• Spec Ops: The Line Review - Microsoft Xbox360

    Spec Ops: The Line is a cover based third person shooter, set in modern day Dubai months after it became isolated by extreme sandstorms that have trapped the remaining civilians and the American military tasked with their evacuation. The developers have mixed in a large degree of introspection with this release, both in terms of storyline and in making a return to a more challenging style of gameplay that results in a shooter with far more to offer than just it's unique locale.
    The vistas are beautiful.
    The vistas are beautiful.
    The designers have used this unique setting to create an amazing, fantastical environment that is still very much routed in the real world. The ruined Dubai cityscape is a mixture of apocalyptic wasteland and rich opulence with vast towering skyscrapers, half submerged in huge drifts of sand. One moment you can be walking along on the top of the dunes before suddenly realising that the walkway you've just moved onto is actually the top of a sixty story building. The vistas are incredible, both in terms of scale and the way they play into the surreal, unsettling storyline. There are also some really nice unobtrusive cinematic touches, like the use of scripted focal depth modifications in the engine to give some of the more vertigo inducing moments that extra kick. And once you're inside these ruined remnants of civilisation there's a beautiful mixture of modern, sleek styling and impressively scaled architecture complemented by colour-rich pieces of art, such as effervescent glistening statues of giraffes and luxurious walls of water that stand in stark contrast to the harsh realities of the desert outside.
    The larger set pieces can become quite hectic.
    The larger set pieces can become quite hectic.
    Juxtaposed against this backdrop of faded wealth is a well thought out plotline with a myriad of touches hinting back to the events before and during the storm blackout. Be it the disturbing graffiti that mixes traditional imagery of Western freedoms with grim reaper-like symbols or the moving scene of an abandoned survivor camp littered with hundreds of candles to remember the dead, Spec Ops pulls at your emotional responses constantly. Despite the primarily military factions this is not an overtly militaristic story, but one of personal struggle and many people's inability to accept the harshness of reality, covering the randomness of events with a veneer of order and simplified morality.

    It poses the kinds of questions the industry usually shies away from, provokes thoughts and possibilities in the player without coming down on one side or the other. It doesn't dictate a political agenda or force any one opinion down your throat but exposes the main character to a number of individuals, each with their own very different takes on important, moralistic decisions, and leaves it up to the player to then process those and reason them out. By far and away it's one of the most mature demonstrations of storytelling we've had in this industry. We're not talking about just sticking a decision prompt on screen and asking the player to choose from two difficult choices, but instead different players taking away very different emotional responses from the same series of events. Had it been in book form it's the kind of story you would write essays about in school and it makes for great repeated viewing as the multi-layered elements work on numerous levels.
    The storyline doesn't pull any punches, but neither is it exploitative.  Just an honest introspection into man's baser natures.
    The storyline doesn't pull any punches, but neither is it exploitative. Just an honest introspection into man's baser natures.
    It also helps of course that the game plays really well too. Characters have little in the way of health but all the guns have a high degree of recoil, requiring constant aiming and adjustment. This means that they can throw loads of enemies at you, making for really dramatic firefights, without it being overly easy. The amount of recoil not only makes the guns feel heavy and powerful but also keeps the player involved at all times. Not only that but there is a large degree of verticality to combat, an all-together far too rare phenomenon these days. Enemies assault from multiple heights and directions constantly, when taking cover you aren't just looking at the level from a two dimensional overhead view but you have to think much more about three dimensional angles of fire, with enemies able to clip you from a wide array of directions. The cover controls are made up of your standard slot in and out manual system that works perfectly fine, although there are a couple of nice control additions, such as the ability to duck and hide whilst on a turret and the ability to break into angled quick dashes from a standing position.
    Managing exposure to fire from different heights is essential to survival.
    Managing exposure to fire from different heights is essential to survival.
    There's a reasonable degree of enemy variety given the real world setting, the heavily armoured troopers for example can turn combat the moment they appear, but what really makes the encounters stand out is the duration of the larger battles. Although still a linear game, rather than being a corridor-orientated affair, Spec Ops's campaign is regularly populated by large arenas. Often these will feature multiple stages and players will have several waves of enemies thrown at them, albeit in a quite organic timing structure. Sometimes the player is hunkered down on the defence and on other occasions they are trying to push through to an objective, but each time thanks to the size of the environments, wealth of cover availability and varied approaches utilised by the enemies (particularly where height issues are concerned) these moments feel really large in scale and completing them becomes a genuine accomplishment. During these sections if you die you get booted right back to the start, which rather than being frustrating, actually makes for a much better overall flow and is what lends these firefights such weight and satisfaction upon completion.

    Sand also plays a dynamic role in the game with sandstorms sweeping in mid-combat and reducing visibility to just a couple of metres. The result is fairly dramatic but is used sparingly throughout the campaign and is not really a factor in any of the larger battles described above. There are also sections where the sand poses an environmental hazard and the player can use it to trigger avalanches that kill groups of enemies. This is sadly hardly utilised and is never used as an obstacle for the player, making for a somewhat disappointingly plain element that is far too limited and scripted in its execution.
    You can give rudimentary targeting commands to your teammates but the team orders end there.
    You can give rudimentary targeting commands to your teammates but the team orders end there.
    One area where the sand traps work far better is in the eight player multiplayer mode, where some levels are littered with smaller scale triggers that force players to stay much more aware of their immediate surroundings. Such hazards can range from small wall segments to overhead air conditioning vents and add a degree of variety to handling your opposition. The multiplayer levels all feature a really high degree of verticality to them, with many layers interlocked and overlooking one another. Zip lines provide the means to rapidly traverse sections and there are plenty of routes throughout each and every one. Cover layout is never overly dominant, some pieces only partially shield your body, while all positions can be flanked. It's also possible to easily take out an unwary opponent behind cover with headshots, as per the solo campaign, if you are the better shot.

    Admittedly there is a levelling system in place, with better perks available later on, but the initial weaponry is sufficient in strength to ensure new players stand a fair chance and the end result is a game far more about utilising the level layouts and flanking mechanics effectively than it is about gun superiority. Thanks to the wide variety of routes, large amount of cover placement and high element of verticality some quite complex, detailed layouts have been fitted into a relatively small space. The sandstorms can also really turn things on their head mid-battle forcing a sudden change in tactics and making for a very tense few moments, leaving a completely different dispersal after they've hit. It's refreshing to see such a return to tightly designed, multi-layered combat and all the more surprising that it's come from a title viewed via the third person and one with a cover system to boot. This is thanks to the fact that the cover layouts have been carefully designed not to over dominate and to have their weakpoints. The multiplayer mode is a heavily tactics orientated affair with fast adaptation, and tense team based gameplay.
    It's an emotional journey, but sensitively handled, and an essential experience for any shooter fan.
    It's an emotional journey, but sensitively handled, and an essential experience for any shooter fan.
    Spec Ops: The Line manages to provide a sterling, challenging and thought provoking solo experience complemented by a thoroughly designed and tested set of multiplayer levels. It takes the player out of the normal shooter experience and at times you feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Special mention should also go to the soundtrack - an eclectic mix of movie-like moments, haunting renditions of classic songs and a grab bag of old rock music that ramps the disorientating surrealness up that extra notch. This is mature video gaming in every facet and fails to disappoint on any level.
    Spec Ops: The Line screenshot.
    Third person shooter
    2K Games
    Xbox 360
    -Deep, provocative storyline.
    -Lots of verticality to combat.
    -Refined weapon balance.
    -Intricate multiplayer map design.
    -Limited use of sand trap mechanics.
    Score: 9/10