Spec Ops: The Line [Preview] – Apocalypse Wow?5 Feb 2012
The Spec Ops series is a troubled one. 1998 to 2002 saw the release of eight games in the series, across three development teams and three systems – PC, PlayStation and Dreamcast. Since then, the series has been in limbo, completely missing out on the PlayStation 2-era and the first six years of current-gen hardware.
Given the quality of the most recent few games, that break is probably a good thing. Not only does it give those that played them the chance to overcome the pain, it gives publisher 2K Games the chance to rethink the franchise and position it for today’s tastes.
And that’s exactly what they’ve done.
Whereas the series has previously been known for a slower pace of gameplay and tactical thinking, is all about the intensity. It’s about climaxing early and often, providing constant engagement through action and it’s about looking good at everything it does. We’ve now played a variety of missions from different points in the game and, if you’re into this sort of thing, things seem positive.
For starters it looks gorgeous. Built on Epic Games’ Unreal 3 engine, lighting and animation look particularly crisp. The entire game is set in a near-future recreation of Dubai ravaged by natural disaster and war, providing plenty of opportunity to offset the searing lead-based carnage with backdrops of hazy desert, dilapidated sunlight reflective skyscrapers and streams of vehicles abandoned on the highway.
Both technically and artistically the visual aesthetic is one of hostility and suffering.
Hostility and suffering applies equally to the narrative, which is based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – the novel on which Apocalypse Now was also based. Following sandstorms of city burying magnitude, a division of US Marines is sent to the area in a bid to keep the peace. After a long period of silence, a Delta Force squad is sent in to locate Colonel John Konrad and find out what has gone wrong.
If you know your Heart of Darkness then you’ll know that this ‘ere John Konrad may have a different view of events now that he’s experienced them from the inside. And the Delta Force squad might be in for more than they bargained for…
Whatever the case, the primary conflict here is American soldier versus American soldier. Depending on your personal thoughts and beliefs, that may or may not be controversial. Personally, from a story and gameplay perspective it seems like a decent decision.
The missions we’ve played provided an insight into both sides, imbuing a personality onto the enemy and preventing them falling into the Call of Duty-esque “faceless” mould. Hopefully, this will be fleshed out fully in the final game in a bid to retain a degree of the psychological intrigue of the source material.
As I said earlier, this is a game that climaxes early and often, so don’t expect the same psychological intrigue with the gameplay; expect balls-to-the-wall action. Seeing as there’s a snap-to-cover system, an over-the-shoulder third-person viewpoint, the Unreal 3 engine and even an ‘execute’ option for downed enemies, it would be easy to categorise this as ‘Gears of War does modern military’. But Spec Ops: The Line does have a few of its own tricks up its sandy sleeves.
Your squad is made up of three members, yourself as Captain Martin Walker and two AI accomplices. These two can be given orders to attack specific enemies, which comes in especially handy for targets at long range as one of them is equipped with a sniper rifle. That allows you to concentrate on the immediate threat.
It’s this that highlights the kind of feel Spec Ops: The Line is trying to achieve. By keeping you in control of the little details, but removing the need to perform them yourself, you’re free to satisfy your hunger for action and keep your eyes on the visual onslaught. Again, as with all previews, just how far this goes – and how this may change throughout the course of the game – is unknown, but it’s nice to see an action game that deals with “tactical” situations in a way that doesn’t detract from the core mechanics.
The sandstorms have, inevitably, made some areas fragile. We witnessed this fragility as both an advantage and a disadvantage. On a number of occasions, usually within interior areas, windows could be weakened with gunfire and the sand encouraged to pour in and bury the enemy alive. It’s the kind of big-scale event that encompasses the high-concept ideals of the game – if it’s over-the-top it’s going in.
On another occasion while fighting on the edge of a hotel’s rooftop, which is now at ground level thanks to the rising sands, the roof caved into a sand-based sinkhole. Cue hanging from a steel girder with one arm and shooting the bad guys with the other. Very Die Hard.
Also, these are small details but I can’t help but mention them, the basic-issue pistol is very powerful – original Halo powerful, even. It’s so nice to again play with a handgun that feels as though it can punch a hole through 15 inches of steel. Second, turrets can be turned around and blind-fired while crouching down behind them for cover.
That sounds like a small ‘feature’, but c’mon, how many games have you seen where you turn the turret around to shoot the enemies cowering behind it?
All of these action scenes are encased in a coat of headshots that induced a couple of seconds of slow-mo, big music numbers and an abundance of ammo. In case it’s not obvious, gameplay is action based and over-the-top.
Spec Ops: The Line will live and die by how well it manages to combine the high-octane gameplay with the subtleties of the story. In each of the chapters we played this was accomplished fairly well, but playing chunks of a game in isolation is very different to sitting through the whole thing.
To an extent, the game could work on the gameplay alone because of its seemingly pinpoint focus on creating a specific type of experience. However, no matter how fun an experience may be, it’s always more fun if you actually care about the reasons behind your actions.