While working through my backlog of games I am also playing some recent titles as well. I figure it is best to stager these in the hopes of keeping the blog relevant to current gaming instead of being totally retro.* I played the demo of Spec Ops: The Line some time back, soon after release, and was impressed with the feel of it. In my opinion this merited a closer look, so here it is.
* Note, not all went as planned here and... yeah this game is now last year's news and I am way behind again... but you can see my intentions were pure so I will keep this ill-fated line in none the less...
Spec Ops: The Line is a creation of Yager, a German based developer, and published under the venerable 2K Games label. The same publisher that brought us the likes of the BioShock franchise, Sid Meiers Civilisation games and... oh no, Duke Nukem Forever. But let us not dwell on such things. They also published Gearbox's Borderlands and Borderlands 2. In all 2k Games are a purveyor of great titles.
I will begin by saying something that is a little unusual in gaming review circles, since the usual expectation is to beat up on this genre. I actually like military shooters. I liked the Modern Warfare games and I liked the delivery of their story. Well, to a point anyway. (not a fan of MW2's airport scene) I do agree that the usual plot of America being the 'good' guy/victim and everyone else being the aggressor is a little on-the-nose in most aspects of the story, as well as in other games like it. But there are some subtle grey areas and admission of underhandedness on the 'good guy's' part in many of these games. You have to look really closely for them but they are there. With Spec Ops: The Line, you don't have to look at all. It is rubbed in your face at every point in the game. I am sure this is not news to any of you if you have read at least one review of the game.
|Wait... you're not a terrorist?|
As I have said, the story and its delivery through game mechanics are woven together, as there is a moral choice system present. Though it is less overt than I have seen in other games, where you get to click on the little devil or angel on your shoulder to continue, and you consciously know you are making the good or bad choice. In The Line, you might not even know the choices are there let alone if you made a good or bad one since the whole situation is a moral tangle. At some point in the game you are given moments to act when you didn't realise it and thought you were simply watching the cut scene unfold. In other moments you are prompted to just do something which seems pretty much par for the course, but is it only option? Can you do something else? Maybe... This is the magic of the game and the story where you realise after a while that you really are put in the shoes of the character, and he only acts (or doesn't) in a situation because you make a subconscious choice. Looking back at some of my actions where I am given hidden choices and realise I could shoot someone instead of just watching I began to wonder if I should have. Maybe I shot the first time because I thought I was meant to anyway. It is a game, after all. But is this not echoed in real life? You do something because it seems the natural reaction to whatever situation you are in. So, the real question is 'did I have another choice? Or was I forced to do this by the situation?' Keep that question in mind for later when I talk about the story a little more, because it does become a theme of the ending of the game when the blindfold finally comes off.
|Situation in Dubai: just hanging around at the laser disco.|
A moral choice must be made... oooooh. Can you count the choices?
the end, and really only change the perspective of events at that time. This is something I like, since it also keeps in line with the theme of not being fully in control and driven mostly by events around you. The idea that you and you alone can change the course of events of such a magnitude is hard to swallow anyway, and the changes are somewhat more intrinsic to Captain Walker. Sorry if this sounds a little cryptic but you really have to play it to understand where I am coming from, because saying more would really spoil the plot beyond what I have already said.
On from all this contemplative introspection, what about the game itself? Well, the controls are as you expect in a shooter. It is an over-the-shoulder camera view where cover-based mechanics feature heavily, and you have a pair of AI team mates with you who you can issue contextual orders to. If you are not a fan of cover shooters and like run-and-gun style then you might want to play on easy difficulty, since you really do need to use cover with the accuracy of the enemy AI. Though this does remove the challenge anyway. Standard difficulty makes a big leap where enemies are pretty lethal if you spend more then a second in the open. However I was happy to see a shooter where you are their sole focus of fire, unlike Modern Warfare like games where you are one in a war. At least you know every enemy is going to zero in on you, and nothing is left to doubt. And you have a couple of options to flank the enemy while the other team mates hold position and draw most of the fire. And where you cannot, you can issue a couple of orders to have the AI buddies target a hard-to-kill enemy or heavy gun placement. As I said, this is contextual and depending on things like type of enemy and distance the game makes a choice of which team member the order is issued to. This is a little limiting since you can only have one target marked at a time anyway, and only one button issues the order for a kill. If the target is on a ledge, or far away, the sniper takes the shot but it takes him a moment to get his aim. He might even need to move somewhere for a good shot. If the enemy is just medium to close range then the heavy machine gunner opens up. Or a machine gun nest will see him lobbing a grenade at them to clear it. Sometimes a better option than you hogging all the glory yourself since a couple of well-placed hits is all it takes to drop you on the floor.
