June 26, 2012
War is hell. If you needed any further convincing of that fact, then perhaps Spec Ops: The Line can be of some assistance. Set amid a ruined Dubai buried deep in the sand and vast undulating dunes, you're strapped into the army boots of Captain Martin Walker, as he seeks to track down his old comrade Colonel John Konrad and his rogue Damned 33rd squadron. With the help of his loyal squadmates, Lt. Adams and Sgt. Lugo, Walker must fight his way to the top of Dubai's tallest tower making tough choices along the way. What follows is a twisty-turny narrative that'll see the loyalty of Walker's squad stretched to its limits, as events conspire to tear the trio apart.
Much has been made of Spec Ops: The Line's moral choices, and it's these decisions along with a compelling story that prove to be the primary draw in what could have otherwise been a rather generic military shooter. As it is, The Line is actually a remarkably well made game, with only a few minor irritants that can occasionally create frustration. A breeze at the easiest difficulty level, The Line is also a rather straightforward cover shooter that happily plods along for the first two thirds, before stepping up the challenge considerably for the game's final act.
It's somewhat jarring when the majority of the game is a comparative cakewalk, and the escalating final chapters slap you straight in the face with waves of aggressive enemies and drawn out checkpoints, especially as what precedes this final section is so comparatively well-paced. We're pretty well-versed in the art of the third-person shooter, but had to dial down the difficulty level during one particularly interminable rough spot that almost succeeded in completely ruining the experience of playing Spec Ops: The Line, while highlighting the game's flaws in the process.
As third-person cover shooters go, Spec Ops: The Line is a fine example, but it's not without its niggles. Chief among these is the assignment of the ability to vault over cover to a single button that also doubles as your melee. Normally, leaping over a wall is a simple case of tapping your sprint button, but when you desperately need to take evasive action – let's say when there's a grenade threatening to blow your legs off – you'll often end up rifle-butting the obstacle in question rather than gracefully jumping over it. It's not broken by any means, but it just never seems to work in a pinch.
Once you've got used to that minor control hiccup, there's a lot to like about Spec Ops: The Line. It's a game that could have easily looked incredibly boring with so much sand dominating the landscape, but it's actually a visually interesting game that has a surprising amount of variety. There's a little bit of texture pop-in now and again, but overall The Line is a good looking shooter. Issuing commands to your squad is a snap and adds a little bit of strategy to firefights beyond shooting from cover and there are some superb memorable set-pieces, boasting a blend of action and those much-vaunted moral posers.
All of that sand also has its role to play in The Line, yet for the most part this involves shooting out large windows to drown enemies in huge avalanches of the stuff. These are primarily scripted moments, and are even pointed out to you when you hit the squad command button. The sandy bits are largely pointless then, but no less spectacular despite their prescribed nature. The same goes for the vision-obscuring sandstorms, which makes shooting enemies a case of picking out silhouettes in a swirling gritty vortex, without being able to call upon Lugo and Adams for support. It keeps you on your toes, that's for sure.
Sand is essentially the background act then, meaning that at its heart, Spec Ops: The Line is a game all about how war changes soldiers, and every choice that Walker makes has an impact upon him and his squad, as well as his own increasingly fractured psyche. Obviously, we're not going to spoil any of these choices for you, but for the most part, they're binary 'pick choice A or choice B' decisions that are laid out for you, although the 'right' choice isn't always obvious. Therein lies the crux of The Line's story. Your choices actually have something of an impact on certain aspects of the story, although there's no branching or anything like that. You'll want to play through it twice though to see the different outcomes of your choices and earn the relevant achievements attached to each.
Multiplayer achievement haters meanwhile, can rejoice. Spec Ops: The Line's achievement list is completely bereft of multiplayer achievements, meaning to bag the full 1000 Gamerscore, you need only complete the single-player campaign on the hardest difficulty to then unlock the super bastard-hard difficulty and subsequently complete that. You'll also have to pick each of the different decisions the game has to offer and collect a whole bunch of intel items. There's a few weapon-specific achievements and some other tasks to complete, all of which can be tackled in one playthrough. It's an easy, rather undemanding list that you'll be able to beat pretty quickly, in two playthroughs at the very least.
Spec Ops: The Line lasts about 8-10 hours too, so you can exhaust single-player fairly quickly. That's where multiplayer comes in, offering several different modes to indulge in, with the game's sand mechanics coming into play. Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are in, all present and correct, while Rally Point provides a fight over territory with designated areas marked on the map to capture. The Line's only unique multiplayer mode is also its best by a long way. Called 'Buried', this multiplayer mode sees each team attacking and defending high value targets (HVTs) that when destroyed spew sand into the arena.
Maintaining and protecting your own HVTs is as vital to your team's success as attacking and destroying the opposition's HVTs, making each match a frantic back and forth between The Exiles and the Damned 33rd as you strive to balance an effective attack and defence. It's great fun, so don't let the lack of achievements deter you from playing it. All of the other essential multiplayer fripperies are also there to fiddle with, including weapons, armours and cosmetic options that you'll unlock as you level up. There'll also be free co-op DLC coming to Spec Ops post-launch, so while there's plenty of multiplayer content to enjoy out of the box, there'll be more to come.
A generous package, Spec Ops: The Line is nonetheless let down by a somewhat short-lived – yet eminently replayable – campaign, some frustrating difficulty spikes and that annoying vault/melee button. In spite of these niggles, it still stands out as an entertaining and memorable military shooter with a twist. Those moral decisions are the star of the show, making us wish there were more of them.
Some choices result in indelibly grim imagery that's entirely your fault, and as Walker wears down throughout his gruelling journey, the impact of those choices start to carry real weight. For that reason, Spec Ops: The Line manages to rise above the status of the usual generic military shooter, wearing its Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness and Full Metal Jacket influences on its sleeve with a yarn that'll stay with you long after the credits – and its ensuing epilogue – have played out. Was Spec Ops: The Line worth the wait then? Yes. Just about...
An atmospheric soundtrack, fantastic voice-acting and chunky gun sounds add up to a fantastic audio landscape.
The Line is a great looking game, marred only by some occasional texture pop-in and some slightly iffy details. Yager has done a fantastic job making a sand-ridden Dubai look interesting and colourful though.
Initially, it seems like the game plays like any other cover shooter, but assigning the ability to mantle cover to a button separate from the sprint button is a misstep and getting behind cover can sometimes be a battle during an intense firefight. The AI displays some annoying tics now and again too.
A slightly brief campaign is extended by a nasty difficulty spike at the end of the game, and there's plenty to do in multiplayer. You'll want to replay the single-player to get the most out of The Line, and the post-launch co-op DLC should add some longevity. You can whack an extra five points on to the delivery score once that surfaces.
A healthy list of single-player achievements that require plenty of kills with each type of weapon and a pair of playthroughs on the highest difficulties, the hardest of which needs unlocking. There's also a bunch assigned to your moral choices, and you'll no doubt be happy to find that there are no multiplayer achievements. We repeat: there are NO multiplayer achievements!
Spec Ops: The Line is a cut above the usual generic military shooter with solid gameplay backed up by a story that pulls you in and doesn't let go. And it makes you think. It's a grim day at the beach for sure, but then war is hell.