Quite a few years ago, Electronic Arts produced SEAL Team, a simulation of various US Navy SEAL operations set during the Vietnam War. Despite its difficulty and clunky interface (especially by today's standards), SEAL Team was one of the best games of its type ever made. Now Zombie Interactive has produced Spec Ops: Rangers Lead the Way, a small unit combat simulation dealing with US Army Rangers and modern world-type conflicts. On the surface, Spec Ops has nearly all the ingredients of a really good game, but bugs and other gameplay problems hamper it, and the end result is something less than spectacular.
It's highly recommended that this game be played only with a 3Dfx Voodoo or Voodoo Rush accelerator; without it, Spec Ops is worse than ugly at low resolutions (which also makes some elements of gameplay counterproductive) and is insanely slow at 640x480, even on a Pentium 266. With a 3Dfx card, Spec Ops will run pretty well, but you should have at least a Pentium 166. That said, Spec Ops in 3Dfx mode is very graphically appealing, with all kinds of textured surfaces, objects, and moving vehicles. Colored source lighting from muzzle flashes and explosions, as well as various vision modes - like night vision sniper scopes and enhanced sighting equipment - accompany the basic 3D engine.
Spec Ops is split into five missions set in different areas of the world, and each mission is split into three playable phases (or in the case of North Korea, four). Three modes of difficulty, which basically determine the amount of equipment and number of enemies, theoretically adds replayability, but, let's face it, there really isn't any replayability to be found. In fact, you cannot directly replay a given phase at a different difficulty level until you've actually reached that phase sequentially at that particular difficulty level, which means in essence replaying the game from scratch.
Each mission phase has a certain set of objectives to accomplish, and you can select two Rangers with three or four different types of weapon and equipment loadouts to accomplish the objectives. Unfortunately, the actual mission briefing can be a bit confusing and misleading, and some objectives can actually be skipped altogether.
Spec Ops is an action-based game set in a military-style background. Those of you expecting a realistic representation of Army Rangers out in the field will be in for a big surprise. For instance, for some reason the military has deemed that only two Rangers be sent in to accomplish the objectives, whether it be to retrieve an Aurora data module or securing weapons-grade plutonium from crazy militiamen in Honduras. Each mission phase has a set time limit, so you can't dawdle around enjoying the scenery. The "Global Positioning Satellite" only tells you which direction you're facing (it helps show you the way to your current objective) - but isn't this normally called a compass? Health and armor can be instantly restored through the use of medikits or flak vests. In fact, the game's control scheme is reminiscent of Quake and its ilk, albeit often in a third-person point of view. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this, the way Spec Ops is packaged is definitely not what it is all cracked up to be.
What's worse is that there are some real problems associated with the game. There are four general commands you can give to your fellow Ranger (you can switch between the two Rangers easily). In self-defense mode the computer-controlled Ranger defends himself well. Otherwise, the AI resembles that of an elderly rat with only half a brain. This is true for the enemy AI as well, and the enemy will often try to shoot at you through buildings. This can be rather funny, except that the game engine has a bug where the computer's weapon barrels can stick through seemingly solid objects and shoot at you. A common occurrence is to let the enemy AI try to shoot at you through a building or tree, and tell your fellow Ranger to "move up." The Ranger will then move forward a number of paces, become aware of the enemy soldier, and kill him. The enemy of course is oblivious to the whole event.
The AI is brazenly stupid in other ways as well. Rangers have a knack for falling down hill slopes and killing themselves for no reason. When you acquire a target your Ranger tracks it until the target is dead or outside your field of vision. This way your Ranger has a tendency to completely ignore the other enemy shooting at you from point-blank range. What's worse, an enemy in the prone position is nearly impossible to hit no matter what the distance. I once expended an entire clip of ammunition shooting at a prone soldier five feet away from my Ranger and didn't even kill him. AI soldiers kill themselves with their own rifle grenades. The only way to control where your grenade is being thrown is the position you happen to be standing in. Corpses of enemy soldiers leave equipment you can use behind, but the corpses disappear after ten seconds or so - and so does the equipment.
The difficulty of the Honduras and Afghanistan missions reaches ridiculous levels; grenades and shells land all over, seemingly from nowhere. Most of the time there is almost no defense - you just have to keep moving. The replayability the box mentions is the fact that you'll have to play the mission phases over and over again to finish the missions.
This is not to say that Spec Ops is all bad; some of the game elements are quite good. The weapons are modeled well, from the M-4 version of the M-16 assault rifle to the SSG sniper rifle and the curious caseless G-11 submachine gun. The sound is excellent - the enemies' voices match the languages used in those countries (except for Honduras, but that's for a reason), and the various weapon and explosion sounds are spectacular. Again the 3D engine is quite good for the most part, sprinkled with a few glitches. The manual is short and to the point. There's even a $25 "field pass" for a round of real-life paintball.
Spec Ops has quite a few good and bad things going for it. If you're action game-oriented and don't mind some of the gameplay and AI problems, you will probably enjoy it for at least a little while, though there's no multiplayer mode. If you're expecting even a remotely realistic simulation of US Army Ranger missions, you really need to think long and hard before buying this game.