Spec Ops: The Line Review

By Kevin Kelly - Posted Jun 26, 2012

Spec Ops: The Line is one of those rare games where the story nearly eclipses the gameplay. There is some powerful imagery throughout the game that will stay with you long after you've played it

The Pros
  • Deeply emotional storyline
  • Solid gameplay
  • Seriously impressive voice acting
  • Innovative usage of sand as an environment
The Cons
  • Some issues with the cover system
  • Framerate drops with very busy scenes
  • Occasionally vacant AI

Spec Ops: The Line Review:

Spec Ops: The Line might as well have been called something else, because it doesn’t contain anything to tie it to any of the other games in the series. The Line: Heart of Dubai would have been a more appropriate title as the game’s plot was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s seminal novella Heart of Darkness, and by Apocalpyse Now, the film inspired by the same novella. But it’s a refreshing entry into the very crowded shooter space, and one with some disturbing scenes and deep emotion. But is it perfect? Read on to find out.



What’s My Line?

It’s been 10 years since the long-running Spec Ops series has had a game release, with 2002’s Spec Ops: Airborne Commando being the last entry. There was a PlayStation 2 game that was just to be titled Spec Ops being developed by Rockstar Vancouver, but it was cancelled while in development. Now we’re here with Spec Ops: The Line from Yager Development and published by 2K Games. But rather than just a third-person tactical shooter with strategy elements, Yager has opted to use that framework to create a truly resonant storyline.

In the game, you play Captain Martin Walker, a Delta Force operator who has been tasked with trying to find and rescue a Colonel John Konrad (after author Joseph Conrad) who has gone missing in the city of Dubai after an enormous sandstorm has decimated much of the city and forced out the majority of the population. Joining Walker on the mission are two younger Delta operatives.

Spec Ops: The Line

Soon after the game starts, you find out that something disturbing is going on in Dubai which is has been partially buried by shifting mountains of sand. Not only has Konrad gone missing, but he has apparently been responsible for turning the entire 33rd Infantry Division (fictional, we should note) against both the people of Dubai, and the U.S. Military. He’s gone rogue, much like Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Apocalypse now, and the original Kurtz (an ivory collector gone rogue) in the novella.

This means that you have to battle your own forces, as well as insurgents among the Dubai refugees, as you try to get to the heart of the matter. Throughout most of the game you are taunted evilly by a “Radioman” broadcasting from speakers scattered and strung up throughout the desolate city. Along the way you can collect pieces of intelligence that shed additional light on the story, but they aren’t entirely necessary to finish the game. This is how we learned that Radioman was initially a journalist sent to document what was happening in Dubai, and he found himself agreeing and siding with Konrad. Much like Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist character in Apocalpye Now.

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Toe The Line

But how does this game play? While it’s true that the title is a third-person shooter, with some squad mechanics, that all seems to take a backseat to the story, which is what drives this game forward like a bullet. With Ghost Recon hitting shelves so recently, these two games feel very familiar when you get into the actual nitty gritty of the gameplay, but Spec Ops is extremely stripped down. You won’t be striving to improve your gun loadouts or picking the proper equipment to take with you as all that you have are guns and grenades. It’s all about the shooting, blowing up, and stunning.

Your squadmates come in very handy, although there is an extremely limited set of orders you can issue to them. You can have them focus on a specific target, heal each other, and occasionally throw flashbangs. You’ll get an onscreen indicator when they can toss a flash, but it would have been immense helpful to have that command available as long as they had flashbangs in their inventory.

Spec Ops: The Line

Also, in a frustrating AI turn, they will tend to fire on an enemy from where you’re standing, unless you first issue a command to target an enemy and then set out to flank said enemy. If they are in decent cover, and you’ve already flanked, telling them to take out the target you’re flanking often results in them coming all the way over to where you area, and then firing. This doesn’t happen all the time, but often enough for it to be noticeable and annoying. Sure, it might result in you getting through the mission a little easier, but it feels like you cheated somehow in the process.

But while the squadmates are useful and not perfect, what feels very satisfying is the inclusion of sand as a deformable, useable force in the game. Many times you’ll enter a building, only to be set upon by enemy fire. But if you see sand leaking from a roof tile or a window, you can shoot it out and cause a sand avalanche that can bury groups of your opponents. They’ve also included this mechanic in the multiplayer, and it is extremely fun to trigger and watch.

Spec Ops: The Line

Over The Line

There are some very disturbing moments throughout Spec Ops: The Line, including some that make the objectionable “No Russian” level from Modern Warfare 2 seem like a walk in the park. It involves a large number of people being burned with white phosphorous at your command, and culminates with a highly troubling image that is revisited later in the game.

