Genre: Third Person Shooter
Release Date: June 26th, 2012
Developer: Yager Developement (singleplayer), Darkside Game Studio (multiplayer)
Publisher: 2K Games
Retail: $49.99 USD (Steam)
Platform: PC ( Also available for Xbox 360 and PS3)
Spec Ops: The Line is an unusual rebooted shooter from 2K Games, Yager Development for the singleplayer, and Darkside Game Studios for the multiplayer. It may appear as a generic third person shooter initally, but it transforms into a surreal and captivating deconstruction of third person shooters. You control Martin Walker, a soldier who is called in to rescue Colonel Konrad trapped in a destroyed Dubai. Walker feels like he owes Konrad a great debt for his leadership, so he braves an apocalyptic Dubai in search of this one man.
Gameplay in Spec Ops is no different from any other third person shooter, and that will turn a lot of people off. You take cover, move up through an area by shooting close enemies, and then your squad covers you as you take out the rest. The game doesn’t get any more complicated than that. I had fun with it, finishing the game in two long sittings.
The enemy AI does try to flank and position, but I was skilled enough to gun them down before they could do that. There are a few dedicated enemies that switch things up, such as a melee brawler and a heavy soldier. These units are too rare to be any real threat, and you can take them out quickly if you focus on them. Only a few instances in the game are difficult. I believe that this is due to the inherent nature of the cover shooter, and not player skill. You can see all of your enemies; you just can’t shoot them quickly enough. If you don’t pop yourself behind cover, you’ll die. So the regenerating health ends up becoming more tedious to manage instead of keeping you in the action. A painkiller system like Max Payne was begging to be used in this game.
The game gives a pseudo-bullet time of a second or two when you get a headshot. You can also shoot out windowpanes and explosives to flood areas with sand. The sand can fill an entire room in a second and suffocate soldiers.
Weaponry in this game is rather bland. You have a few weapons to choose from in the single player, most of them being typical American military issue. Each weapon has a secondary fire function, which are things like scopes, laser sights, and grenade launchers. The weapons don’t have any power or force that I’ve come to expect. Weapon models are functional. They look like actual weapons instead of toys, but the animations and sound design just don’t have the raw power that other shooters have.
On the higher difficulties, you’ll run out of ammo on occasion. Ammo in this war-torn Dubai is scarce, so you’ll scavenge for weapons often. You get extra ammo by executing enemies with melee. Yager Development could have added some survival horror mechanics to this game, but they dropped the ball on that. Why can’t I explore for water and food as I see mirages over the hot desert? With only a few shots left in your rifle, this could be a very tense experience.
Your allied AI does a good job of taking out targets. In addition, you can tell them to kill targets yourself with a squad command system. You use it when you’re pinned down, or you’re in a situation that requires two enemies to die at once. It becomes effective in the stealth sequences, and when you need to kill a target while another has you pinned down. Your squad takes notes on how well you’re doing. If you’re doing poorly or sending them in to situations where they get hurt, they begin to disrespect you and stop following your orders.
Your squad will sometimes shoot at walls and cars instead of enemies, which is frustrating when you can’t leave cover yourself. There isn’t much else to say other than this. Nothing with the system is wrong; it just could have used more depth. The level design does get better as the game progresses, so even though it’s the same old shooting it feels a bit better. I’ve been hard on the gameplay, but nothing about it is truly “wrong”. I just felt like they could have done more experimentation with the mechanics.
Spec Ops takes primary inspiration from the film Apocalypse Now, even having a few characters with references to the book and film. It keeps the same tone and themes as the source material without butchering it. Without giving too much away, you’ll be forced to fight American soldiers. The developers did an excellent job with this story. Right now, I think that Spec Ops is the standard that other third person shooters will be judged at. The characters are intentionally flat and uninteresting in the beginning, but soon you get to learn more about them through their own bickering and the grim situation that they face. It’s an odd narrative choice. The skeptic will play an hour of the game and dismiss it as another dumb shooter, missing out on a great story. I will admit that a lot more could have been done with this story. It almost seems like it was going to be a much more open and exploration based game before it became a linear shooter. Spreading your squad out and looking for clues to the Colonel’s location would have allowed for a longer game and a more nuanced retelling of Apocalypse Now. You can give criticism to Spec Ops for being a retelling of Apocalypse Now, but its ridiculous when Apocalypse Now is a retelling of Heart of Darkness.
