“I’m trying to work out who’s more full of s**t,” says Captain Walker to his loyal teammate Lugo in the opening level of Spec Ops: The Line, “you or intelligence.” Lugo quickly responds that “if [he] weren’t a hardened killing machine, that might actually have hurt”- it’s moments like this that highlight the subtle wit and banter between the comrades at the heart of this military shooter, setting it apart from its competitors. No more will you have trouble distinguishing this deceptive pro-war experience from the browns and greys that litter annual, outstayed returnees like Call Of Duty and Medal Of Honor or indeed the science-fiction elements that have been recycled from the Halo franchise into other weaker rip-offs since its inception. Indeed, if gamers are looking for a shooter that differentiates itself in terms of narrative and empathetic content, this will most certainly fit the bill.
The main plotline focuses on the country of Dubai as it is thrown into chaos by sandstorms in a near-future setting. Sent into the ruined nation in order to retrieve a renegade faction of the United States’ military forces, Walker and his men soon discover that all is not at its seems, as the horror of an intense civil war begins to emerge on the surface and they are caught right in the middle of it. It’s hard to do this hugely compelling narrative justice on paper without spoiling its best twists, yet sufficed to say that Spec Ops packs a deep emotional punch the likes of which you probably haven’t seen since the original Modern Warfare, or perhaps ever in a military shooter.
Not only do the characters and locations you come across prove both memorable and realistic, the effect the war of the 33rd has on these plot elements as the lengthy 10-12 hour campaign progresses is startling and impressive to behold, resembling that of a blockbuster action movie done right (so more Apocalypse Now than Battleship!). If there’s one snippet of knowledge that you will take away from The Line’s single-player mode, it’s that decisions really can have dire consequences, but sometimes the ‘right choice’ is either taken out of our hands or indeed often non-existent. One particular action I took at around the game’s halfway point seemed like the only course of reasonable attack, and perhaps it was, and yet that didn’t stop the monumental impact it had on my view of this fictitious conflict shifting dramatically, and it will do the same for players if and when they allow themselves to be immersed into the rich world.
This core narrative strength would mean little if the gameplay itself couldn’t match it, so it’s a good move on Yager’s part that they learnt from the best. As we’re talking about a cover shooter, I think you’ll already know which franchise I’m talking about, but in case I have to spell it out for you, then know that this game has the words ‘If you like Gears Of War, you’ll love this’ written all over it. The cover system is fluid and responsive, even if there are times when the ‘invisible barriers’ of the various levels are more notable than they might have been in Epic’s hands. I rank the aforementioned technical inspiration and Spec Ops on the same level, but this shortcoming is sadly something which holds the latter back a little for striving to be the first masterful third-person shooter in a long time.
Layered over the strong narrative and linear – but-impressive gameplay is an eye-pleasing graphics engine. The environments were and are near photorealistic at times, the AI for the most part wonderfully animated and the sand textures that Yager spent so long working on impressively put to good use. Admittedly, some of the textures on characters’ clothing do look a little pixelated when viewed closer in cutscenes, but this is a minor drawback that only slightly reduces the level of immersion for the overall experience.
There’s a good degree of replay value to the main campaign, with dozens of intelligence reports littered across the various levels and a multitude of game-changing decisions that will actively affect its endings. A ‘Spec Ops’-esque mode (don’t worry, the irony of that name choice isn’t lost on me) a la COD wouldn’t have gone amiss here either, yet it’s clear that Yager and 2K spent the majority of their time working on this story mode.
Moving onto the multiplayer, there’s no doubting that the gameplay and graphics engines laid in place for the campaign carry over efficiently into what is unquestionably a very competent component. As a solo gamer at heart, the strength of online offerings is sometimes of little relevance to me, but I can at least credit the developers for handing us a functional, if not entirely innovative multiplayer mode.
Although the multiplayer modes don’t break much new ground, they’re strong enough to last players for some time, and quite frankly it’s the shockingly innovative solo campaign that’s the main attraction here. Those players fearing that this is just another COD lookalike should rest assured that this is no such pretender – in fact, as someone who has all but left that aforementioned tired franchise behind, I can safely say that this improves upon its lacklustre campaigns in every possible way, making for a breathtaking adventure that won’t soon be forgotten.
Had Spec Ops: The Line entered the shooter fray a little earlier in the game, I would imagine it would have gone down a storm back in the day, but as it is by copying the tropes of Gears rather than making its own way in the gameplay department, this brilliant shooter can’t hope to be the revolution this genre still sorely needs.