Release Date: June 26, 2012
Developer: Yager Development , Darkside Game Studios
Platform: PS3 / X360 / PC
Modern military shooters are a dime a dozen these days. You can’t go into a store without seeing an entire shelf dedicated to the genre. The majority of these games unfortunately do not put a lot of emphasis on their stories or characters, resorting instead to brain dead plot lines, mindless shooting, and plenty of explosions. Spec Ops: The Line goes against that formula. It takes the concepts and ideas that have been used in shooters in the past, and wraps them around one of the most interesting stories that I’ve experienced in a long time. It’s not a perfect game by any means, but it’s certainly more original than most shooters out there.
At first glance the game appears to be like any other third-person shooter. You play as Martin Walker, a Delta operator who is given a search and rescue mission in Dubai. The game offers cover based mechanics, plenty of guns, two teammates to back you up and order around, and lots of “bad” guys to shoot. In this respect the game is not that innovative; it plays it pretty safe and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. But while the mechanics are solid, they’re not without issues. Aiming at times can be a bit off, and cover at times is too sticky and other times not at all. This usually leads to you getting shot multiple times as you try to wriggle into cover like a worm having a seizure.
The game provides plenty of guns to choose from, but they don’t really feel all that different from each other. An AK-47 and an M4 assault rifle have some minor differences in terms of recoil and sound, but not enough to pick favorites. You usually end up using whatever you can scavenge off dead enemies or weapon stashes. Again, if I were to judge Specs Ops on its gameplay alone, then I would easily recommend that you skip it completely. But there’s more to this game than what lies on the surface, and these elements easily put it on a pedestal that shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield have yet to reach. The first aspect worthy of praise is the environment that the game calls home: Dubai.
I can’t remember the last time, or any time really, that I’ve gotten the opportunity to explore one of the most extravagant and richest cities in the world (albeit covered in sand). In Specs Ops, the once great city is now in ruins, assaulted by a sandstorm of epic proportions that turns it into an instant humanitarian crisis. Dubai is quite a unique location, full of skyscrapers that never seem to end and spontaneous sandstorms that strike without warning or remorse. Buildings are worn and damaged on the outside, but still hide their treasures within. Instead of the typical gray and brown you see in most games in the genre, Specs Ops uses plenty of color to bring the vibrant city to life. The environments are also an eclectic mix of expensive décor and disturbing graffiti art. Simply put, the art direction is impeccable, which is something extremely rare for a shooter these days.
In fact, the last time I played a shooter this good looking was BioShock, and the similarities between Rapture and Dubai aren’t just cosmetic, but also thematic. Like Rapture, the city of Dubai is seen as overly opulent, and full of corruption, greed, and egoism. Then tragedy hits, in this case the sandstorms, and the party (literally) comes crashing down on its occupants. You arrive to find everything in disarray, trying to piece together what has occurred. If you’ve played Irrational Games’ masterpiece then this should all sound very familiar. And like BioShock, Spec Ops runs on the Unreal Engine and is graphically nothing to scoff at.
Being in a city covered in sand pushes the engine to produce visuals that you really don’t see very often. From the violent sandstorms that block out the sun and consume your squad unless you find cover, to the way that the sand itself moves and behaves; it’s very well done. It also has some gameplay implications as you can use the sand as a weapon. For example, right at the beginning of the game there is an encounter with enemies confronting you under a bus full of sand. As you can imagine, you can shoot the windows and watch the orange powder smother them to death; this mechanic is used multiple times throughout the game and never gets old.
Besides the sand, environmental effects like fire and water are also well rendered. Explosions and “certain weapons” have effects that are not only visually impressive, but highly disturbing as well. In addition, the character models are well done and show damage as the game progresses. Burns, cuts, and bruises don’t just fade away; they follow you as a reminder of what you’ve been through and what you’ve done. Specs Ops looks good graphically and artistically, but it also sounds great. The voice acting is spot on, especially for Walker who is played by Nolan North. Yeah I know, he’s been the voice of pretty much every male video game protagonist in the last 6 years, but you can’t deny that he’s excellent at what he does.
He gives Walker plenty of personality as well as some humanity, which is a nice change of pace from shooters where the main character is a generic nobody who you don’t care about at all. Walker’s squad mates are also voiced well and the conversations between the three are consistently filled with some pretty thought-provoking dialogue. It’s really the writing that makes it work so well, but I’ll get to that soon enough. Rounding off the sound design is the game’s soundtrack and score. While the game takes place in modern times, the music that pushes you forward sounds like it’s stuck in the past, in particular the 1960/1970’s. I believe this was done to further connect the game to some of its biggest inspirations: the Vietnam War and especially Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (as well as the book it was based on, Heart of Darkness).
