A satire of the military shooter.
First, the story. A lot was made of Yager's direction with Spec Ops: The Line. Despite it's unique setting and look, audiences were pondering on whether the game would be interesting considering its overly familiar shooter gameplay (which I will discuss a bit later). The developer constantly stressed how important the story was to the game, and how it would engage the player. After completing the game, its safe to say that Yager absolutely nailed the story aspect. The basic premise involves Delta Squad Captain Martin Walker who, along with his two team members Adams and Lugo, investigate a Dubai ravaged by sandstorms in search of a man named John Konrad, whose own battalion failed their mission of an evacuation of the city. As the trio delve deeper into the city, they discover more than just a rescue operation, which brings their morals into question. Without spoiling anything, Spec Ops' story treads a fine line between armed conflict and moral dilemmas. It's also a fascinating character study that veers in unpredictable directions, and also brings the player's own morals into the fray. It's one thing for a game to tell a captivating story revolving around moral conflict and a test of psyche, but it's even more amazing for Yager to tell it in a military shooter of whose genre is filled with generic fictional terrorist attacks and futuristic wars. It's a special shooter in this regard, and makes for a standout experience for the genre.
The strong character development reinforces the moral scenarios. During the game, Walker will be faced with two-way decisions to make that will have different consequences. Without spoiling anything, it's, for example, a "let person 'x' live or let person 'y' live" with dark outcomes. It's more difficult than this, because the bond between Walker and his squad mates begins to falter during the course of the story, depending on the decisions. There isn't a good way of getting through these torrid situations; there is no winning or success. It's always a struggle; someone always gets hurt and Walker is always at the centre of such conflicting situations. For once, a shooter that actually prevails in making you think – and fail.
The production values are always high in Spec Ops: The Line. The cut-scenes are riveting and the voice acting is great. Nolan North plays Captain Walker with a great sense of struggle and emotion, blurring the line between broken man and generic soldier. The aforementioned relationship between the squad deteriorates as these men go from Delta Squad operatives to bloodied, torn survivors. Spoilers may arise from the reveal of other characters so I will stop there, but know that there are more characters in the game that become involved in this intriguing story. The sand-ridden Dubai, with it's glimmering skyscrapers and rising sand dunes atop highways and inside buildings, allows for some of the most remarkable vistas in a shooter to date. The art direction is awe-inspiring – one of the chapters in the game sees Walker traverse a tower to a sparkling view of a mesmerizing Dubai skyline – it's a wonderful moment in the game and features some truly stunning colour and masterful use of lighting effects. Light pops off of buildings, over vehicles and through offices and towers – it's great. The sand effects, while also playing a role in the story and gameplay, animate beautifully. Sand soars across the ground and in the wind, sand crashes through windows and sears through bullet holes in vehicles and pours down the sides of 100-foot structures, as well as realistic sand prints and all look stunning in motion.
The game has a surprising sense of atmosphere. Building interiors have a palpable sense of tension before each fight, and wandering the streets and walkways are eerie and unsettling. Bodies line streets, cars are stacked behind one another on highways and it all gives a sense of history in the city; you can feel that lives were lost here; that people left their cars and homes to evacuate, and its all the more suspenseful for it. The solid sound design also helps to maintain the moody conversation segments before and after gunfights and keeps the player's attention and have them guessing what will happen next. Though the sound effects lack that punch, the couple of licensed tracks in the game are awesome.
The actual gameplay in Spec Ops: The Line isn't original or remotely thrilling, but it is solid and gets the job done. There are the usual assortment of rifles, machine guns, shotguns and snipers, as well as grenades and flashbangs. The interesting aspect to the combat, however, is the implementation of a squad mechanic. During gunplay, Walker can order his team to move to a location, open fire on enemies and stun them. Stunning them is useful when outnumbered, while the attack command should be saved for a few remaining stragglers, as well as stealth sequences where your squad mates can dispose of several enemies to make traversal to the next objective that little bit easier. The setting makes the combat intense, and the level design is solid enough to offer some fun shootouts. It isn't entirely great, and the later level design can become repetitive with excessive enemies pouring from every direction. However, it's the setting that makes the combat good, as any other environment would make the shooting as generic as it looks.
