As a sheltered middle-class New Zealander, itâ€™s difficult to comprehend the atrocities of war. Sure, Iâ€™ve watched the entire season of Generation Kill, and seen the movies Black Hawk Down and Apocalypse Now, which this game borrows a lot from. But it has always been from the comfort of my own sofa. With a wheat-pack on the back of my neck and chocolate milk by my side. Iâ€™m far removed from the emotional turmoil and genuine terror taking place on screen.
Spec Ops: The Line came close to changing all of that. Set in a conflict-ravaged Dubai, the game throws players into a harrowing portrayal of modern-day warfare that should straighten the short and curlies of most gamers out there. It features a powerful, well-written storyline that takes place in what used to be a playground for the world's wealthiest elite. Here, Dubai has been reclaimed by Mother Nature and been transformed into a eerie wasteland, buried as a result of a catastrophic sandstorm. Players step into the sand-filled boots of Captain Martin Walker, the leader of an elite Delta Force team ordered to infiltrate the insurgent populated region and bring home U.S. Army Colonel John Konrad.
In this weather-blasted city, the once opulent surrounds are now alien-like structures emerging from massive sand dunes. Impressively, considering the tried and true settings for other military shooters, the developers have managed to create a remarkable sense of atmosphere in this alternative Dubai. One that is believable and yet completely surreal at the same time. Scorching hot sun will stream from the heavens, filling the screen with harsh lens-flare and retina reducing glare; and yet the environments can still be gloomy and full of despair.
It soon becomes clear that this transformed city is also home to barbaric acts of torture and misjustice. Moral judgment has been replaced with greed and corruption and Spec Ops: The Line constantly asks you to check your own ethical compass at certain parts in the game. For example, as the Captain of your squad, you might be tasked with shooting a father accused of stealing water for his family. Or possibly ensuring that your own squad are kept in line and not taking their position of power too far. Youâ€™ll have as much internal conflict going on as the bloody contention taking place out on the dusty streets of Dubai.
The plot is driven by an engaging and often humourous script, brought to life by a cast of talented voice actors including Nolan North (although his overuse in recent video games is starting to get quite noticable now). Often, while you and your squad wander the war-torn skyscrapers of Dubai, your teammates will utter amusing anecdotes and experiences. Fans of Evan Wrightâ€™s writing will definitely get a kick out of the banter. Spec Ops: The Line is full of artistic integrity, stunning graphics, a brilliant use of colour and even an amazing soundtrack (the sequence with Deep Purpleâ€™s Hush playing in the background is hellacious).
But is it a good game? Unfortunately, all of the amazing penmanship and eye candy count for nought if the gameplay doesnâ€™t live up to the same standards. In fact, itâ€™s the deep and emotionally charged plot that make these other downfalls all the more apparent.
Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person shooter, with cover and gunplay along the lines of Gears of War. Youâ€™ll be charging around with your standard modern-day arsenal of machine guns, pistols, sniper rifles, uzis, rocket launchers, and so forth. Each gun is well weighted and fun to shoot, but most of the time youâ€™ll opt to lob grenades around as they are far more satisfying. There are also tactical elements to the game too and, as the captain of your squad, youâ€™ll be able to issue orders to your teammates to lay down suppressing fire, target particular enemies, and even heal the wounded.
While the above sounds agreeable, everything is made a challenge due to the unpolished controls. Basic movement is often clunky and buttons have been awkwardly mapped for multiple purposes. For example the melee, or close quarters attack, has the same button as vaulting small objects. A lot of the time it works, but there is nothing more irritating than attempting to jump over a barrier during a hail of gunfire only to see your hardened soldier start thrusting his gun at nothing but thin-air.
With some perseverance, the controls can be overlooked. One saving grace is the tactical management system, where issuing commands to your teammates is surprisingly efficient. But the same cannot be said for the abysmal artificial intelligence. While the game attempts to setup overwhelming odds of highly trained terrorists around every corner, you canâ€™t help but laugh maniacally when you see enemy soldiers running into walls or popping up and down from cover like hyped-up Jack Russell terriers.
Sure, picking them off with a headshot is good fun (itâ€™s even accented with a stylish slow-motion effect), but thereâ€™s little creativity in your combat. Occasionally, at almost pre-scripted sections of the game, you will be able to use your environment to take out enemies, such as shooting out supports or windows to send tonnes of sand and glass toward your foes. But most of the time youâ€™ll be taking cover, shooting at anything that moves, and then jogging over to another bit of cover to repeat.
In order to counter the obviously dim-witted AI, it appears that the developers have simply ramped up the difficulty. Towards the end of the game, the combat is ruthless and even at the medium setting, veteran players will see the respawn load screens frequently. Bullets and grenades will fly at you from every direction and, when combined with slow movement and poor cover controls, the results are often frustrating. To the gameâ€™s credit, a lot of the challenge comes from the clever map designs that utilise wide open spaces and multiple tiers for enemies to appear from.
This issue of underwhelming AI and insanely contrasting difficulty can be solved by taking the action online. Spec Ops features a decent multiplayer component that covers all of the stock-standard competitive modes like deathmatch and objective based team matches. The highlight is a mode called Buried, where two teams of four attempt to sabotage each otherâ€™s head-quarters while defending their own. Just like the single-player experience, the map designs in multiplayer are well thought-out and enjoyable, despite the maximum limit of only eight players. Just like other games of its ilk, there are also experience based unlockables, such as weapons and accessories to keep you progressing online.
But itâ€™s here, in a normally fast-paced multiplayer environment, that the clumsy controls and slow movement put a dampener on the action. At the end of the day, without the compelling storyline of the campaign, the multiplayer is bordering on mediocre and there are more enjoyable rival online shooters out on the market already.
Strangely, games can usually go the other way; great gameplay can give way to terrible graphics and even a weak storyline. But seldom the other way around. Considering this game was announced back in 2009, itâ€™s disappointing to see so many quirks in the AI and controls. Spec Ops: The Line spurs you through the eight hour campaign thanks to some incredible cut-scenes and storyline progression, but sadly makes every interactive experience in-between fairly mundane.