Spec Ops: The Line review
Walking a thin line between fun and immersion, and balancing like a pro


If you've played through Medal Of Honor 2010 and found yourself going “man I like this story but it just feels like a poor man's Call Of Duty”, then Spec Ops: The Line is your mother*bleep*ing savior! Now, if you've never heard of the Spec Ops series, basically, it was a series of tactical third person shooters where you and a squad of people had to complete objectives. I suppose you could say it was Ghost Recon before Ghost Recon. But for whatever reason, what was scheduled to have come out in 2002 for the PS2 was cancelled and we hadn't heard from the series since... until now. Not only does Spec Ops: The Line breathe new life into the series, but it's also a pretty damn good game – just not for the reasons you'd expect.

The story is what sells this game. It details the horrors of war as you, Captain Martin Walker, are sent into Dubai, alongside a small recon team, to investigate what's been going on in the wartorn city. I mean, it would appear that the vicious sandstorms were the reason that Dubai got like this in the first place, but when Martin and company make their way there, boy oh boy, were we wrong. Rather than the whole bro tier action hero shit you see in many modern shooters, The Line opts for a more horrific take on war where everything is already *bleep*ed up and everything you do will only make things worse. Whether it's worse for you, your team, your nation, Dubai or even the entire world, it doesn't matter, because we're already in a world of shit; it's just a matter of how much you wade through to get to the super secret treasure at the end of the road.

With this darker take on war, the story becomes rather intriguing as you'll need to make various moral decisions – save the citizens or continue on your merry way, for instance. Nothing about these are black and white because no matter what, things are bound to get worse. This is war, not tea time with the Teletubbies and certainly not Rambo. Saving people won't necessarily make you a hero, especially if it gets you killed, because nobody wants you here in the first place – why else would they be shooting at you? The further along you get, the more morally reprehensible you can become, simply because the situation has worn on your psyche. You, the player, know not to do those decisions; it's in your conscience not to do them, but as Martin Walker, it isn't so easy, especially if a few deaths means the saving of thousands more, or the satisfaction of having killed those who have wronged you. There are plenty of questions that you'll be asked throughout the game and you'll need to weigh the pros with the cons. Save a few lives, or kill said few lives because what's a few more bodies, eh? We're rescuing a batallion of our own soldiers – *bleep* everyone else!

I'm willing to assume that the question on your mind is “but what about the actual shooting”. Well, you'll be grateful to know that it works out quite well. For the most part, it controls well enough – moving, running, getting behind cover and shooting is easy enough, although sprinting and getting into cover are mapped to the A button – that is to say, you'll sprint by pressing it once and get into cover by pressing it twice while near cover. In some senses, it feels like a one button cluster*bleep*, especially whenever you're in a more chaotic situation towards the end and you need to get into cover only to end up sprinting. The B button isn't immune to this either, as it lets you vault over cover or use a melee attack, depending on how close to cover you are. Beyond that, I have noticed that the movement is a little stiff. It's not too stiff, but it is noticeable when you're not quite moving as fluidly as other third person shooters' characters do. So really, the controls aren't quite there, but they're bearable as commands to at least respond they way they should. It's more of a matter of a few moments during the heat of battle where it can register the wrong command and get you killed.

But yeah, this is a cover-based shooter through and through – you run through linear levels, duck into cover, pop up and shoot enemies down. The weapons are what you'd expect from this kind of game with pistols, machine guns, shotguns and the odd rocket launcher, and the enemies are also what you'd expect, being guys that shoot at you from behind cover or rushing up to you. The basic idea is to run through sections of Dubai (that are really linear, but the level design is about on par with Half Life 2's in that it's just linear enough to be more linear than it appears, which helps to immerse you into the experience that bit more) and duck behind cover before your head gets blown off, and pop up every now and again to pop theirs off. It's not like I'm dogging the game for that because it's better than it appears. Outside of some instances of the whole “one button cluster*bleep*” thing I was talking about before, it's playable enough to go through and even fun at times, even though it really shouldn't be fun. Perhaps it's the killer instinct in me talking, but when you're given a decent array of enemies to take down and guns to take them down with, there's just a certain satisfaction in mowing them down what may appear to be impossible odds... the feeling of being John Rambo kicking ass and taking names, even when I shouldn't be such a vicious murderer.

