Things are no longer perfect in Dubai: thousands of innocent civilians lie dead, sandstorms have wrecked the once beautiful city and Captain Martin Walker is stuck in the middle of it all whilst trying to unravel the truth behind the events that transpired. However, this is nothing but a set-up and as the game carries on, it evolves into not only a great action game but also a fascinating albeit haunting character study of soldiers on the front line.
Gameplay in Spec Ops: The Line is nothing special: it's a simple third person shooter. Players duck behind cover, aim and fire before running to another piece where it's done all over again. This formula has been tried and tested a million times before, some considerably better than others, and Spec Ops sits comfortably in the middle: it's good but not brilliant.
Shooting is responsive and fun but the guns don't feel meaty and ducking from cover to cover isn't as fluid as it should be: Walker almost sticks to the walls, therefore having minor difficulties when attempting to leave or fall against them. This severely breaks the fast pace of the combat sections, making a few of them a genuine chore to sometimes get through.
When combined with the issue of the vault-over-cover button being the same as the melee one, this leads to some unnecessarily difficult combat sections and because the game is almost entirely built of firefights, it is an issue that is more prominent than it needed to be.
One of the strangest things about Spec Ops is the fact it lacks any form of co-op, both online and off. For almost the entirety of the game, Walker spends time with his two fellow soldiers, Adams and Lugo, so it's surprising that co-op is not an included feature. Some of the sequences where they are split up into two groups, especially the one where Walker must defend them with a turret in an opposite building, is brilliant and this scene in co-op could have been a standout moment of the game. Titles like Gears of War have done it before to brilliant effect so it's a strange thing that Yager chose not to include it as a part of the game.
However, one redeeming feature of Spec Ops: The Line is its graphics, which are incredible. The game's setting, Dubai, is genuinely beautiful, regardless of the death and destruction constantly present throughout the games short six hour campaign. It's a pleasant difference from the usual brown palette associated with most modern-day shooters, as Spec Ops is full of golds and blues, with the occasional dull indoor sections but those are infrequent.
There is always something to look at throughout each and every level, which helps make the uneven shooting sections a lot more exciting because of the diverse environments the game throws at the player. Character models are detailed and the way the sand falls is both convincing and great to witness, all adding together to make a game that is more style over substance, but when the substance is this good, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
On the subject of sand, developers Yager have not chosen to include it just so Dubai looks convincing: it can be used to alter the battlefield, to win the war.
Dubai is sinking; the sandstorms that have ravaged it are building up against the edges, meaning indoor environments are simultaneously underground ones. Occasionally, enemies conveniently position themselves close to windows that, when shot, will explode and allow sand to cascade through, taking them out and trapping them beneath it. This not only alters the environment but also turns the tides of the battle, transforming a fire-fight that was nigh-on impossible to win into one that can be over in a matter of seconds.
The feature also adds a new sense of scale to the battles as what was once a simple corridor shootout could rapidly turn into a full-scale war as all of the windows are blown out and the environment opens up. Sometimes, the floor parts and Walker and his team fall through to a level submerged by the sand where the fight continues, therefore proving that Spec Ops is a game that is constantly evolving.
But the setting is not the only thing that advances as the game carries on: the plot does too and to levels that are hard to believe. What initially opens up as a simple rescue mission quickly expands and becomes a deeper, darker and more disturbing story with plenty of plot twists and character revelations that changes them from simple clichés of American war heroes to complex, three-dimensional beings the player will care about and be interested in what happens to them next.
For once, a game puts something before its shooting mechanic and whilst the overall gameplay does suffer because of it, it's an issue that is almost completely forgivable simply because the story is just so darn good. There were moments when the story would take a completely unexpected turn that not only shocked but also disturbed, therefore leading to some of the game's most memorable moments and there are many of them.
Spec Ops: The Line also features a variation of the morality system similar to those found in Mass Effect or Infamous. However, there is no clear definition between what's right and what's wrong: just whatever the player chooses to do. Regardless of who gets shot or which direction is taken, the game just carries on chugging along, leaving only the bickering of Walker's fellow teammates and a mental well-being acting as the only form of recognition for the actions taken.
Regardless of what happens, the story does not alter but a conversation might: this is where Spec Ops' differs from most games with a morality feature. In most games, the consequences of choices affect people and events in the plot but with Spec Ops, the actions just affect the player. This adds a personal feeling to the title, as if the player is going through the horrific moments and experiencing the torture as the soldiers are. Combining this with the fantastic visuals, great voice acting from Nolan North (Nathan Drake from Uncharted) and a gripping storyline, Spec Ops is a game that defines the word unforgettable.
Multiplayer in Spec Ops: The Line is a different story. Instead of providing a dark and disturbing tone (which would be incredibly difficult to do online due to the lack of narrative), it instead chooses to focus on the shooting mechanic. Because these are not as great as many other war shooters, the online ultimately suffers and that's a shame. Online matches, such as Deathmatch, are fun and provide an enjoyable alternate mode to play when either the story is finished or players just want a break.
But that's all that the online in Spec Ops is: a distraction. If the same level of dedication had been put into the multiplayer then it really could have been something special. There are unlockables there like new weapons and clothing items but nothing that will make players want to carry on. If Spec Ops has any form of longevity to it, it will be because players will want to experience the story again, not put countless hours into the online section.
However, through Spec Ops, there is a sense of greatness that is never fully explored. It's all there: a great story, a compelling cast of three-dimensional characters and a beautiful world but it's never used to its full potential. It would have been incredibly easy for Yager to really push the boundaries of what a war shooter could be and deliver not just a game but an experience. And the most annoying thing about it is that they are almost there: the disturbing tone of the game makes it unforgettable and the way there is no clearly-defined sense of morality makes the campaign a personal one to the player. Whilst there are some genuinely great scripted moments in Spec Ops, they only excite rather than leave the player breathless and that too is a real shame.
Spec Ops: The Line is a rare breed of shooter, one that decides to put delivering a compelling narrative before providing great gameplay and it almost completely succeeds. Whilst it does deliver a great story and a haunting sense of morality, it doesn't quite bring along greatness in terms of gameplay and because of this the game suffers, but not enough for it to be a failed title. Spec Ops shows enough promise that it keeps players persevering on through the sand and the wind and the bloodshed. That's because Spec Ops is a great game and, despite its short length, is one that is worth experiencing simply because of its unique take on the shooter genre.
Spec Ops: The Line (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
Spec Ops: The Line is a rare breed of shooter, one that decides to put delivering a compelling narrative before providing great gameplay and it almost completely succeeds. Whilst it does deliver a great story and a haunting sense of morality, it doesn't quite bring along greatness in terms of gameplay and because of this the game suffers, but not enough for it to be a failed title.