War games are a dime a dozen in the video game industry, but rarely do they make you think about the decisions you’re making as a virtual soldier. Go here, do that; it’s all very clean-cut and morally upright. But as anyone who’s read a post-war memoir or has watched a good film, or talked to a real solider might know, war isn’t so neat. It’s messy, brutal and even if you somehow managed not to get physically injured, there’s a whole host of psychological scars.
The other trope of video game wars is that you’re usually a low-ranked grunt, a Private or at most a Sergeant, someone who’s important on the field of battle but isn’t calling the shots. Spec Ops: The Line puts you in the boots of Captain Martin Walker, a Delta Force operator leading a small three-man fire team into the ruins of a sandstorm ravaged Dubai. You’re hot on the heels of one Colonel Konrad, the commander of the Damned 33rd and the person who was supposed to be evacuating the citizens of Dubai. Can Spec Ops: The Line make it through this hot washup?
Being built on the Unreal Engine, Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person stop and pop in the vein of Gears of War. While Spec Ops comes close to pulling off the same caliber of controls that Gears has, the button responses are a little sticky and there’s more irregularity with the use of cover. Sometimes when a grenade flies towards you, you’ll do all you can to get out of the way but somehow end up bouncing around the same cover spots. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s something to keep an eye out for.
Since you’re going into battle with two of your AI buddies, you can issue squad commands to them, mostly along the lines of focusing fire on a single target. Fortunately, both of your comrades in arms are trained in different disciplines of warfare as Lugo can snipe faraway enemies and Adams will throw grenades. Taking active control of you men causes them to be more susceptible to enemy fire, but you can also tell them to heal one another. There is no “down but not out” option for you, though, which is something more squad-based games need to implement.
Spec Ops: The Line takes places in a sandstorm-ravaged Dubai and the game makes use of that in a few places, allowing you to blow out windows and drop tons of sand on your enemies’ heads, or having you fight your way through a storm. While covering your enemies in sand is a nice tactical option, it doesn’t come up enough to allow you to make good use of it. Fighting through a sandstorm, however, is an interesting challenge as your vision is severely reduced and you can’t issue commands to your squad.
Throughout the campaign in Spec Ops, you’ll mostly be fighting soldiers from the 33rd with a few different types of foes thrown in that run the gauntlet of bog-standard video game enemies: the heavy, the close-combat guy and the elite soldiers. There’s a large assortment of weapons to play around with and most of them have alternate fire modes that you can use to different effects. The silencer on the M4A1, the M9 and the MAC-10 is probably the most useless of the lot, as there are very few sections of the game where stealth is a viable option.
One other knock against the combat is it can sometimes be hard to see where the enemies are. As they’re wearing brown uniforms and the environment is mostly brown, they blend in very effectively in some scenarios, particularly a rooftop sniper battle early on.
Spec Ops opens in medias res with your team fleeing from a squadron of attacking helicopters. You crash soon afterwards, flashing back to the beginning of your journey into Dubai. Early on, your squad is frosty and keeps their composure even though things are very clearly going sideways. Shortly after making contact with a soldier from the 33rd, you realize that the CIA is staging an insurrection against the Army unit, which has gone mad with power thanks to their declaration of martial law. This is when things start to get nasty for you and your team and the events of Spec Ops takes their toll on them.
The setting of a ruined Dubai is done perfectly, as the city itself almost seems to exist on another planet. The way the skyscrapers bend and warp when you look at them calls into attention their massive stature, and looking out over the city buried under the sand is a sobering sight. Dubai in Spec Ops: The Line is a microcosm for every intervention or peacekeeping mission gone wrong and what men will do under those conditions just to survive.
Throughout the course of Spec Ops, you’ll have to make a few choices on behalf of Captain Walker abd several times you’re forced into unpleasant scenarios with no good outcome. Spec Ops doesn’t flinch when showing you the consequences of your actions, especially during one scene involving white phosphorus. You made the call to use it, and depending on your zeal, you might have made a direct hit on a certain target. Spec Ops is not kind when showing you the horrors of war and your squad suffers for it.
The extreme stress placed on these seasoned Delta operators causes them to unwind over the course of the game, with the call-outs become more ragged and hostile. While military jargon like “Tango down” and “Oscar Mike” punctuate their speech throughout the opening chapters, they quickly become very aggressive and unhinged. The voice acting in general in the game is excellent, especially from your squad. Although Nolan North may spend the first half of the game reminding you of Nathan Drake, he manages to turn Captain Walker into his own character. Your squadmates are really well realized and there are a couple sections where they’re put in jeopardy that really get to you and make you care what happens to them.
The story in Spec Ops: The Line is one that gamers need to play. Although is does draw a little heavily on its Heart of Darkness inspiration, the modern setting and the consequences for player actions make it stand out on its own. It’s hard to delve into the meat of Spec Ops’ story-telling experience without giving away the many twists and turns the plot takes. Suffice it to say that this is one mission you won’t forget.
If Spec Ops: The Line wasn’t held back by its lackluster combat, it would have excelled as not just a story-telling vehicle, but a game as well. This is a title that will unfortunately be forgotten in the rest of 2012, but those of us who have played Spec Ops: The Line will have a dark horse contender for our game of the year.
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