Looking over my video game collection, there is certainly a feel of games that are either set in the past or set in the future with the exception of sports games and a couple of driving titles. In particular, I do not look at a shooter and think that I want to play something that takes place now. I am a sucker for fantasy and sci/fi shooters primarily. But today, I have just the opposite, a very realistic present day third-person shooter in the name of Spec Ops: The Line. Let us see how it plays.
Spec Ops: The Line is set in Dubai of the United Arab Emirates. As you might guess, the game plays out like one huge desert. There are sweeping winds and an environment that looks trashed and forgotten by time. Even when the game takes to inside various buildings, there is still the sense of the dusty environment close outside. It is wonderful to look at but gives you the eerie sense that something horrible and deadly is right around the corner.
The detail on your squad members is quite good as well. You as Captain Walker and your teammates Adams and Lugo have the look of a team but also can be told apart (most of the time) when the action gets fierce and crazy. The enemy and civilians I did find myself sometimes blending together but that goes back to the old adage of shooting first and asking questions later. But this also plays into the idea that war is heck which is one of the central themes in this game.
Weapons also tend to blend together in shape and design and at least at first (unless you just know your guns), the player really has to play with each weapon to understand their power and range. Once you overcome that, it becomes immensely satisfying when the player can see the result of their carnage in full fledged detail. That includes blood splatter, bodies flying around and occasionally a well placed shot that lops off a head or two. Brutal but gorgeous.
Sound is recorded in the usual 5.1 Dolby Digital. As expected with any military game, the sound of constant gun fire in front of you, above you, and even sometimes behind you is especially fierce. The separation of speakers really helps to alert you to the location of said fire. A player should be able to tell direction and proximity as well as intensity (shotgunner versus rifleman) by just the sounds of the fire). This is naturally important when you got 30 to 3 odds.
Once the gunfire calms down, the player will also take the time to notice the environmental sounds of the ever present sand that filters through every scene of the game. They will notice the dialog too for which this game has heaps of. Dialog is clear and understandable but authentic. We mean by this that occasionally a dust storm will kick up and one of your team members might be shouting back at you and you can barely hear them. When one thinks about it, it should not be crystal clear in a sandstorm but we can still hear enough.
Again we might not expect it but there are quite a few pieces of music in this game as well. We are not talking about battle type background noise either but actual songs. Most of these come in the form of a character known as the “Radioman” but the music becomes part of the situation and often the team is trying to find the source. It seems odd at first naturally but it soon becomes a warning at every turn. There is also the familiar guitar piece by Jimmie Hendrix that recreates the United States’ national anthem which fits in nicely.
One quick note, but subtitles are recommended (for those stormy moments) and can be turned on in the options menu.
The story picks up after quite a few months of terrible sand storms to sweep across Dubai. The government naturally played it down while they escaped out the back door and left bunches of civilians behind. Colonel John Konrad, the commander of the 33rd Battalion volunteered his outfit to help with the relief efforts. Then the storms intensified again, and somebody went horribly wrong with the Battalion’s efforts.
The storm had cut off all communication and even after the US Government told them to stand down and evacuate, Konrad and his squad would not stand down. Despite the acts of treason, a transmission was received that implied the Battalion had a thousand civilians ready for transport. The caravan never came, and the situation ended in a massive failure. The story picks up later when another message from Konrad.
“This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll: too many.” The US Military decides to send three men, Captain Walker, Lieutenant Adams, and Sergeant Lugo. Your role is of Captain Walker, a man who served under Konrad at one point (he even saved his life) and your mission is to the confirm the statuses of the men including Konrad and any survivors. Then and only then can they radio for extraction.
The first thing we will notice in Chapter 1 is that a lot of the commands scream of many other first and third person shooters in the Xbox 360 universe with a very familiar control scheme. Analog Sticks to move and look around, Left Trigger to aim, Right Trigger to Fire. Y to Switch weapons, while your LB to throw a grenade. A and B cover multiple actions with A primarily doing Cover Actions and Sprinting while B hands the minor times you need Melee as well as Vaulting over cover where applicable. Reloading is handled by X which held down will also pick up a nearby weapon to replace your current one.
Where the game decides to take a not so familiar turn is the use of RB button. This button is used to control your two teammates Lugo and Adams. This involves a couple of commands. Part of the time, the RB command can be used for the throwing of a flashbang grenade which will stun the opposition. The more important command brings up a red triangle which can then be used to target a specific enemy. Then the teammates will close in on the target and take them down with sometimes surprising accuracy. Of course, sometimes they will run straight into fire and have to be healed.
Thankfully, with good playing you won’t become Dr. Walker all the time and have to help your teammates constantly. More often than not, you will be worrying about your own head as the enemies come in thick and fast. Which touches on the first issue I noticed, movement and taking cover. Movement can be a bit stilted and often I died because I couldn’t quite find the right cover in time. The other part of the time, I died because Walker has a habit (not all the time) of not taking cover because the angle is off which can be a little frustrating.