That's not to say it's 100% what you'd expect from this style, though. Martin can't take anywhere near as many shots as Marcus Fenix – particularly if you're playing on the hardest difficulty mode, Martin can only take a couple of shots before taking a permanent residence underneath the sand, so you have to be a bit smarter with your approach, which can be tricky when at times, it feels like you've actually been ambushed. No, it's not some silly scripted event; it's the enemies being placed in locations you don't quite expect them to be placed. So in that sense, Spec Ops is a bit trickier than your average cover shooter, which is a rather freshing thing to have in this day and age.

You're also given a couple of squadmates who can keep you covered. By pressing RT, you can command them to either shoot enemies or blow up wherever/whatever you're aiming at. That, or they can chuck a flashbang to hopefully get you out of a sticky situation. Other than their, their AI functions... pretty damn inconsistently. On one hand, they can gun down enemies when necessary and back you up, and they often have the sense to duck into cover. On the other hand, they love to get in your way at times and do *bleep* all to help you, just sitting there with a thumb up their ass. Meanwhile, the enemy AI is consistently functional in the sense that they occasionally pop up from cover and shoot at you, maybe throw grenades at you after a while and perhaps just run up to you and hit you with the butt of their guns.

The graphics aren't the best in the world – there are some pretty weak quality textures that look like something out of a launch title for the 360, or even a late PS2 game! Not to mention that there's so much pop-up that it's really distracting. It'll take a few seconds for the crappy textures to load up, and believe me when I say that during cutscenes, it will do everything in its power to take you out of the experience as it's pretty much the elephant in every single room. It also ruins a lot of set pieces, which already look rather underwhelming as a result of low quality textures and particle effects. I will applaud it for having a color other than brown and gray... and that, my friends, is dirty yellow! But really, the colors are surprisingly varied, and what's used helps each object stand out in their own ways. The sand effects are also rather impressive as, although it doesn't look anywhere near as good as what's found in Uncharted, they feel like they have just the right amount of layers for the severity of any given sandstorm. It's also used for the sake of tension, like they may or may not be enemies behind them and I think that's a nice touch. Hey, look at this – a military shooter has more tension than the last two main Resident Evil games.

The sound design is actually pretty damn good. It uses rock music to lure you into thinking that it's going to be your usual shooter, though to be fair, it does pump you up and really get you into killing enemy soldiers, so it's not like it fails in that regard. Then gives way to more sombre acoustic tracks to drive the point home. It really sets just the right tones for what it tries to achieve and for that, it's a grade A *bleep*ing soundtrack. The voice acting is also really good. This is probably Nolan North at his best as he manages to make Martin seem like a generic soldier whose brain eventually fries to a crisp due to the horrors of war, and everybody else's voice actors also really get into it. Because of this, it's very easy to get absorbed into the story, which is really where the game shines.

It's easy to write off Spec Ops: The Line as a game with a great story carrying mediocre gameplay and graphics, but doing so will ensure that you'll be missing out on quite a lot. The story is what makes the gameplay work out the way it does. You're killing all of these people who are shooting at you, but it's not like you're shooting them because the government said so; you're shooting them because they are shooting you and you need to survive to see the end of your rescue mission! It's not necessarily entertaining; it's gutwrenching, unnerving and overwhelming with its heavy handed themes and excellent storytelling, all of which only serves to keep you coming back to see where else you can go with this situation. War is hell and we've taken a permanent residence there – might as well get used to it.

8.5/10 (Great)

Originally posted for http://signfarbeyond.blogspot.com.au

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