That’s just one of many moments which are disturbing throughout the campaign. Often, you are confronted with a choice that is disturbing either way. For instance, there’s a colleague trapped under an immovable object, and a fire is spreading to him. You have a gun with one bullet in it, and he’s begging you to not let him burn. Do you shoot him or let him roast? There’s an achievement in it either way you go, and you’ll see your choice reflected again later, so it isn’t something you’ll easily leave behind. As Walker himself says at one point in the game, “I’m going to take these images to my grave.”

All of this goes in front of the ending, which is one completely gigantic mind-bonk. I won’t be spoiling it for you here, but when you see it, you’ll realize that it comes to you straight from the climactic ending of a famous Hollywood film that was also based on a novel, and one that you would not have wanted spoiled for you at the time. But it’s done here extremely well, does not feel like a ripoff, and is extremely powerful and resonant. There are three choices to make at the end of the game which result in two possible endings, one of which includes an added epilogue that takes disturbing to the next level and beyond. If you’ve been tired of nicely tied up happy endings in games, Spec Ops: The Line should give you extreme satisfaction.

Spec Ops: The Line

Below The Line

Still, as much as we enjoyed this game, there were some issues. Occasionally, when there was a sandstorm bearing down on our squad, and multiple enemies were assaulting us, the game would chug through frames and stutter a bit. It didn’t happen that often, and not even every time those elements came together, but when it did happen, it was very noticeable. Still, there’s a very intense firefight near the end of the game, and it’s worth noting that the framerate was fine throughout it.

Also, the AI exhibited some pretty unforgiveable problems at times. There were plenty of instances where you would think you had cleared out a room, only to find one of the enemy soldiers standing in a back corner of the room, Blair Witch style, alive but not moving. Not only that, but sometimes an enemy would be standing directly over one of your squadmates in a position to annihilate them, but they wouldn’t fire. It’s almost like they were trying to give you a fighting chance.

Another irritation was the fact that while you could revive your two squad members if they went down, you just died whenever you took enough damage. There is no “downed” state to give your teammates a window in which to try to get back to you and heal you. Why not include that same mechanic? It would have certainly moved missions along and left you less time staring interminably at load screens.

Then there’s the cover system, which sometimes served us flawlessly, but also made us want to hurl our controller at the screen when we would run directly into enemy fire. Hitting A next to cover will hunker Walker down in defense, but peeling off of that cover stands him immediately up, often directly into a bullet. Combine that with the fact that you also hold down A to run (after which you can let go and continue running, switching the B to vault over cover), and that you hit X to reload and to pick up extra ammo or grenades or switch weapons, and you will find yourself in situations where the game isn’t quite sure what you want to do.

Spec Ops: The Line

Let’s Go Line Dancing

We had a limited amount of time with the multiplayer in the game, and while it feels slightly sluggish, especially when you’ve been used to the knee-jerk reaction time of Call of Duty and Battlefield. But once you’ve given yourself some time to get used to third-personing your way through multiplayer, it gets a lot better. There is a ranking up system in place in multiplayer, with items and game modes unlocked at higher levels.

There are your standard deathmatch, team deatchmatch, and objective modes, including a Buried mode where you have to destroy three enemy vital points with explosives to reveal their high value target, which you then have to target and destroy. It’s a nice twist on the normal king of the hill and capture the flag modes that are prevalent in other shooters.

Initially, the multiplayer was a bit boring for me, but the more I played (and with better and helpful teammates) the more I enjoyed it. It’s worth mentioning here that you can actually heal your downed teammates here, as long as enemies don’t pump bullets into them or execute them.

Spec Ops: The Line

Bottom Line

Spec Ops: The Line is one of those rare games where the story nearly eclipses the gameplay. There is some powerful imagery throughout the game that will stay with you long after you’ve played it, and the choices throughout add to the replay factor because you’ll want to go in and see what would have happened if you had made a different decision. There are a couple of helicopter missions that feel a bit tacked on, and it can be difficult to tell friend from foe (probably by design), but for the most part the campaign moves along at a fast clip, driven by dialogue and discoverable narrative intelligence in the form of audio logs.

Disturbing does not necessarily mean bad, as there have been plenty of movies, television shows, and books with disturbing scenes in them (I’m looking squarely at you, Joffrey Baratheon) that while troubling, can still be entertaining. Spec Ops: The Line takes that truly to heart, delivering an experience here that recalls Apocalpyse Now and combines it with our own military troubles in the Middle East and sets it on a backdrop of shifting sand.

While we definitely wouldn’t recommend this game for children, it is a highly provocative and cerebral game. It feels strange to use the word “enjoyable” here, but this is definitely a game worth playing, even if just for the story alone.

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Editor's Note: Spec Ops: The Line was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game; however, we also played the PS3 version, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.