Your character’s morality is paralleled through your squadmates. You’ll be forced to come through decisions of what is “right” and what is “necessary”. These choices are well done and have some weight to them. The game has some shocking imagery to put it mildly. A few events disgusted me and I wanted to stop playing.
The decay and death of Dubai is well presented. Lieutenant Walker’s own mental fortitude is tested throughout the story, and his descent into insanity is slow and deliberate. Morality in the game is based on a few choices that don’t have any effect on the story as a whole, they’re just present for you to contemplate. The consequences of these choices are unclear on the first playthrough, and the story remains cohesive no matter which choices you make. People that expect branching storylines and different levels based on decisions will be disappointed. Despite this, I find Spec Ops to present morality in a way that is better than games like KOTOR 1 and Fallout 3. You’re never a comical monster that kills for fun. The ending needed a bit more care, but it wasn’t too bad. The ending wraps things up thematically, but the twist at the end needed a longer scene.
Spec Ops is no Crysis, as it was made with consoles in mind. It does get the job done. The game features grand vistas of a destroyed Dubai that can look stunning at the right moments. The game transitions to a sky filled with glare and dust. These effects don’t overstay their welcome and are sparingly used. Indoor environments look good and show off the lighting, but textures could have been at a higher resolution on the PC. More importantly, it never dipped below 60 frames per second on my PC. It always retained 60 frames per second, no matter how many explosions, dunes of sand, or expletives filled the screen. I thought this was amazing, since the dust effects are wonderful. Another odd design choice: you don’t spend much time out in the desert during the game. Spec Ops is one of the more colorful shooters I’ve played in a while.
Controls in Spec Ops are excellent. I would go far enough to say that out of all the Gears clones, this one has the best controls. The squad system never gets in your way, and you feel grounded and secure without feeling slow. On the higher difficulties, there is no aim assist either. Still, the guns lack any sort of power. At least I can hit what I shoot at (I’m looking at Kane & Lynch 2)! A one button cover system would have been preferable instead of the two button system.
I’ve given some praise to the single player, but I can’t say the same thing for the multiplayer. It seems like a joke. Not only is the idea of it tacked on, it’s done by a different development studio. Weaponry feels worse than it does in the single player, and feels a lot floatier.
Multiplayer in essence is all about the Call of Duty style unlock system. There are way too many things to unlock, and I can’t imagine anyone taking the time to get everything in this game, or the game retaining a large population of players. If you want the Call of Duty unlock system, go play Call of Duty and start prestiging. It’s a terrible way to get people to commit to playing your game, since there are so many superior alternatives. If the single player in Spec Ops is a generic game that turns into a unique game, the multiplayer is a generic game that stays generic.
Multiplayer does attempt to make itself a little different, with a revive system and area-of-effect perks. On PC it even uses Steamworks, which is the best solution for online gameplay. It just wasn’t enough to keep me playing. The maps aren’t noteworthy at all, except for the sandstorms that occur frequently. I expect the multiplayer to go the way of Dead Space 2, having a small population left in 3 months. Someone will enjoy the multiplayer, but there are better things out there to occupy your time with.
Spec Ops surprised me and is a decent game. Although I will never touch the multiplayer, the single player is a great experience that I may play again for the different ending. Spec Ops could have used more gameplay variation at times, better guns, and better AI. I predict that a lot of people will dismiss it for the simple gameplay. Yet it isn’t quite enough to detract from the experience. I wonder how clueless people will handle this game’s true intentions? This is a smart and enjoyable game, please give it a chance.