The last time I saw Spec Ops: The Line was nearly two years ago at the reveal event in Berlin. The game’s ducked way below the radar since then, having barely shown its sand-swept face in the time between then and now. Just as I was starting to wonder if the game had stumbled into some weird cancellation abyss, it’s reappeared like a long-dormant Sandworm itching for an easy South African-journalist-flavoured meal. Which is to say that I got an email with “Spec Ops” as its subject header – but simply stating that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as theatrical as it needed to be.

Long story short, I find myself in London, surrounded by more winter clothing than I normally expect to see this time of year. Spec Ops is the purpose of this trip, and I’ve just had the opportunity to spend an action-packed hour getting some hands-on time with a title that still upholds all the gameplay and narrative ideals that it did when I first saw it so long ago.

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First, a quick refresher: Spec Ops is set in Dubai. Some time prior to the game’s opening, the extravagant city is ravaged by vicious sandstorms, forcing a mass evacuation. To help with this crisis, The Damned 33rd (a US Army battalion renowned for its prowess both in combat and in humanitarian efforts) volunteers to provide aid. Led by Colonel John Konrad (Decorated Army Guy™), the 33rd stands with their commanding officer when he decides to disobey the order to abandon the city as the storms continue to worsen. Instead, they stay behind to escort the last civilian caravan to safety. Those sandstorms can be total bastards though, and the most bastardly of them greedily swallows the 33rd and their civilian chums long before safety is within reach, effectively transforming Dubai into the world’s most opulent graveyard.

Six months have passed since then, and Dubai has been silent. Cut off from the rest of the world by the incessant sandstorms, it’s assumed that the city is devoid of life. That is, until a distress signal from within the city is intercepted. Sent by Konrad, the broadcast results in a Delta Recon Team being sent in to gather Intel on Dubai’s status and locate any survivors before leaving to report back. That’d make for a very boring videogame, however, so things naturally spiral out of control as we’re led further down the rabbit hole in this intriguingly refreshing and curiously enigmatic take on tactical military shooters.

You take on the role of Captain Martin Walker (voiced by Nolan “I’m here too!” North), leader of this three-man recon team. You’re joined by Lieutenant Alphonso Adams and Sergeant John Lugo. It’s not long before you discover that the situation in Dubai is seven shades of strange – refugee insurgents and mutineers from the 33rd battle for control of the devastated city, and Konrad has seemingly vanished. Broadcasts from the mysterious “Radioman” pepper your journey through this particularly gritty warzone. Bodies hang from lampposts, survivors skirmish over dwindling resources and mass graveyards turn this into a pretty nasty tour through well-designed environments.

On the surface, this all allows for fairly familiar third-person shooter action (complete with cover system), but uniqueness appears in a number of ways. As is to be expected, there’s a ton of sand in these here parts. It’s not just a visual reminder of where you are either, the sand plays a prominent role, and I might’ve even gone so far as to call it the “BioShock of the sands” in my first preview. It’s fitting, because Rapture’s watery depths aren’t thematically dissimilar to the role Dubai’s desert sands play here. Enemies can be taken out via strategic use of sand, and they’ll likewise attempt to do the same to you. For example, early on in the demo, a wrecked bus played home to sand within piled against its windows. Enemies taking shots at me from their perch below it stood oblivious to the potential death-trap resting awkwardly above them. Shooting one of the bus windows unleashed a torrent of sand that bludgeoned and buried these foes, freeing me up to deal with other threats. Moments like these are obviously scripted and strategically placed throughout the environment, and they’re much appreciated for the reprieve they offer in the more intense shootouts. Other moments from the demo involved my grenades accidentally shattering the glass of building windows, sending torrential sand that had piled against the glass pouring in to incapacitate hostiles. Grenades have a particularly cool effect when detonated in sandy environs. Not only do they murder foes in close proximity (as well they should), but they also kick up thick, sandy clouds that obscure vision and leave enemies blind, essentially making every frag grenade thrown a potential stun grenade.

Obviously the sandstorms themselves play into this as well. When they show up, they’re massively impressive – these environmental beasts that ruin your vision and completely change the situation you’re in. Enemies stumble about as they’re battered by the storm, and it’s not uncommon to accidentally bump into one of them, leading to a quick melee scuffle. You and your squad are forced to slowly, but desperately seek shelter as bits of the environment are torn apart and movement is severely hampered. The sound they make is monstrous, really hammering home their destructive intention. I’m curious to see what more will be done with these storms.

