Spec Ops: The Line, a remake of an older Playstation series developed by Yager Entertainment (the originals were done by Zombie Studios). Once upon a time, Rockstar Vancouver was in play to develop a game for the PS2, but that never saw the light of day. Yager (published by 2k Games) took an interesting approach to revamping the series, focusing mainly on the single player progression and the story (in a war game you say? Preposterous). Do they have what it takes to re-ignite the old series, or is it destined to tumble into mediocrity?
You are Captain Walker (voiced by everyone’s favorite Nolan North, who is now also Deadpool (yay)), leading a small Delta Squad into Dubai after one of the most renowned military units has gone dark inside the city. Once you get in, you’re cut off by the sandstorm and it is clear that not all is right. The civilians (led by the CIA now inside Dubai) are fighting against the Damn 33rd led by a seemingly deranged Col. John Konrad. You become suspicious that things are not what they seem as you push deeper into the decaying city searching for answers despite your squad encouraging you to turn back.
If you think name Konrad sounds familiar, you are right. The game is based on the titular novel Heart of Darkness which later also spawned the movie known as Apocalypse Now. The parallel here is that the novel was written by Joseph Conrad, while the titular part of Konrad is Kurtz (played by Brando in the movie). I was excited since it is one of my favorite works of literature, but suspicious because a game with emphasis of the story quickly gave away it’s twist. Fortunately, the developers and writers were clever enough to switch it up one more time, and more importantly it is also the journey as much as the destination when it comes to Spec Ops.
Many games actively try to push what we think is acceptable or appropriate (the airport scene in MW2), but few do it the way Spec Ops does. It really lays out the horror, the desolation and the helplessness of the situation. Walker is forced to not only justify some of his actions but to actively face the consequences of them. Playing through the game you will not only commit to the story, but also actively question how someone can remain sane all this time, after seeing all of this. It is a very emotional journey that puts into question a lot of things. The ending really sticks it home (there are multiple options there) putting a grand cap on a phenomenal journey.
Sound-wise the game is amazing, really tapping into the feel of Apocalypse Now. As you make your way through Dubai you are ushered by the voice of the mad DJ (ex-reporter, think Dennis Hopper in the movie) and some rocking tunes before Konrad’s echoing tone sets in for the final third. The voice work is also exceptional and Nolan North really sells the emotional fragility and desperation of the main character. The supporting cast is also great, making you really feel for your squad-mates, especially when things fall apart and you struggle to keep them together.
Visually, the game really nails the desolate look of Dubai. The city looks like it’s really been hit by a sandstorm. While the things it does aren’t as impressive as Uncharted 3 (few things are) visually, it really does a lot of good things with sand, often turning it into a weapon. The vista’s (when you get to see them) are really breathtaking and the use of visual direction translated the desert feel of the environments. The character models are well defined and detailed, visibly degenerating as you get deeper and deeper into the heart of Dubai. There are a few issues like visible pop in for some missions as well as a longer loading times and few frame rate drops. These are moderately annoying once they start happening frequently, but at a steady pace, you might hardly even notice.
The game is a typical Third Person Action, with an emphasis on tactics. Both Lugo and Adams (your squad) have special abilities that allow them to carry out orders. Lugo is a tactical sniper while Adams can use grenades to flash or blow up his opponents. You will need to make good use of your squad (especially on higher difficulty levels) to survive from firefight to firefight. It is often important to consider your surroundings and flank the opposition or order your squad to divert fire as you pick the enemies off one by one. On higher difficulty, the AI will focus on you more often, making squad commands paramount.
The game boasts one of the better cover systems in third person gaming today, with easy button controls and little confusion. You hit one button to run and to slide into cover, that same button will give you an option to either swap out to the opposite wall or lean out to run for the next one. The other input will allow you to vault over. This all seems simple enough, but every motion in Spec Ops feels very fluid and coordinated, really showing off the refined mechanics. There is never a moment when you feel lost or unable to do something, and that is a testament to perfecting something that’s been a series staple since Gears of War. The only small gripe is the positioning of the vault button which is the same as melee. This causes problems when you try to take a running start to your obstacle course, but considering you won’t often want to jump over cover into the open without first picking foes off from behind it, this isn’t really as relevant.
There are a few prolonged sections of frustration when the difficulty curve spikes all the way up. Normally, this isn’t a problem with steady increase, but Spec Ops will jump up and down, throwing you from a walk in a park to a crawl through Mordor. This is somewhat offset by AI and clipping issues. A few times I’ve had AI take cover on top of containers rather than behind them making it easy to pick them off, in others, heavy weapon users like shotgunners will simply sprint at you hoping for the best. These sections aren’t too frequent, but they happened often enough to be noticeable. Other than that, the AI seems well coordinated when it comes to laying down covering fire, taking cover and flanking your squad, making every firefight a challenge.
Spec Ops: The Line also boasts a multiplayer mode, but the game’s emphasis on the single player experience really shows here. Compared to a lot of other games based around online this one feels very bare bones. It relies heavily on gamers’ desires to keep leveling up and unlocking stuff. What’s missing however is the character of the single player, even the desolate and sometimes lush environments are often not transferred over to the cooperative component making it feel just like deathmatch on a few stock maps. The saving grace for the mode is HQ mode where 2 teams of 4 will fight to sabotage the opponents base while also defending their own. It places an interesting emphasis on teamwork as well as a tense interplay between attacking and defending. To be fair however, this game would have been fine of the strength of single player alone.
The Good: Great story, amazing characters, captivating score; a very well polished and refined cover system; a true commitment to the tactical aspect of the gameplay.
The Bad: Certain technical issues take you out of the experience a little too often; occasional AI glitches; barebones multiplayer mode
The Line: A lot of names are references to either the novel or the book (Martin Walker is a nod to Martin Sheen who played the titular character in Apocalypse Now)
Verdict: Once again, we are still trained to judge the game as the sum of it’s parts, putting together all the variables, but some games warrant you looking past that. This is one of those games. A true breath of fresh air released during the time when gamers cry out for some new titles. Yes there are issues, yes there isn’t much in terms of multiplayer but Spec Ops: The Line is all about the single player experience. It draws you in and takes you for an emotionally invested ride. It makes you question things as well as explore them from a new angle. And it is truly worth your time.