Spec Ops: The Line is turning out to be a rather interesting war game. Sure it?s a squad-based third-person shooter with familiar gameplay mechanics, it probably goes the furthest yet in marrying interactivity and storytelling to create a deep sense of immersion.
Beware though: although your squad quickly transforms from a fresh-faced, gung-ho trio into a depressed and confused scrambled mess - and you believe it. You even end up hating your own character.
You play as Martin Walker, a man who leads a couple of fellow soldiers into the dusty wastelands of Dubai to discover what has happened to the civilians there - and to the squad that had been there before it. The previous military occupants, a decorated battalion called The Damned 33rd, entered the city on a rescue mission following an apocalyptic storm. Its Colonel, John Konrad, defied orders to abandon the city during the operation and his company stayed behind. America had heard nothing from them since - until now.
The campaign?s opening cutscene sees Walker preparing for duty after hearing of a garbled distress signal from Konrad six months after contact was lost. Walker pines a little bit for Konrad, in something that would resemble a macho Mills & Boon
book - apparently the two have worked in Kabul some years prior on another mission. He calls Konrad a ?hero? constantly and knows that whatever has happened in Dubai since his last message could not be his doing.
Of course, that?s what Walker keeps telling himself as he enters Dubai - and it?s this underlying uncertainty that remains a constant throughout the game. You begin fighting what appear to be refugees at the start of the game, overcoming heavy guerrilla fire using very limited amounts of cover. But events that transpire as you progress through the game result in you fighting the CIA and even The Damned 33rd, who by the time you face them have gone rogue.
Gameplay wise, Spec Ops: The Line
will feel familiar to anyone who?s played a wartime TPS like Ghost Recon
. Set pieces offer some interesting variety - from the vast spacious desert which leaves you open to both heavy fire and environmental hazards, to indoor television stations which offer huge battlegrounds in lobbies featuring winding stairs and hidden passageways.
You can set commands for your squad to follow by pressing or holding down one of the Bumper buttons on the Xbox 360 controller. For the most part, this is used to get your guys to focus on a particular enemy, but there are certain contextual uses as well that orders your teammates to provide a sit-rep or to stun nearby targets.
Ammo is sparse, enemies are pretty intelligent and you will need to do a lot of moving around to avoid getting killed. If you?re not efficient enough, you could spend ten minutes on a particular gunfight on Normal mode thanks to waves of enemies - this game isn?t kidding around.
The most interesting thing about the mechanics of play in Spec Ops: The Line
is in the way German developer Yager has played around with sand. Indeed, it can be quite the deadly weapon, and I saw a couple of instances where the physics of the environment can cause peril for both you and the enemy. You can identify weak structures using the Command button and gun them down to cause tonnes of sand to pile out and take out all the enemies in a given area.
Similarly, sandstorms will regularly occur during your campaign and cause a lot of grief for you and your squad. Heavy conditions will not only impair your vision in a battle situation, but can also cause whirlpool-sized holes to appear in the ground. During one sequence, Walker and his men are pinned down outside of a building as they get outwitted by a guerrilla ambush. A storm starts to flare up, and a hole emerges from underneath Walker?s feet - leaving him to cling onto a nearby wall in vain whilst trying to avoid getting sucked under...
Later on in the campaign, you come across some sequences that work as interactive cutscenes - you have full control as you would normally, but you also have the freedom to make specific choices throughout the story. After you track down a guy called McPhearson, Walker has his aim set whilst trying to ask him some questions about what happened. As McPhearson inches away towards inevitable escape, do you pull the trigger or wait to try and get more information out of him?
Another example takes place a few chapters in, after interacting in a spectacularly jarring sequence that sees innocent civilians get razed by phosphorous mortar fire. You catch up to a man who you need to interrogate for information - only problem is, he?s about to get executed. To top this off, a bunch of civilians are also up for the chop at the very same time. There?s only one chance to save either. Going for one or the other results in differing cutscenes and, I?m told, varying story consequences later down the line.
The influence from Joseph Conrad?s wartime novella, Heart of Darkness
, is clear as you play through the game. While the tale is a contemporary one, the three pillars of darkness - focusing on dangerous environments, cruelty in war and the innate ability for humans to commit heinous acts of evil - are all present and correct. And it makes for a rather engrossing gameplay experience.
As your squad tries to figure out whether they?re fighting with or against the CIA, 33rd or guerrilla civilians, their personalities completely change. Wise-cracking Lugo all of a sudden becomes much more critical of Walker?s orders, Adams gets hostile to Lugo?s attitude and Walker ends up turning the tables on the enemy in a way that makes him completely question his morality. Without giving too much away, the experience is a hard-hitting one, that changes the whole balance of the game and is something of an interactive storytelling triumph.
For a series that has been dead for ten years, and critically dire for half of its active existence, Yager certainly seems to have turned around Spec Ops
in a way that is very engaging and a treat on the senses. Let?s hope that it lives up to this rather promising start when the game is released in March.