. Meanwhile, enemies are aggressive. They’ll flank you, and send in shotgunners while snipers pick away at you. The quality A.I. helps bridge the otherwise predictable gameplay.
The same excitement developed through the narrative in the campaign doesn’t translate quite well into the multiplayer. Since the controls are rather poor, playing against others isn’t all that enjoyable. There is a full multiplayer to jump into, complete with objective-based modes, upgrades (although, they feel a bit rudimentary), and even random sand storms. Multiplayer is basic, yes, but it’s not terrible. It’s like many other heavily story-driven shooters in that it’s hard to translate the drama from the campaign to the multiplayer component.
Spec Ops: The Line is one of the most interesting military shooters we’ve played. It’s heavily story-driven and it’ll engage you through the 6-8 hour campaign. You’ll question everything at the end, including your own judgments, and you’ll no doubt feel compelled to play again—that’s always a complement for a shooter. If you go in expecting an interesting story, and lower your expectations about much of the gameplay, you’ll walk away impressed. Spec Ops: The Line deserves a top spot on your summer play list and hopefully you’ll find it just as engaging as we did.