Monday, July 2, 2012

REVIEW - Spec Ops: The Line.

"This is your fault." -loading screen tip

When Yager Development told us their game would put a huge emphasis on narrative - recalling classic meditations on war like Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now - it was hard to believe them.  Aside from the sandy setting, trailers and screenshots merely showed what we've seen a thousand times before - Americans in military fatigues shooting at other people.

Been there.  Done that.  Ad infinitum.

But they weren't lying.  Its saving grace - even more impressive and memorable than its unique setting - is that The Line quickly turns the thematic standards of military shooters on its head, to wonderful effect.

"The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants, but this isn't real, so why should you care?"
-loading screen tip

The game is set in the obscenely opulent Persian Gulf metropolis of Dubai.  Dubai is a real and fascinating place, worth reading up on.  It's a cultural and commercial hub, so buzzed on the billions of dollars that pour through it on a daily basis that its Burj Khalifa (currently the tallest man-made structure in the world) was used as a set piece for the last Mission Impossible.  It's a town so crazed with the high life that the ocean to the northwest of the city is being terraformed into a series of landscaped residential islands that look, from the sky, like a palm tree, a sun, and a map of the world.

That is an otherworldly setting even without destroying it first - but the game is set six months after a series of particularly apocalyptic sandstorms ravage the city.  Colonel John Konrad and his "Damned" 33rd Batallion were sent in to assist with the evacuation... but no one's heard from them in six months.

Then, a repeating radio transmission began crackling out of the city, and so we, as Captain Martin Walker (voiced by the brilliantly-cast Nolan North), are sent in to investigate.  In the same way it was easy to write off Yager's boast that this would actually be a story-driven military-dressed shooter, it's easy to find the idea of playing as North in yet another cover-based third-person shooter a bit tiring - but man, it's genius.

There is a grim purpose in putting the voice of the cheeky, never-sweats-a-kill Nathan Drake in the boots of Walker that pays huge dividends.  It's a trip to watch him break down in the face of the horror.

"How many Americans have you killed today?" -loading screen tip

The Line very quickly begins challenging the moral comforts of Captain Walker and his two team members before descending into choices that are never as binary as they are in other titles.  It doesn't give you the option between paragon or renegade - it simply asks you to choose between two evils, and you hope to God you ended up picking the lesser one.

As the game progresses, Walker and his men (d)evolve from proud military professionals who dutifully call out when they're reloading or require cover with tactical deadpan to roaring savages, swearing up a blue storm at their weapons when they need a fresh clip.  It's very new to see such incidental dialogue change over the course of an action game - a sharp touch I hope to see repeated in future titles.  Even the animations change to reflect the deteriorating mental state of your character, as a quick, surgical strike to the neck to finish a downed enemy enemy grotesquely morphs into absolutely brutal weapon-specific variations.

Once the credits roll, you'll find yourself wanting to go back to key scenes to make sure of everything you saw - to see if the writers at Yager really did pull of what you think they pulled off - an impressive feat all on its own.  The game doesn't have the philosophical resonance of Joseph Conrad's abstract concepts - or come even within striking distance of Apocalypse Now - but it's nice to see a video game discuss such ideas, and meaningfully reflect on the casual genocide we so often engage in.

"You're still a good person." -loading screen tip

Gameplay is comfortable at best, but could use another coat of polish.  It's not uncommon to stick a bit too long on geometry or find yourself unable to snap to cover at a crucial moment, but for the most part it's serviceable, and gets the job done.  It rarely actively disappoints the player, and once you're comfortable with the game's rhythms it becomes a very efficient exercise in dashing into cover, tearing around a corner to slap one foe in the chest with a round of buckshot before belting the other across the face with a fist, slamming him to the ground.  

It ends up feeling just fine.  Nothing special.

One nice touch is the ability to spot targets for your squad by zipping the cursor up to a distant enemy and releasing the R2 button.  Walker will bark at Lugo, your wise-cracking tech expert for a precision sniper shot, and two seconds later the enemy will fall.

