If "Spec Ops" rings a bell, that's because it's been kicking around in gaming for a long time.
The original, released in 1998, was created by Zombie Studios as an early attempt at a realistic simulation of the trials and tribulations faced by Special Forces units.
After being in hibernation for almost the entirety of two generations, 2K Games has revived the series with Spec Ops: The Line, thanks to developers Yager Development and the inspiration of Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness. Though, as we found out during a chat with Yager Development Senior Game Designer Shawn Frison, this is a complete reimagining of the series.
Shawn described his role on the title as contributing to development facets like game balance, weapon design, and AI, as well as having a hand in a whole "hodge-podge" of design elements. When asked about the new direction that Yager wished to take the series, he mentioned that the team was enamoured by what the series had once stood for, how specifically it referred to the Special Forces, and how they could position the game for fans of military shooters. At the same time, though, even the most devoted players are unlikely to see any links to the previous games; this one is starting from a clean slate.
When asked about what aspects of the game players ought to be aware of, Shawn paid particular note to the tone and dark themes present in the title. He mentioned that the goal with Spec Ops: The Line was to show a different take on the horrors of war. It was felt that a lot of current military shooters focus on "Michael Bay moments and explosions", whereas the aim of Spec Ops is to display a more human side of war. The costs and consequences of the actions of the characters involved, who went in to try and do the right thing but were never going to come out unscathed.
With the story taking a significant focus during development, the overall aim of the narrative was to create an experience that was "darker and more mature than the other military shooter titles out there". The game is set in a decimated Dubai, six months after a devastating sandstorm all but wiped it off the map. The dominating presence of sand in this scenario results in a number of unique gameplay elements, which Shawn touched on during our interview. In particular, the most significant gameplay hook mentioned is how the environment affects the player's progress.
"We tried to play with it in a lot of different ways", said Shawn, who went on to explain how this affects gameplay. There are fixed-action moments throughout the story, where a change in the environment can change or define how things progress. A grenade could kick up a sand cloud, shooting out a window might bury the three guys behind that pillar over there, or a new path or item could be found by recognising these potential setups in the environment.
Shawn also mentioned a few differences to the core mechanics of the game, that Yager hoped would set it apart from other shooters. For example, vaulting over cover that has an enemy hiding behind it will result in you kicking them as you land.
Another major point that Shawn touched on was the "decision scenes". Having consulted a number of military advisors, the kinds of scenarios that players will be faced with attempt to replicate what would be faced by a real Special Forces team. Furthermore, it was Yager’s hope that players would really feel the gravity of the choices that they make. The player’s choices were aimed to be a closer shade of gray - damned if you do, damned if you don't - as opposed to the usual black and white seen in games.
Shawn also said that, even though the game started out as a direct interpretation of Heart of Darkness, the concept eventually grew to be the team's own take on the story. While there will be many recognisable elements, Yager have gone all-out to make this game their own, with "surprises, and twists and turns".
Aside from examining the different consequences of choice throughout the story, and playing through different levels of difficulty from the "eight or so" hour campaign, players will have multiplayer to look forward to as well. In addition to the usual shenanigans, the focus of the multiplayer mode will be on a "more intimate and team-based experience", with "smaller groups and smaller maps, where you'll really have to rely on each other".
When I asked what he thought of modern gaming narratives, Shawn made a comparison to cinema and the generally consistent quality of narratives you might find there. He felt that, once movies had reached a certain budget, that all these aspects were in good order; that there was enough care put into them.
This was in stark contrast to gaming, where even some of the most heavily budgeted games turn out to have absolutely rubbish narratives, and that the quality was all over the place. He put this down to gaming being a young and developing medium. With Spec Ops: The Line, Yager saw the opportunity for them to "make something mature".
Furthermore, we discussed the challenge of finding a good mix of developers and writers that could work together to create enough synergy to make a special product. Since finding someone who is good at both is extremely difficult, putting great developers together with great creative minds has become a vital part of the development process.
Finally, when asked about what Yager had hoped to achieve out of the release of Spec Ops, Shawn summed it up simply by saying "for it to be remembered for having told a story that hadn't been told before , that brought games a little more depth and maturity". He continued on to describe a video of a person playing the game who went deadly silent for a couple of minutes after he'd realised the magnitude of his actions.
And with that, Shawn felt that the team at Yager had left the mark that they wanted to on the player. If that sounds like the kind of thing you want to experience, Spec Ops: The Line is out now; look for our full review soon.