Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Review: Spec Ops: The Line

It definitely tries to but does Spec Ops: The Line succeed in its fight against its genres tendency for being overly generic and create a truly unique experience? A fresh setting, a-typical villains and a focus on story are definitely two steps in the right direction, for the military shooter genre, but the gameplay and story's conclusion are one step right back. Spec Ops wants to be its own game but throughout playing it all I could think about was how reminiscent of the later parts of Uncharted 3, the protagonists are even voiced by the same actor, and Call of Duty: Black Ops it is. Whilst Spec Ops: The Line may fall short of its aim to be totally original it is still a very competent game, in its own right, and very worthy of attention. The story is well crafted, has a good pace and offers plenty of shocking moments, that don't just feel shoehorned in.

Spec Ops: The Line is a third person shooter with a heavy emphasis on cover based combat. The combat system is fast and fluid and your actions have a nice weight behind them; slipping into cover from a sprint results in your character rebounding slightly and jumping down produces a satisfying thud. For each weapon type, whether it be assault rifle, shotgun or pistol, there are multiple varieties that feel distinct and all come with an alternate attack. The alternate of your first weapon adds a silencer that allows for some limited stealth, whereas the alternate of another assault rifle, you find much later in the game, is an under barrel grenade launcher. In general the weapons in this game feel great.
The story takes place in Dubai after it has been wracked by a series of sandstorms and, for the most part, evacuated. You take control of Captain Martin Walker as he and his team go in after a after a division of the US army disobeys orders to abandon the city and goes rogue. The enemies aren't your usual Muslim extremists, Russian terrorist or Communist invaders, the people you face are just humans put in a terrible place; what happens could have occurred in any city in the world, after it is isolated and its remaining inhabitants left to die. Dubai is the epitome of over exuberant opulence and is a great setting for the game as it allows for the extremes of extravagant interiors on one side and destroyed buildings and slums on the other.

For most of the game you are accompanied by your two squad mates, Adams and Lugo, who are actually very useful. In a lot of games your squad mates are just glorified meat shields, but here they are actually capable of killing people on their own and you have a limited control of them to make them even more efficient. You can tell your squad mates to focus their attacks on one particular enemy, and depending where that enemy is they will kill them in a variety of ways, or they can flashbang a group of enemies. My one problem with your squad mates is that, once you know how the game ends, their loyalty throughout the game doesn't seem probable. Your squad mates are both very likeable characters but as the plot gets darker your relationship gets strained to the limit.
Graphically, Spec Ops always looks good (admittedly on ultra high on PC) and in some places is breathtaking. Dubai looks best in the sunlight as the lighting effects are particularly impressive. On the other hand, explosions are particularly bad and there are some low textures to be found as well. Spec Ops: The Line's music has an orchestra based backbone that is great but not exemplary. The tone of the game is often dark, atmospheric and introspective and this is reflected in the games soundtrack. Through the first two thirds of the game players you can hear a character called Radioman on the airwaves who provides a constant antagonistic presence and also plays some licensed music a la Apocalypse Now Vietnam war era.

The gameplay can sometimes get a bit repetitive, as is often a problem of the genre, as you go into a room, hide behind cover and slowly pick off enemies ducking back and reloading in between kills. Some sections are also overly long and drawn out, but in general the story goes at a fast pace. Spec Ops: The Line manages to tell the story it wants to tell, but is a very short game, coming in at around 5 hours. However, the multiplayer will extend the game time for those that are interested in it. The multiplayer mode as it is now is very generic but still enjoyable. There is also an upcoming DLC game that will allow you and a friend to play through certain sections of the game, prior to the events of the single player, in a cooperative mode. 
Spec Ops: The Line is a great game and a step in the right direction for the military shooter genre. It attempts to, and mostly succeeds to, innovate and it should be applauded for even trying to do so, as many companies these days are content to churn out the same game annually. Five hours for a single player game is short, but with that time it told a succinct and gripping story that probably wouldn't have benefited from being stretched by a couple of hours. I think that future Spec Ops games would benefit from an episodic format where every couple of weeks or so a new two hour chapter is released that tells a gritty and mature story; this would also help keep sustained interest in the game and its multiplayer component. Spec Ops' greatest features are its fluid gameplay mechanics, brilliant voice acting and its mature storytelling. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it.

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