What makes Spec Ops: The Line stand out in an ocean of similar games is in the way it makes you question your morality. Very few games even attempt this, and those that try usually end up slipping and falling flat on their faces. Spec Ops not only has a story that lends itself to this, but it also has the writing muscle behind it to successfully execute it. Like I mentioned earlier, the story seems simple at first. Walker and his two squad mates, Adams and Lugo, are given a simple mission: find out what happened to the missing Colonel Konrad and his 33rd Division who disappeared in the city 6 months earlier, and try to find survivors of the catastrophe. If they find either they’re supposed to radio for extraction, but things never go as planned.
Without giving too much away, the situation in Dubai has gone to absolute hell. The population of the city has become armed and absolutely despises anyone affiliated with the red, white, and blue. And for good reason too, as you soon discover that the 33rd Battalion (appropriately nicknamed ‘The Damned’) have gone completely AWOL and have been committing horrific acts on the civilian population. Walker and his squad mates are quickly forced to do the unthinkable; fighting against their own fellow soldiers in order to stay alive and save the city. From that point onward things only get more tragic and morally ambiguous. And it’s all thanks to the amazing writers behind the game who craft ever more interesting situations to put the characters in.
The story they spin together has one clear objective in mind, to make players understand that violence has serious consequences. While other shooters reward and encourage killing, Spec Ops tries its best to make you feel like a murderer at almost every opportunity, and it succeeds. Even the load screens push this, starting off by giving you tips at first, but then questioning your actions and motives later on. They eventually start asking you things like, “How many Americans have you killed today?” This makes every firefight a moral dilemma, with no real feeling of victory after everything is said and done. You don’t win in Spec Ops; you survive, because that is all you can do. There is one particular point later in the game that finally solidified the game’s goal. I won’t reveal the specifics, because doing so would ruin the emotional impact, but it all comes down to a decision.
Up to that point, you’ve had to make many decisions that were questionable, but this is the ultimate one. You are faced with a situation that is designed to make you angry and feel absolute hatred, but there is no clear “right” decision to make. Whatever you chose, you will end up regretting it. And once I had chosen, I kid you not I was literally shaking at what I had just done. I had to pause the game and really calm myself down, because the game had actually gotten to me. It actually made me question whether I was a morally good person. Now I ask you, when was the last time a video game made you feel like that? I can remember my last time, BioShock. But games like those are few are far between. Even if the rest of Spec Ops wasn’t solid, I would still recommend everyone play it just for the story, writing, and characters alone.
Its single player offering is special, but there’s also a multiplayer component to the game. However, it doesn’t even come close to the emotional strength provided by the campaign. It tries to ape other shooters like Call of Duty by offering perks, levels, and unlockable weapons, but it’s simply out of their league. There’s a number of different classes like the heavy gunner and medic, but they all play basically the same. High level guns are extremely effective as well, making it very hard for lower level players to even stand a chance. I would say more, but the online community for the game is pretty much already dead, so most of the modes didn’t have enough players to allow me to try them out. What I did play was so forgettable, though, that it’s not even worth mentioning. Overall, the multiplayer is unbalanced and just not very fun, providing only a mild distraction if you have nothing better to play.
Spec Ops: The Line is an anomaly in the gaming industry today, a shooter that looks to be like any other at first glance, but that brims with originality under the surface. Its gameplay isn’t anything special and has its problems, but it certainly gets the job done. Graphically and artistically it’s very eye pleasing and the soundtrack really knows how to set the mood. And while its multiplayer would have been better off not even being included, it’s not enough to ruin the overall experience. It provides an excellent story and impressive writing above the majority of what’s out there. In the end, Specs Ops is a rare gem indeed. It’s a video game that brilliantly taps into the medium to make you question not only your beliefs, but also what you’re willing to do under the right circumstances.
- Excellent and thought-provoking story about war and violence
- Well written characters and dialogue
- Art direction puts most shooters to shame
- Questions your sense of morality and leaves an emotional impact
- Soundtrack perfectly sets the mood
- Gameplay has issues and has been done before many times
- Mutliplayer is tacked on and forgettable