In terms of gameplay, it serves as little more than a specialized shot you have passive control over - but it's still cool to have your squad mates abilities shore up the gaps in your arsenal - and you'll discover you miss the backup when they're not around.

"Do you feel like a hero yet?" -loading screen tip

In terms of play, The Line is a very familiar - perhaps even ho-hum - experience.  In terms of vision, it's successful.  Accomplished, even.

It was fair to distrust Yager when they assured us they were delivering something special, here - and in a few crucial ways, it's not - but when the credits roll on The Line, it's not the fine-just-fine gameplay that resonates.

It's the fact that the comfortable shootouts occurr in such an inspired setting.  It's the way the game takes your expectations and kicks them in the balls.  It's the troubling questions it raises - not just about war, but about war games - that stick with you, and will remain with you  like an old scar you might successfully forget until your finger absently grazes that patch of too-smooth skin, and it all comes flooding back.

  • the setting is inspired, effective and just crazy enough to bring BioShock to mind
  • comfortable gameplay with decent pacing
  • the game's technology may be meh, but the art direction regularly does great things with its limited tools
  • good voice work across the board, particularly from the Three Kings
  • North in particular is, of course, excellent
  • it's delightful to see a military-dressed shooter actually raise the questions and reflection this one does
  • the story itself may not be amazing, but it's told amazingly well
  • the way the characters' incidental dialogue and combat animations change to reflect their deteriorating mental state is supercool
  • ends up feeling like an emotional gut-punch
  • graphics are so-so.  The character models in particular really show how long this game was in development
  • major texture pop - it's so bad even in the main menu that you wonder if it's on purpose
  • the music - while it gets you in the mood - doesn't really feel like it fits.  Though it was cool to hear that Bjork song in there.
  • gameplay is merely okay.  It's not bad.  It's fine-just-fine. 
  • The sand mechanics never really feel important or organic.  It's just that sometimes you can shoot out a window and sand will flood a bunch of enemies.  Basically, they took the classic red barrel and made it look like sand behind a window.  Whoopie. 
  • beyond the rather affecting narrative, there's absolutely no reason to play this game over the higher-profile games in its genre.
It's worth checking out for the gutsy story alone, but I'd suggest waiting for a price drop. 


  1. 50% off at amazon right now.

    you bet i jumped right on that subversive, nolan north sounding, grenade.

  2. I hope more games try to provide a deeper understanding about the horrors of war like this one, it's seems like an admirable attempt within in a sea of jingoistic shooters. Too bad it sounds like the gameplay ended up to be so "ho-hum" (which isn't entirely a bad thing). Then again, I haven't played the game so I can't say for sure.

  3. Well... it's a good and bad thing. One gets the sense that the point and purpose of this game is to provoke thought, and if that's the case having gameplay that the gamer feels perfectly comfortable slipping into - without any major gimmicks or curve balls - makes it a more easygoing delivery method for the game's story. On the other hand, it's a game - we don't (often) go to games for philosophical discussion, or a profound life lesson.

    Also, the art direction is very nice.

    I've seen a ton of war movies and played a lot of war games, but - and I'm being 100% honest, here - no piece of media has so profoundly instilled in me the idea that "in war, you either end up dead or you go home so completely fucked up that you will never be you again." In what it wants to do, it's very effective.

    It's just that we also have to judge it by the standards its peers, within its genre, have set.

  4. Wow, now that’s how to write a great game review. Too bad they didn’t take the opportunity to do something memorable with the sand mechanics (like Hydrophobia did with water). I’ve been busy playing Dragon’s Dogma lately, and while I’ve been enjoying it, it has a forgettable story, so a game with a strong story would be more than welcome. And since I’m trying to decide on what game to put in my Blockbuster @Home queue next, and a guy I work with at Dish has been telling me about Spec Ops: The Line, I thought I’d check out some more thorough reviews. I’m actually a little tempted to buy it now—something I’ve given up since I went through my budget and realized how much cash I was spending by buying 2-3 (or more) new games each month. No, I don’t want to get back in that habit again, but I’ll definitely be renting this one.