Spec Ops: The Line is turning heads right now. You can read exactly why in my in-depth preview here, but simply put it’s a modern military shooter that really forces the player to think twice about the consequences of your character’s actions. It’s certainly caught the attention of the United Arab Emirates, which has banned the game thanks to it being set in Dubai.
The country’s concerns about the game’s content is sound, but the story itself centres on a US squad that aims to help refugees and civilians from environmental dangers. Shawn Frison, Yager Development’s senior director, is just as confused. “I honestly never got any information on why they decided to ban it. Maybe there is someone, somewhere, that got that memo... but I wasn’t that guy.
“We would prefer that it wasn’t banned, of course. We don’t really portray the city in a particularly negative light. It would be cool if we could get it into people’s hands there - it’s always fun to play through a game that takes place where you’re from. But they’re going to do what they’re going to do and we don’t have any control over that, so... it is what it is.”
Instead, the core emphasis seems to be on player immersion and character evolution - it was a desire to implement these elements into an interactive war scenario, and Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness
, that inspired Yager to take the approach it did with Spec Ops: The Line
. “There are a lot of military shooters out there today, and we thought that there was something in the novella that we could touch on while going in our own direction,” Frison said.
“We felt like the themes introduced in Heart of Darkness
were things that hadn’t yet been done before in games. We wanted to tell a story that’s a little bit darker, a little bit more mature. It shows some of the more gruesome aspects of war and how people change after being exposed to that.”
The evolution of the characters, the developer noted, was of key interest - specifically, to be able to highlight a transformation of a three-man squad as they go on a psychologically and physically stressful journey. At the start of the game, your men start off acting and looking professional and rather pristine - there’s no ambiguity, you know you’re the good guy. This completely gets thrown away the deeper you plunge into the twisting campaign.
Animations change, clothing gets torn off as Martin Walker and company survive battles against a multitude of different enemies, and the group mentality between him and his two wingmen - Lugo and Adams - breaks down. The strain even affects the way the characters communicate with each other. Calm and collected commands from Walker at the start of the game later turn into a collection of ragged voices yelling at one another.
Weighing down on that pressure are the consequences of choices made throughout key moments of the campaign. Frison revealed that it was a challenge to design these particular sequences so that Yager could offer an authentic representation of the “bad choice / worse choice” scenarios that soldiers often face on the battlefield. “One thing we really tried to push is to show that you can try to make a choice, but it’s not always going to have the results that you expected.
“In general, we wanted to make people realise that a lot of the choices in life aren’t as black and white as a ‘good decision, bad decision.’ We were also careful not to make it so that there was a harder, moral choice and an easier, nasty choice. I mean, there’s something compelling about that, but at the same time what we really wanted to focus on was ‘here’s a bad choice, here’s another really bad choice.’ Either way, you’re not going to feel completely comfortable with what you have to do.”
The natural disasters that occur in Dubai during Spec Ops: The Line
add a whole new dimension to the standard third-person shooter mechanics. Frison confirmed that sandstorms will be scripted in the single-player only campaign, and as a result will allow the developer to really go to town on jaw-dropping events. “We really just wanted to control and make it so that those scenes are as impactful as possible - you can do stuff with that which you couldn’t do if it was dynamic.”
While Frison wasn’t ready to talk about the separate multiplayer mode for the game, he did mention that the sandstorms will in fact be dynamic to add an element of surprise to online players. “I think it’s pretty safe to say that we use sand in multiplayer and obviously it’s going to have to be dynamic in that. It’s something that we didn’t want to completely dominate the game, but rather a feature that can be a small part of the overall experience.
“There are other gameplay mechanics that the sand can offer as well. It’s not just shooting windows and seeing sand pour out to kill enemies - although that’s pretty cool. If you throw a grenade, it won’t bounce if it lands on the sand. Then when it blows up, it’ll kick up a huge cloud of sand that will stun enemies.”
So, why no co-op mode within the campaign, Shawn? “The biggest thing that we really wanted to focus on was the narrative. Co-op’s a lot of fun, and it’s great, but there’s just things you can’t do narratively that you can do in a purely single-player game. It felt better to try and deliver the best possible version of that narrative vision.”