Sand-powered gameplay aside, there’s the narrative that gives Spec Ops its own defining aftertaste. It’s not just the Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness inspirations (which should give you an idea as to what direction the story is going to take if you’re familiar with either of those), but also the mature nature with which it handles player decisions. These aren’t binary moral choices between good and evil – these walk the line somewhere between the two, forcing you to make decisions that are both difficult and affecting, often leaving you feeling like a total d*ck no matter your choice. I’ll bet the game’s subtitle makes a bit more sense now. Your choices won’t alter the course of the storyline either. This is not a branching narrative, and these moments exist purely to enhance the experience and give it real weight rather than simply handing out points for being good and evil. Even the moment-to-moment, incidental decisions manage to somehow evoke a moral response. Downed enemies can be executed, for example, something I gradually found it more and more difficult to do, purely because my brain instinctively began questioning my actions, eventually reaching a point where I stopped doing it. This isn’t even something that has any effect on your game whatsoever, or something that was prompted by the game – it was purely a personal choice, possibly brought on by everything I’d witnessed up until that point and the resultant effect it was having on me. It makes me want to believe that the game is already succeeding in its attempt to truly reveal war’s hideous visage and convey the effect desperate times can have on desperate people.

Then there’s the setting. Dubai is an immediately iconic city, offering truly breathtaking opportunities for ludicrous level design. And it’s obvious by what I’ve seen so far that Yager is taking full advantage of the distinctive locale they’re letting us loose in. Standing atop a skyscraper, staring down at the city’s sand-covered remains as you’re ziplining your way to a nearby building is a beautiful thing. The stark contrast between extravagance and destruction, elegance and decay is obvious, especially when you start seeing some of the game’s harsher imagery within these opulent surroundings. From what I’ve seen, Dubai is going to make for a stunning playground, hopefully packed with fresh sights and sounds around every corner.

Even without all of this, Spec Ops is already a solid shooter. Those two years in hiatus have been good for my initial hands-on impression of the game, because everything on offer looks, sounds and feels polished, even in its incomplete state. The gunplay and weapons are satisfying, and there’s clearly thought that’s been put into the design of each combat area. Flanking opportunities and multiple paths have been inlaid within each zone, resulting in dynamic combat scenarios which the developers assure will always play out differently. It’s also thanks to the enemy AI, which reacts dynamically according to your squad’s actions. Speaking of your squad, you’re able to give Adams and Lugo context-sensitive orders on the fly. Orders to stun enemies are commonplace, leading your squad to move in and subdue entrenched forces so you can move in for the kill. You’re also able to order your squad to attack specific foes while you focus on others. The developers are adamant that this is not a game about squad control: you’re free to use the basic commands on offer as much or as little as you please, but they do want you to feel as if you’re this squad’s leader and your orders matter. It ties back into that all-important narrative, because making us feel emotionally invested in the squad is sure to draw a greater reaction from us as we see the effect the game’s storyline and your decisions are having on their morale and mental wellbeing.

Going back to the AI: it’s been coded in such a way that the enemy and friendly AI is always playing off one another, constantly acting and reacting based on the situation. Your squad (and enemies) will automatically move to better positions as battles evolve, and certain enemies are coded to behave in different ways. Knife-wielding berserkers, for example, will charge headfirst into battle, dodging and weaving during their maniacal charge as you panic and try to get a shot in. Shotgun-toting foes share similar, but slightly less aggressive traits, in that they’ll still use cover, but might occasionally lose their cool and try to bum rush you as a valiant final effort at bringing you down. In this Dubai gone mad, occasionally unhinged enemies are fitting, so it’s good to see that they’re included. Meanwhile, your squad seems perfectly capable of holding their own, switching weapons and tactics to match any situation, requiring zero babysitting and comfortably dispatching enemies without ever doing anything blindly stupid during the time that I played.

Unfortunately, we’ve not had the chance to see any multiplayer in action yet. The official word is “there’s multiplayer, but we’re not talking about it just yet.” It’ll be intriguing to see what’s done with it, especially considering some of the more outrageous environments I’ve seen, along with the game’s unique sandy elements thrown in. It’s got definite potential for fun times with friends. Still, even without seeing the multiplayer side of things, the hour or so that I’ve spent with Spec Ops’ campaign was more than enough to get me excited about spending more time with it. I haven’t covered everything I saw (I’ve been especially careful not to give away too much about the story and specific in-game moments, because these are definitely things you’ll want to experience for yourself without me spoiling them), but there should be enough here to get fans of third-person tomfoolery pretty excited. It’s a triple-A shooter with mature themes and a strong narrative focus, attempting to be comfortingly familiar while still treading new ground. It’s got a ton of potential, and we’re definitely excited to see what comes of it.

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