Can a gripping, morally ambiguous narrative save this cover shooter?
By Daniel Wilks on July 2, 2012 at 3:18 pm
There is an element of cognitive dissonance that comes with Spec Ops: The Line. Throughout the play time you’ll kill hundreds, maybe thousands of enemies utilising the uninspired but functionally enjoyable cover shooting mechanics, whilst simultaneously being asked to feel bad for doing the same. Sometimes it works. Sometimes war really is hell and the moral ambiguity or killing another person over differing ideals really hits home.
Other times, usually when the game becomes more mechanical and noticeably “gamey”, like an on rails vehicle sequences, brightly glowing collectibles or the occasional extra tough enemy who requires far more bullets than any human could possibly survive, it kind of falls apart. As a result, Spec Ops can be a bit of a muddled affair.
Set six months after a cataclysmic sandstorm has wiped the Emirate of Dubai off the map, Spec Ops: The Line tells the story of Delta Force Captain Martin Walker and his men, sent to the gutted city to uncover the fate of the refugees and the Damned 33rd, the army brigade that took it upon themselves to help the civilians rather than follow orders to pull out.
Expecting to find some refugees and soldiers, Walker and his men instead stumble into a miniature civil war, with the Damned 33rd, a splinter faction known as the Exiles, and the refugees all fighting to stay alive.
There is a sense of urgency and lethality to Spec Ops that isn’t usually seen in most AAA shooters. The level design constantly funnels the player forward, ushering you from one horror of war to the next, never really giving you enough time to catch your breath and become acclimated to the atrocities that have seemingly become commonplace in Dubai.
The post-apocalyptic Dubai setting adds to this feeling of breathlessness thanks to the omnipresence of sand. In much the same way water was a low level but constant background threat in BioShock, sand plays a similar role in Spec Ops. Sometimes you can use it to your advantage, shooting out windows to bury enemies under tonnes of sand. Others it works against you, with ferocious sandstorms obscuring your vision and ruining your accuracy, or the ground falling away as it settles further into the buried city.
Whilst the stop and pop shooting mechanics are fairly run of the mill, the guns have a level of lethality a lot of players won’t be used to. Enemies only take a few bullets to put down, heads explode, limbs are ripped off by bullets or explosions and melee execution attacks are swift and brutal. This goes for the player as well. Death comes easily in Spec Ops, sometimes frustratingly so thanks to the short supply of checkpoints.
Ammunition is also in short supply in Dubai, so scouring the bodies of fallen enemies for clips is a must. In a clever twist, not every enemy who is taken out of combat is killed outright, but instead are reduced to writhing, screaming wrecks screaming wrecks that haven’t dropped ammunition yet. To get the precious bounty necessary for survival you are essentially forced to execute defenceless enemies, further muddying the already very murky moral waters.
The shooting may be a little generic and occasionally frustrating but this is more than made up for by the excellent narrative and voice work. Martin Walker (voiced by the ubiquitous Nolan North, a man who seems contractually obliged to be in every game ever made) provides the bulk of the exposition, but proves to be a fascinatingly unreliable narrator thanks to his personal history with Colonel Konrad (not the only Heart of Darkness reference you’ll encounter in the game), the commander of the Damned 33rd. Even when the action becomes a little too formulaic or sudden difficulty spikes send you back to the last checkpoint, the story and characters are compelling enough to keep you going. Spec Ops: The Line may not be the best shooter on the market at the moment, but it certainly is the most interesting.
- Excellent, morally ambiguous narrative
- Good voice acting
- Compelling level design
- Some great set-pieces
- Poorly spaced checkpoints
- Some frustrating difficulty spikes
- Uninspired stop and pop mechanics
- Sometimes breaks its own reality by being too overtly “gamey”