That aside, the idea of taking cover and popping out to take a shot at the enemies can be pretty satisfying especially when the enemies are numerous and deadly. I was also hoping that the environment would present a greater challenge or allow for some cool ways to take out the enemy. This only happens occasionally and furthermore it is one of those canned storyline situations where it just happens.
Over the course of the game you will also pick up Intel or scattered fragments of information left lying around to further explain the situation of what might happened here in Dubai. These add to the scariness of the game which can be described as frightful and grim. If you are digging a Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now now vibe as you play this game, it certainly seems that it was intended. War is never glorious, regardless of the winners and losers.
Another thing the player will notice is that occasionally when you perform a repeated action, the screen will get a progress bar for that action. Like for example, the number of times you were a marksman with a rifle. These are obviously linked into achievements (which I will explain more later) but they forgot something very important (especially to stat hounds like me). There is no way to track or be able to check these stats in any other way. We shoot somebody perfect with a rifle, and the progress looks like I’m about halfway to my achievement. I don’t know if I need to kill five more or fifty more to get to the end. Very frustrating especially when so many of the achievements are handled in this fashion.
Also, there are several difficulty levels to play with. “Walk on the Beach” is your customary easy mode but can still be difficult in tight situations. “Combat Op” and “Suicide Mission” are your normal and hard levels while “FUBAR” is for the ridiculous and only unlocked once you beat Suicide Mission. The game is not too bad difficulty wise (until you get to the harder levels obviously) except for two things. One the stilted movement and not taking cover does hurt you from time to time on any difficulty. The other thing is those darn enemy frag grenades which have a horrible habit of being deadly accurate. Furthermore, with the impaired movement, you often cannot move away in time.
As one could probably tell, the campaign mode is what you will be spending most of your time with which is a bit different from most first or third person shooters. However, the campaign is actually fairly short, eight to ten hours at the most unless you fly through games like this, then perhaps six. But unless the player is the type of winning the game and then immediately dumping it (the Redbox/Gamefly syndrome), they will probably stick around to play it twice (or replay a lot of chapters since it gives that option).
The reason for this has to do with the moral choices presented during the later chapters as well as the grinding achievements which guarantee another play through. This is also why all of the achievements can be gained in the single player without even touching the multiplayer option. While the game does allow certain achievements to be gained in the multiplayer mode, it clearly seems like an afterthought. If one does want to try their hand at Multiplayer, there are at least plenty of modes to choose from.
Most of the modes are ones we have seen before. Chaos is your classic deathmatch where Mutiny is the team deathmatch. Attrition is the team deathmatch elimination mode. Rally Point and Uplink both involve the idea of holding a position blocking enemies who try to take it. The difference is that Uplink requires the team’s COM station to be online in order to accumulate points. Finally, there is Buried which is a little more complicated as it involves destroying the enemy’s VP or Vital Points. Take out enough of these VPs and the HVT or High Value Target will finally be exposed. Finish that one off and it’s a win for the team.
Going back to achievements, there are fifty of them for the usual one thousand points. Many of these are story related and cannot be missed. In addition, there are achievements related to the difficulty of your single player campaign and are stackable if you want to go for the gusto on the first playthrough. However, certainly more interesting are the moral achievements which will “reward” you for making each of the choices. However, in addition each of these choices will either require another playthrough or reloading of a checkpoint or possibly whole chapter.
For example, without giving too much away there is a later chapter where you are asked to shoot a person or not to. Shooting them will net an achievement as with not shooting them will also net an achievement. In addition, your decision can also open the way to two more achievements. This happens more than once in the game. To be honest, for the achievement whores in most of us, it is a little unsettling to play the game to get the multiple disturbing endings just so we can have a string of cheevos.
In addition to a few interesting skill type achievements, (kill three enemies with a single grenade, kicking an enemy by vaulting over cover, defeating your enemies with sand, etc), there is the ever popular collection achievements. Killing 350 people with a rifle, check! Kill 100 people with a pistol, check! Kill 75 with a shotgun, check! Kill 50 people with a sniper, check! Kill 250 people with a headshot…ouch that’s got to hurt. You get the point, but let’s just say there are a lot of these type of achievements. I appreciate the fact these achievements are all manageable (the difficulty ones will require a good deal of skill) but some more variety or creativity would have been appreciated.
Spec Ops: The Line is a difficult game to truly judge. On one hand, the story is fantastic, it is not your cookie cutter shooter and it will stick with you far longer than the most recent Call of Duty or Gears of War infraction. But on the other hand, the control has issues from time to time and the gameplay is fairly basic with nothing special (outside of a few choice incidents) from the wonderful sandy environment. The single player campaign is reasonably short but one will probably find themselves playing it a couple of times if they want to attain the achievements.
The achievements are also a good idea, bad idea as grinders will deeply enjoy them but most people might seek other games to play once they get through the story and moral points. However, I do think the good outweighs the bad here with its choice graphics, great sound, and tested but true gameplay. Mowing down enemies and a intriguing story show that there is more to this shooter than its standard box art. I think it is a fine diversion from the prototypical military shooters out there and with an emphasis on strategy and story, it is a respectable choice for the summer months. Stay dry, my friends.