The intelligence of the enemies is actually good.. for the most part. They will sometimes enter cover while still exposed and will oftentimes throw grenades at walls and blow themselves to pieces, but mostly the AI is a really good challenge and will keep you on your toes. This is mainly due to the decent enemy variety, which goes from standard soldiers to knife-wielding lunatics who get in close and the heavy soldiers who make a formidable opponent. At times the game tosses in these three types at one time which makes the gunplay challenging, and it's more enjoyable because of this. The AI of your teammates is surprisingly good, as they react well to attack commands and kill enemies efficiently. You must also heal your squad, though this can also be part of a command. The game can also be immersive when enemies are restlessly shouting at one another and issuing commands. It's these moments that make Spec Ops: The Line an involving shooter.
The shooting is relatively intelligent and the pacing is great, but the actual killing is a bit divisive when considering the moral implications of the story. Killing is evil in any context, the empathy shown to Walker when making decisions in understandable, and killing enemies in a brutal fashion (like snapping their neck when they are dying on the floor) can sometimes feel dark, but it is often difficult to react morally to the shooting when he and his squad are killing hundreds of enemies, yet a triggered event during a cinematic launches a moral question of your psyche. It's a bit disjointed in that respect, and can sometimes hamper the moral conflicts surrounding the story.
The sand I discussed earlier is also useful in combat. At the start of the game, Walker shoots at a bus that is filled with sand. The sand is pouring out of the holes in the window, and the pressure of it subsequently causes it to collapse on the enemy. There are several of these moments in the game and, while visually striking, they are also tactically important, as traversing the level is difficult otherwise.
The ending of the game is incredible. Know that the story is worth the price of admission alone and the revelations of the story are chilling. It will have you riveted from beginning to end, you will want to play through on a different difficulty once the game is done to experience these events from a slightly different perspective and to observe these characters again from a broader side of the conflict. There are some intelligence documents scattered around each level that are worth the search in order to access some interesting pre-story events in Dubai, and to discover just how dark the whole thing is.
Spec Ops: The Line is definitely not a perfect game by any means. Technically, there is some pop-in in the environment and animations aren't that great. There is also a frequent amount of screen-tearing that can sometimes hamper the incredible art direction. From a gameplay perspective, the controls can be a bit finicky. Vaulting over cover is mapped to the O button which is also the melee function, and so Walker will sometimes melee cover instead of climbing over it, which can sometimes irritate. A good touch is that you don't need to hold down sprint (X in this case) as one press will enable Walker to sprint without the need to hold down the button. However, the shooting can sometimes be a bit iffy, and the game's frequent slowmotion effect upon claiming a headshot on any enemy can go from cool to generic in a matter of a couple of kills. The level design can be predictable though, and the amount of enemies that spawn can become annoying. It can also, again, conflict with the story as there are so many enemies in the game, yet there is an ongoing evacuation of the city.
The game is also short. For a game so focused on its story, its very disappointing that game only clocks in at six hours. Not a surprise for a shooter nowadays, and I suppose the story wraps up in that time, but I would have loved the game to have been longer.
At the end of the day, Spec Ops: The Line is worth your time. Not necessarily for thrilling gameplay, but for the incredible, involving story that will rivet you from start to finish. Never has a military shooter carried such moral implications and themes that change the character during the course of the game. It's an engrossing character study that gets darker the deeper you go in, though the frequent killing can sometimes break the morally immersive experience. It's an adept though overly familiar shooter that provides a challenge over the course of its six hour campaign and is at least worth a rental. It's an experience you won't forget in a hurry.
Presentation 9.0 - Spec Ops' story is riveting, with interesting characters and a gut-punch of an ending.
Graphics 8.0 - Often stunning environments and lighting.
Audio 8.0 - Great voice acting, but the sound effects are weak.
Gameplay 7.0 - It's a functional shooter, but nothing special. It's cliches galore, but is a fairly good time nontheless.
Replayability 7.0 - A 6-7 hour campaign wraps up the fascinating story. Playing a second time is just as disturbing as the first, if not more so.
Overall - 8/10