I’m going to come right out and say it. After demoing Spec Ops: The Line’s single player campaign at PAX East and participating in a multiplayer session with members of the development team, there were a number of words that popped into my head. The game I played in those settings was “fun.” The animations were “good.” The multiplayer modes were “interesting.” None of these truly drive home the importance of the final product.
I just finished my six-hour play through of YAGER’s Heart of Darkness-inspired campaign. Those pedestrian terms have been replaced by others like “intense,” “terrifying” and “heart-wrenching.” All of this amounts to one of the most emotionally gripping experiences of this generation.
There have been a few games this generation that have evoked memorable reactions upon completion. I jumped out of my chair at the end of Mass Effect 2. I stared at the screen with my jaw dropped when I finished Batman: Arkham City. At the conclusion of Spec Ops: The Line, I removed my headset, blinked a couple of times and wondered how a military shooter could possibly leave such a deep and troubling impression on me. I will never forget this game.
When you first begin your adventure as Martin Walker (voiced by Nolan North), as he leads his three-man team of Delta Force Operators into the sand-ravaged city of Dubai, you’ll likely wonder what the hell I’m talking about. The game is built on the Unreal Engine and feels enough like Gears of War (down to the same font), throwing nameless insurgents at your wall of bullets.
Maybe it will happen when you pull off your first headshot. The extremely graphic transformation of a human skull and its contents into red mist and empty space, joined by just a slight slowdown for effect, caught me off guard when I saw it for the first time at PAX East. It hit me again when I started in on the game to write this review. Much like other forms of digital violence though, the impact waned over time. Just when I had become used to it, the curve balls started flying.
The first half of the game exists to lull you into a false sense of security. It’s Military Shooter 101: go here, shoot that guy, “ooh” and “ahh” over set pieces. As the story progressed though, I was captivated. I never wanted to take a break, driving through chapter after chapter to see what twists and turns awaited me. Spec Ops: The Line is the equivalent of the book you just can’t put down. That’s all I can say about the story, for fear that I’ve already said too much.
The game doesn’t play quite as well as its narrative is crafted. It’s certainly not a bad game, but it is fairly routine as far as third person cover shooters go. Again, the similarities between Gears of War and Spec Ops: The Line are many. There is a version of the “roadie run,” which also allows you to slide into cover. Unlike Gears, to hop over cover, you have to press the B button. I never quite got used to it after so much time controlling Marcus Fenix’s Delta Squad. Walker’s movements feel like they have the same weight as those of the heavily muscled and armored COGs.
You can carry two weapons at a time, most of which have a secondary function. These include grenade launchers, enhanced scopes, laser pointers, suppressors and firing mode toggles. Ammo is scarce in Dubai, so you’ll likely be swapping weapons often. I appreciated that light arms (pistols and SMGs) used the reticle color to display effectiveness (red for ideal range and pink for reachable, but with reduced damage). Walker can also load up on three different grenade types: frag, sticky and stun. There is one enemy type in particular that made me glad for adhesive explosives, even with the longer fuse. Otherwise, I stuck to frags and stuns, both of which were extremely useful. An explosion on the sand kicks up a cloud that, in addition to the primary effect, can buy you some much-needed breathing room.
Your teammates play an important role in both the story and combat. These aren’t throwaway caricatures. They are fully fleshed out people that react to the situations around them and the decisions you make. Yes, there are opportunities to influence the story, and no, they are not your typical binary good/evil options (again, saying any more would ruin the experience). In combat, you can task Lugo with sniping enemies. When pinned down, the option for Adams to toss a stun grenade becomes available. Both expose your allies, which could lead to one or both of them landing in a critical state.
You can revive them yourself or, if either of the others is still on his feet, you can order him to help out. The squad commands aren’t deep, but they are useful. Moreover, calling out for your team to attack a specific target is usually accompanied by their location, which keeps things fresh. It’s rarely just, “shoot my target.” More often it’s along the lines of, “someone take out the guy in the stands above us.”
“In addition to the outstanding single player campaign, there is a multiplayer mode that offers some interesting game play. There are two teams (the Damned and the Exiles), each with their own sets of perks. You can configure up to five different load outs with two weapons each, an explosive, armor and unlockable boosts like instant aiming down the sites, starting each spawn with extra ammunition and messing with the opposing team members’ minimaps.
The four-on-four play spans some typical game types like Chaos (Deathmatch) and Mutiny (Team Deathmatch). Additionally, there is a permadeath type called Attrition, which plays quickly and is extremely tense. The objective-based modes include Uplink, a twist on King of the Hill, and Buried, in which each time must protect points on the map from demolition.
The map design for the multiplayer modes is fantastic, making great use of verticality. There are zip lines that criss-cross the battlefield, meaning that you can escape from a firefight quickly. You’re vulnerable in transit, though, which balances things nicely. Throw in random sandstorms that slow you down and obscure your minimap, and you’ve got the makings of a refreshingly dynamic experience.