Some would argue – with very good reason – that Playstation Plus is the best thing to happen to this generation of consoles. The subscription service, initially derided as a blatant move to mirror Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold and capitalise on the money Sony misses out on by offering free online multiplayer, eventually found its own identity as a wonderful way to build a game collection. Every month, as Xbox merely provides an open doorway to online interaction, Sony fills the Instant Game Collection with full titles free to download and keep for as long as the subscription remains active. The selection is varied and generous, leading to many remaining dormant on hard drives while more modern games assert their own importance. This was definitely true for my relationship with Spec Ops: The Line, a game I’d been itching to try since release but never actually found the time to play. However, upon finishing the game last night, I felt I should use this review primarily as a wake-up call to anyone else who might have it sat unplayed as I did: next time you need something new, start it up. For, while its ambitions don’t always overcome its distractions, Spec Ops: The Line is especial in its one defining quality – it’s a robust military shooter that dares to tell a story. It insists on it, actually, and the resulting experience is refreshing, albeit mainly memorable for the brutality that is played out.
The game’s first masterstroke is in its setting. The entire story in set in and around Dubai, a city that has come to represent the arrogance of human ambition, a gleaming steel and glass monument dragged up out of the desert. There could not be a better locale to emphasise the game’s theme of the dangers of man’s overreaching hubris, underlined by the apocalyptic sandstorm that has taken the city back. Your team of three US Marines, of which Marlowe is your controlled protagonist, begin at the fringes of the (seemingly) abandoned city, their mission a simple one – find the missing 33rd regiment, locate any survivors, and extract them from the buried remnants. Of course, it goes without saying that this soon turns ugly, leading to an involved story of delusion, betrayal and death. Make no mistake, it starts darkly and descends from there; a narrative clearly meant for adult players, derived heavily from Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness”. Except here, the humid pressure of the Vietnamese jungles has been replaced wholesale with Dubai’s repressive dust and searing light. It’s a successful transition that beautifully marries the location with the story. To reveal any more about the unfolding tale would be a disservice; for all its heart-wrenching exposure to the inner depths of human nature, it is still one that should be experienced without insight or preparation.
However, even the most involving story could not carry a broken game, so it came a relief that the actual mechanics, very typical of many third-person shooters, work very well indeed. Movement is responsive and has just the right amount of sluggishness as the men traverse the sandy dunes, aiming is steady and gunfights are often meaty, engrossing showdowns. The enemy AI shows varied tactics, but unfortunately follow the Splinter Cell trap of announcing in haggered voices exactly what they are going to do next. “Flanking!”, “Let’s hide here”, “Come on, let’s get them!”, and so on. Initially the desperate shouting fits the mod well, but once you’ve heard the same soundbite twenty times, it loses some of its effectiveness. Maybe the US military should invest in some vocal subtly training. However, it’s not just the enemy who like to express themselves – you and your two squadmates frequently vocalise their reactions and feelings. This becomes far more meaningful as the relationship between the three men changes dramatically the more they push into Dubai’s belly, and the chatter soon echos the darkness they encounter.
Luckily, the mature script and character degenerations are fully realized by the selection of fantastic voice actors. Least of all is Nolan North, here voicing Marlowe as he descends into the abyss. Ubiquitous with modern gaming, North is best known for his cheeky upbeat portrayals of Uncharted‘s Nate Drake or the titular Prince Of Persia. However, his performance here is a welcome surprise that will surely silence many of his critics. Full of restrained bitterness and desperation, his understated characterisation makes Marlowe a fully realised human being instead of yet another military cypher. The other characters have equal detail, essential in a game where the themes are more important than the actions.
Unfortunately, the game design sometimes lets down the narrative ideals. What begins as a varied mix of gameplay approaches soon settles into circular patterns – edging forward into quiet sandy devastation the triggeringing of a massive firefight; Marlowe becomes separated and has to fend for himself; a turret section; the takedown of the Heavy – all fine elements in themselves, but repeated a few too many times. The design marks progression by upping the difficulty ante with extra enemies, heavies, bunkered guns and significant grenade spamming, but this just creates infuriation where there should be exhilaration. Even on normal difficulty, there are two set pieces near the end – one manning a cannon on a truck, one in a corridor of mounted guns, endless infantry and grenade hail – that can only be beaten through trial and error, memorisation becoming a replacement for reaction. It is in these moments that Spec Ops: The Line loses any goodwill through originality of approach and becomes Just Another Military Shooter.
However, the sand has been incorporated into the action to provide some unique gameplay options. Such is the extent of the sandstorm that many buildings have been completely buried, shadowed all around by taller constructions sticking out of the dust with zip lines for traversal taut between them. This means that there is often a supporting glass wall or ceiling that can be shot out, engulfing your enemies in a conveniently-placed sand dune. This idea isn’t as overused as others, and the sheer power of the flooding sand conveys just the right amount of weight and awe. Sand can also be used as visual cover, the shooting out of a vent or detonation of a grenade creating a temporary mist that is vital to survival in the later sections.
It’s a shame to have these formulaic distractions, then, as the art of Spec Ops is as solid as the narrative. Dubai under nature’s stranglehold looks simply breathtaking with stunning backdrops framing you along your linear path. The designers know this too, never missing the opportunity to zip you from one tall ledge to another, sand and metal gleaming for hundreds of feet around. Occasionally, the storm will violently whip up and surround you in a screaming red cloud that prevents you from both seeing your opponents and giving the simple squad orders (such as targeting a specific enemy) that feature in normal action. This straightforward command system is actually very useful, giving you many flanking options in the wide battlegrounds with just a sustained press of R2.
The creative direction of the action should get a mention, too. It belays a confidence that developer Yager quite rightly has in their own creation and demonstrates obvious experience in the storytelling. There are details everywhere – the dust gets in your eyes, for sure – and the action is framed not as a Michael Bay action movie but as something far more obpressive and destructive. There’s a singular moment that stands out, a surprise consequence of a decision taken in the heat of battle, and its effectiveness is staggering. It doesn’t shock with flashy pyrotechnics or semi-automatic editing, but instead passively focuses on the one image that finally leads you to stap. The camera is still and accusing: Look what you did. Look. It’s a truly shocking moment in a hobby that seemed to have abandoned the art of subtle delivery a long time ago.
By the time the conclusion finally rolls in, the damage of the city mirrors that of the protagonist, with final revelations – and choices – leaving a footnote that will stay in your mind for a long time and maybe even prompt a second playthrough. It’s true that the sheen of the game is somewhat dulled by the final hour or so, but it’s important to remember that, when Spec Ops: The Line is focussing on narrative rather than shootouts, there’s really nothing else like it. A meaningful story featuring human characters and a bitter exploration of brutality under extreme circumstances, all laid over the bones of a beautiful third-person shooter in an amazing location? That in itself is enough to forgive Yager their few fumbles, and hopefully it will inspire other game makers to journey to more interesting places and actually dare to tell a story.