Spec Ops: The Line Updated Impressions

Vicious looters and rogue soldiers stalk the sand-filled streets of postapocalyptic Dubai in a new demo for 2K's upcoming military shooter.


In our first look at Spec Ops: The Line, we were introduced to an American Army colonel who, while on a mission to provide aid to the citizens of disaster-struck Dubai, went rogue and began pursuing his own agenda. As Captain Walker, a member of the elite squad sent in to "rescue" the colonel and his men, you soon begin to realize that your mission is far from straightforward. In a new demo for the game, we watched as Walker and his men fought their way past squads of soldiers and gangs of looters, always conscious of the mountains of sand looming around them. The ruined opulence of Dubai was on full display, and the environments told the story of the city's descent into anarchy. By the time our demo concluded with a tough choice and an intense encounter, we had a much better picture of the gameplay experience that Spec Ops: The Line is endeavoring to create.

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The demo began inside of a semi-collapsed building. The squad seemed to be recovering from a previous encounter and trying to work out where they stood and what their next move was. The discussion was fraught with uncertainty ("The city was supposed to be uninhabited"), and over the course of the demo we were able to develop a sense of each squad member's personality. Familiar archetypes were at work, from the gung-ho let-God-sort-'em-out attitude to the reserved let's-just-think-this-though approach, but the characters all felt like they were interacting in a thoughtful way. No one seemed to be a full-on stereotype, and even the ubiquitous voice actor Nolan North was doing a reasonable job of not sounding like Nathan Drake (though he still sounded unmistakably like Nolan North).

The squad soon found its way out into a lavish open atrium. Set into the center of the floor was a large circular saltwater fish tank full of colorful corals--an opulent touch for any building, let alone one located in the middle of the desert. The marbled interior was cast in a pale light, an effect we quickly realized was the result of the tons of sand piled against the tall glass windows. With no apparent exit, Walker took a few shots at one of the windows, causing it to break and unleash a cascade of sand that formed a convenient exit ramp. We saw sand play a crucial role in a later encounter, when Walker grenaded a concrete barrier, triggering another cascade of sand and burying a few hostile looters alive. The presence of sand not only defines the environments in Spec Ops, but can play an active role in your squad's tactics in certain situations. Oh, and you didn't think the sandstorms that buried the city were over and done with, did you? Well, we didn't see any in action, but the developers all but confirmed that your squad will have to suffer the wrath of the elements.

During our demo, the elements remained fairly tame, though evidence of the disaster was everywhere. As the squad moved outside, they were shunted through trenches created by high concrete barriers meant to hold back the sand. These barriers, along with spray-painted messages like "City gate ahead…free water," are clear indicators of a massive government effort to manage the disaster and evacuate citizens. Equally clear were the indicators of the chaos that must have followed. Rougher, multilingual graffiti set a darker tone, one notable highlight being the blood-red message "Dubai Died Screaming."

This evacuation route doesn't look very safe.
This evacuation route doesn't look very safe.

Apparently the state of anarchy had persisted for quite a while before your infiltration, as evidenced by what might be described as a towering anti-American art installation. On the side of one building hangs a vertically oriented, tattered American flag. At the top of this flag is a horned skull positioned like a head. The left arm is represented by a human skull on a scepter, and the right arm is an assault rifle. This little project clearly took some effort, and its looming presence was striking. Environmental details like this painted a rich picture of Dubai's ravaged state and conveyed intriguing details about its descent into madness. The towering skyscrapers still loomed overheard as an echo of the city's former glory, but many of them were covered in smashed glass or even leaning off-kilter, a sobering reminder of the destructive power of nature.

Some of those destructive forces were still at work, and as we emerged from the trenches we were met with a grisly sight. We looked out over a sandy parking lot that was dotted with lampposts, and from each post hung a corpse--more evidence of crazies with too much time on their hands. Just as we were taking this in, the crazy bus arrived bearing a pack of outlandishly dressed looters. The squad slid into cover before they were noticed, allowing Walker to look at the crowded bus and issue a command to attack. The rapid staccato of gunfire rang out, and after some frantic yells and panicked return fire, the street grew silent once again. Spec Ops: The Line will feature both general and contextual command systems, the latter of which will bring up a small prompt onscreen. Other than occasional prompts and a targeting reticle, there was no heads-up display to distract from the action onscreen. The character models seemed to fill the screen a bit more than in other games, though they weren't so big as to obstruct the screen, and this design choice seems to resonate with the developers' intention to get you uncomfortably close to the action (in a good way).

The demo concluded with a dramatic encounter meant to showcase this very intent. Overhearing some commotion outside, the squad exited a building and took cover behind a low wall. In the street below, an American soldier was menacing a captured woman while another soldier from a different faction looked on. This appeared to be an attempt to interrogate the strange soldier. Then again, the voice of the rogue colonel was sounding out through loud speakers and defending his own actions ("Maybe if you understood the hell we put these people through…"). Perhaps he was trying to lure his enemies out into the open? What was clear was that the soldier on the street had pulled out a gun and was preparing to execute his captive.

White phosphorous is just one of the military-grade dangers you will have to deal with.
White phosphorous is just one of the military-grade dangers you will have to deal with.

One of Walker's squadmates demanded they intervene to save the woman and was on the verge of taking a shot while another squadmate advocated caution, saying they shouldn't expose themselves to a potential ambush. The camera frantically jumped between the squadmates, the imminent execution, and Walker himself, clearly signaling that the time for decision was now. In the case of our demo, inaction was tantamount to action as the execution went through. Undeterred, our demoer jumped into the fray and the action slowed down, giving the player a slight advantage and highlighting the momentous action that had just occurred.

While third-person shooters aren't exactly rare these days, Spec Ops: The Line seems to be focusing on a few things to help distinguish it from the pack. The unique setting is one such focus, and the detailed environments not only look good, but they convey a rich amount of information about the situation you are in. Immediacy is another focus, as demonstrated by the execution scene at the end of our demo. We'll have more on Spec Ops soon, including news about the cooperative and team-based multiplayer modes, as well as the multiplayer beta looming on the horizon, so keep an eye on GameSpot in the coming weeks.

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