I went into this review expecting a standard, cover-based military shooter. I was wrong.
This is nothing like your standard, cover-based military shooter. Sure, it’s got guns and lots of shouting and stuff blowing up, but in the end that’s not why you’re going to remember this game. Spec Ops: The Line is going to stick with you for the long haul because it does something that countless other games will never be able to do. The events of the game have replayed in my head for longer than normal. By the time I’d finished the game’s campaign, Spec Ops: The Line had succeeded in making me feel extremely uncomfortable. And that sums up the game’s greatest accomplishment: it makes you feel something. It is also criminally devious in its manipulation of your choices and does a stellar job at making you think you’re in control of your character’s decisions. At the end of it all, you as the player are as much of a puppet as the character you’re controlling on screen.
Spec Ops’ accomplishments also make it a tricky title to review, because to go into any great detail on exactly why this game is so good comes the risk of divulging a hundred-and-one spoilers. This could have so easily been just another third-person military shooter, but it turned out to be so much more.
You play as Captain Walker, leader of a squad of Delta Force operatives. Six months ago, a series of sandstorms obliterated the city of Dubai. The US responded to the disaster by sending in the 33rd Battalion under Colonel John Konrad, but after the initial evacuation attempt failed, all contact with the 33rd, as well as the entire city, was lost. Along with two of your squad mates, Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo, your mission is to scout the outskirts of Dubai, find any survivors, and call in the rest of the team once you’ve figured out what’s happened over the last six months.
For the literary types, the game is a modern day adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – a novella I thoroughly recommend. For the movie buffs, it’s Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now only set in present day Dubai instead of Vietnam. Still, the Vietnam War era motifs sneak their way into Spec Ops in the form of 60s protest rock and conspiracy theory obsessed characters like the “Radioman”.
Despite a few minor niggling issues, Spec Ops is a decent shooter that draws more similarities to Gears of War than anything with Tom Clancy’s name on it. You have your two squad mates with you for most of the game, and you’re able to highlight targets you want them to take out. You can also order them to throw flahsbangs when needed, but that is the extent of the “squad management”. Still, your AI companions are definitely useful; much more so than in other games.
Shooting mechanics are a straight-up affair. You’re only able to carry two guns at any time, but you also have slots for frag grenades, sticky grenades and flashbangs. Ammo can be restocked with ammo containers that resupply any weapons you might be carrying (ala Gears of War). Controls are tight and responsive (I was playing on Xbox 360) and overall the gunplay provides a satisfying experience. A slow-motion mechanic has also been added that triggers for a few seconds whenever you get a headshot. This means that if you’re skilled enough, you could clear an entire room by connecting headshots. This, however, is easier said than done.
In terms of presentation, Spec Ops is above average and it’s evident that the design team tried their damndest to create a unique setting for a game that falls into a saturated genre. The result is an atmosphere that’s more akin to a post apocalypse than a military shooter. The wastes of Dubai are detailed and horrific, with executed people and corpses hanging from street lights. Dust storms frequently blow in to obscure your vision, and the way that the desert sands flow and cascade down debris is very well done. You’ll also come across numerous impressive set pieces, and anyone who has actually visited Dubai will be able to identify some of the city’s more iconic structures.
So far so good, but Spec Ops does have some niggling issues. The cover system is a temperamental creature and getting out of cover can be frustrating, which makes avoiding numerous grenades somewhat difficult. Additionally, the game’s checkpoints can be a little shoddy at times.
The multiplayer portion of the game is very definitely a tacked-on offering; it was developed by a completely different developer called Darkside Game Studios and to be honest it adds very little to the package. You will play it once but then return to other multiplayer shooters to scratch your itch. That being said, I would say that the single player experience alone is well worth the price of admission.
Gameplay-wise, there is very little to fault Spec Ops on and any fan of third-person shooters will be able to find enjoyment throughout the 10+ hour campaign. But, as previously mentioned, that’s not why you should play Spec Ops. You should play Spec Ops for the experience that its plotline forces on you. You should play Spec Ops in order to see a game developer triumph in turning a military shooter into a piece of interactive story telling. You should play Spec Ops in order to witness the character development of Captain Walker; a man that begins his mission inflated by noble intentions, only to be forced into making morally ambiguous decisions that slowly devolve his “hero” status into something that’s barely recognisable as such. You should play Spec Ops for its four different endings that allow you to conclude your experience in whichever manner you feel might absolve your actions. But above all, you should play Spec Ops because it is so bold in its execution, and the game deserves to played by as many people as possible.
[What follows is Miklós’ original bottom line for his Spec Ops review, which I unfortunately had to edit and butcher to force it to fit into the template for our super-fancy score box below. It deserves to be read though, so I’ve simply appended it to the end of the review, like such:]
Spec Ops: The Line is destined to be one of those games that makes it onto every “most underrated games of XYZ” list – an accolade that’s simultaneously fantastic and utterly depressing.
[And now for the edited version contained within said fancy score box. – Games ed.]