Franchise reboots are a common occurrence in the modern video game climate. The usual requirement for a franchise to receive this treatment, however, is that the original games were actually good, popular games that have stood the test of time. The Spec Ops franchise has none of these qualities. Between 1998 and 2002, Zombie Studios and Runecraft developed a slew of low-quality, low-price, squad-based third-person shooters that started life on PC before making their way to console. So why, then, does this criminally mediocre IP deserve resurrection while other beloved series are being overlooked?
Spec Ops: The Line is, following in the footsteps in its predecessors, a squad and cover-based third-person shooter. I can hear your sighs from here – yeah, I know it’s been beaten to a pulp, but bear with me for a second. Six months ago (in-game), unprecedented sandstorms began in Dubai, effectively wiping the once-rich city off the map. They were initially ignored by the wealthy inhabitants before they silently fled the city, leaving the majority of the city’s civilians trapped within a mountain of sand. Now, with the city considered no more than a desolate wasteland, officially declared no-man’s-land, a distress call is detected from a US battalion thought lost, the Damned 33rd. The United States sends in a covert three-man Delta Force squad to carry out recon and discover the source of the signal. You play as Nathan Drake- no, Captain Martin Walker, the leader of the Delta squad, as you attempt to locate the 33rd and their leader Colonel John Konrad as well as any survivors.
When you begin the campaign, your handle flashes up on the screen as the final acknowledgement during the pre-game credits, hinting towards the impact that you and your decisions are going to have on how the plot unfolds. It opens with the three members of the Delta squad walking across the sand along the outskirts of Dubai, cracking jokes to one another, but when you discover fresh corpses of members of the Damned 33rd, Walker takes it upon himself to discover what, exactly, happened in the city. As you progress through Dubai, trying to uncover any hint of Col. Konrad, Walker and his men slowly descend into madness, being forced to make horrible decision after horrible decision. It’s been said a thousand times before, but Spec Ops: The Line emphasises the horror of war like no game before it, with a page is taken from Heart of Darkness and a frame from Apocalypse Now. I’m not going to talk too much about the details so as to avoid spoiling anything, but let me tell you this: as the plot nears its conclusion, the text shown on the loading screens, which were once hints, become statements such as “Do you feel like a hero?” and “You’re still a good person”. As far as I’m concerned, the single player campaign here is the greatest war game in the history of video games, and yet, like all who completed it before me and all who will complete it after, I put down the controller with a head full of sorrows, a heart full of horror and a thoroughly impressed smile on my face. There’s four distinct endings, and all of them horrible – how many games can offer you that? (no Mass Effect 3 jokes please)
Every environment in Spec Ops: The Line looks visually gorgeous. Stepping out of a building onto a balcony, you are face to face with the beautiful, terrifying image of the skyscrapers of Dubai, totally encased in sand. The juxtaposition of the wealthy-looking city against the destruction caused by the sandstorms makes for an extremely daunting view as the bloom fades and everything comes into focus. The near-constant orange can become monotonous, but it helps to emphasise the bleak prospect that is Dubai. The only blues and greens you’ll see will be the cracked paint inside buildings, but even the interiors are littered with the bright orange of dry sand. The audio design is fantastic, save occasionally unnecessary music. When the music is an organic feature of the scene, such as from a radio, it works brilliantly, but when it’s tacked on, it can ruin the sparse environment that everything else blends so smoothly to create.
Gameplay-wise, Spec Ops: The Line does nothing that really makes it stand out from the slew of third-person shooters on the market. It can be quite completely described as a generic, war-based TPS with a mediocre cover system. Due to the mountains of sand which have swallowed near every building in the city, actions such as shooting through windows or glass ceilings releases a torrent of sand, which can potentially be used to stun or kill enemies. This is a nice feature, but far too often it feels a little forced and inorganic – there always seems to be a stationary enemy situated under a breakable window.
Cover is in no way as intuitive as it ought to be in a game brimming with high-octane firefights. I expect to be able to sprint into and out of any cover on the map, and to be able to take cover behind anything that’s at least waist height. That’s not too much to ask, is it? But too often I’d sprint up to some cover only to have Walker stop moving in front of it, standing straight with his head dangling in the air like a metal duck at a shooting gallery. On harder difficulties, the second between standing still and going into cover is more than enough time for you to get your head blown off. There is a “slide into cover” feature, but unless I was doing something wrong, I could very rarely seem to get it to work, which lead me to the assumption that it is only possible on a select few barricades.