|Scenery is pretty nice, if you like smashed stuff. Which I certainly do!|
When you do shoot people, the animations are very nicely done. Overall, gun play feels satisfying and well controlled. The guns have enough accuracy to make the game fun, while enough inaccuracy to make the game a challenge. Movement controls are precise enough, with one critique regarding control assignments. The button for sprint is the same as the button for taking cover, which is nice making for seamless movement from cover to cover. However, getting out of it again sends you sprinting sometimes, which I found annoying because it was not very consistent. Maybe it is more a symptom of the sprint button being a toggle rather than a hold button. Tap it and you sprint until you either stop moving or tap run again. Not a very intuitive mechanic in all. Overall I question the need for sprint to be a toggle since you are not going to be sprinting anywhere for a prolonged period of time in this game, so I fail to see the benefits. It is not like the auto-run button in the Fallout games where running long distances is part and parcel of getting around. In a game like Spec Ops, with cover to cover advances, it just confounds things.
|Cover based shooting. Love it or hate it, this game has it.|
Shooting round corners tends to take the edge off it, I feel.
instead of going around it. A nice feature is, if your cover is being approached by an enemy charging you or they are already in cover on the other side of the sandbags, you can vault over and melee them in one contextual button press. You can also shoot blind around cover with decreased accuracy, Gears of War style. Other fighting mechanics involve taking control of the fixed heavy gun placements, which you can operate while crouched down at the expense of accuracy, and execution moves on injured enemies. Guns have secondary features, depending what gun you are using. The AK-47 switches from burst to full auto fire. The M4 attaches or removes a silencer, as does the M9 pistol. The SCAR has a grenade launcher option. The P90 swaps the UI cross-hair for a laser sight, but I could not see much of a change in the weapon performance beyond that.
You can use some of the scenery to your advantage in certain places, like shooting out glass windows where sand is piled up behind, dumping it on enemy groups. They sometimes stand on glass roofs above you letting you shoot out the glass beneath them. There is an obligatory rail-shooter section, where you wreck everything in sight with a mini-gun mounted on a Blackhawk helicopter. Occasionally the fire fights can be broken up by a sandstorm moving in, stopping you issuing orders to the team and also making it hard for you to see the enemy and them to see you. This is one of the reasons I wish the game had taken a more free-form approach as you move around the city to different objectives. The sandstorms would have been more of an issue if they were random and unpredictable as you play through, and given the game a much more dynamic feel. Prequel DLC, maybe? Finally there is the ever-present birds eye view fire control system thrown in, where you designate targets on a laptop and rain down death using a mortar launcher you take over. So it is like controlling the UCAVs in the MW games or Homfront.
|You have two AI buddies with different talents. Put them to use.|
|Sandstorms can break up gunfights, though they are|
scripted events only, sadly.
|Somewhere devoid of sand.|
|Somewhere else devoid of sand. Makes a nice change.|
It gets everywhere. And I do mean... everywhere!
|Commander Shepard taking down the reapers... Oh wait, wrong game.|
They all look alike.
Assumption... yes you can make them all you want but the fact remains that Captain Walker is forced into a fight with his own military who seems to have gone off the deep end, including their commander, Lt. Colonel Konrad. Some way into the game you have infrequent radio contact with him and he seems to have lost most of his marbles. As I said above, the 'Damned 33rd' have returned from a disastrous mission in Afghanistan, and the failure was taken pretty hard by Konrad. Something that the varied collectable items in the game echo in the form of psychiatric evaluation snippets painting him as a classic PSTD with an emerging messiah complex coupled with feelings of inadequacy. And to add to the lunacy, there is a DJ in one of the towers broadcasting a 'good morning Vietnam' style show, though laced with much more propaganda and pro-33rd viewpoints in which the insurgents are addressed directly to knock off their shit.
|The infighting between them feels nice and well written.|
I did say in the end the blindfold comes off and much of what has happened is shown in a very different light. Well, more a different reality than a different light. Again I cannot spoil this because it is a triumph of story telling that must be experienced first hand by the player. This does leave me with one more task where I reflect on the name of the game. 'The Line'. Hold the line? Like a battle line? How about a moral line? Sure, that works. 'I get it now' I say to myself, smug and satisfied at my power of observation. 'I see what you did there Yager, very clev.... oh...'. I did not really have it all figured out after all, as I saw another line that had been crossed without realising it. A line of sanity in which a startling truth of everything that has happened until now becomes apparent and leaves you questioning if you really had choices or if events chose your actions for you.
|If you leave this game feeling good about yourself, you|
have done something wrong. Just saying...
I'm sorry I cannot be more clear about this but keep this in mind when you reach the ending. You will know what I mean. As I said I do recommend the game as maybe one of the best games of 2012. It does not really revolutionise anything mechanic wise, it simply takes what we already have a good amount of and tells a great story with it.