Another point I’d like to whinge about in regards to the firefights is your squadmates. In the plot, they’re fantastic, and I’ll get to that later – but in battles, they sport alarmingly average AI and resulted in my death more times than I’d like to know. Sure, they take cover well enough, and can perform neat silenced takedowns, but to elaborate on this, let me put forth this scenario: you and your squadmates are in the middle of a firefight that is taking place in an abandoned parking lot. The obvious advantage of this is the cars, which can all be used for cover. Now, the enemies seem to have an unlimited supply of grenades, which are lethal at even long range on higher difficulties. I’m not whinging yet – this would be fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that your squadmates don’t die, they go down on one knee until you or your other squadmate lends them a hand (well, if you’re shit and take forever getting to them, then yeah, they’ll die). This makes them total psychopaths, with no regards to their own livelihood. Grenade lands right next to them? They couldn’t give two shits.
Going back to that carpark scenario: All three of us were huddled behind a car for cover, bullets raining down. I’m crouched between my two squadmates. All of a sudden, a grenade lands at my feet. “Fuck!” I think, “I need to move!” So I try to move left – nope, Lugo is there, taking potshots at the enemy from the other side of the bonnet. I move to my right – nope, Adams is there, doing fuck all. By this time, the grenade has sat at my feet for a good second or two, and when I eventually wrestle with the clumsy controls in order to break from cover and get the fuck out of there, I’m dead. Or, on the off chance I manage to survive such a horrid scenario, my squadmates haven’t moved a muscle to evade the shrapnel and both go down on one knee, leaving me to attempt to heal them while enemy troops repeatedly try to smoke us out. You can order your men to focus fire on specific foes – in the aforementioned carpark scene, a heavily armoured soldier stomps through the claustrophobic area. With clever positioning and liberal use of sticky grenades, he isn’t too bad to deal with. But telling your men to focus fire on him? Forget it. Adams, your heavy gunner, will stand two feet away from the heavy and fire shells, which inevitably results in the feared down-on-one-knee. Sending Lugo, your marksman, to heal him will result in his incapacitation as well. An unfortunate number of times (about half of my total deaths) I felt as though my death was the game’s fault and not mine. More than a case of a carpenter blaming his tools, this actually seemed to prevent me from ragequitting, as I always believed that I was capable to progressing, but was halted by lousy mechanics.
There are some extremely sharp difficulty spikes towards the final section of the game. I played on the hardest difficulty available right after plonking the disk in, and for the better part it wasn’t too bad, however, in three or four sections, I would have died near on fifty times. I felt spent three hours stubbornly refusing the game’s comment that I should lower the difficulty level on the carpark level. Even later, you and a squadmate encounter an armoured truck full of soldiers, including a heavy and a knife-wielding, bullet-dodging psycho, with next to no cover, followed by a horrid sandstorm. This must have also taken at least a couple of hours, but through careful planning and execution I was able to set out my attack and progress to the next checkpoint.
Multiplayer is extremely lacking – as far as I’m concerned, though, that’s a good thing, as it shows that the dev team are focussing more on the single-player experience than the multiplayer, which has been a blight on nearly every shooter for years. It feels like it’s there because it’s expected, but in no way does it ever attempt to be a significant part of the game. The addition of ziplines is a nice touch, as well as the sand mechanism which is carried over from the single-player campaign, but it’s really just an uncreative, mediocre affair.
The single-player campaign is a horrible, bleak presentation of all-too-real modern warfare that will leave you feeling like a terrible person, but it’s one that should really be played by anyone who can pick up a controller. I admit that I have been a little harsh on the gameplay here, since the real focus is the story, something brave enough to hold a mirror up to unsuspecting shooter fans. In all honesty, it likely could have been released as The Line, as its connection to its ten-year old predecessors goes no further than the name and the genre. Some – myself included – were ready to pass off Spec Ops: The Line as another generic war shooter, the rebirth of a forgotten franchise, but I’m truly glad I didn’t. I’m sure that others will chastise it for its lousy multiplayer or disappointing cover system, but the strength of its campaign is enough for me to recommend it to just about anyone. If you’re prepared to feel shit about yourself for a week, that is.
Select Start Media was provided with a copy of Spec Ops: The Line by One To Another, on behalf of 2K Games. The platform it was reviewed on was the PS3.