Spec Ops: The Line Hands-On Preview -- Into the Sandy Heart of DarknessBy Adam Rosenberg - Posted Nov 22, 2011
I had two big surprises last week when 2K Games hosted a special 90-minute play session for Yager Developments' Spec Ops: The Line. The first: this Unreal engine-powered, modern warfare-themed third-person shooter easily manages to stand out amidst any number of other genre titles. As for the second surprise: much of what immediately grabbed me about the game has everything to do with the story and its delivery.
What gives, gaming? You're supposed to put gameplay first and narrative second! Spec Ops: The Line doesn't exactly seem to be flipping that idea around -- the core shooter here feels pretty fun overall -- but it's definitely trying to tell a story that has a bit more heft to it than "save the world from enemy soldiers."
First, a little background is in order. In The Line's fictional world, the Middle Eastern metropolis of Dubai, has been decimated by a series of massive sandstorms.
The Damned 33rd, a highly decorated U.S. Army battalion under the command of Colonel John Konrad, was dispatched to aid in the relief efforts during the early days of the natural disaster. Unfortunately, the sandstorms grew worse and the 33rd was ordered to evacuate. Konrad ignored the command, instead working with his men to set up one last evac convoy. The biggest of the sandstorms hit before the convoy could depart, and U.S. forces lost all contact with Konrad and the 33rd in the aftermath.
This is where our story opens. The game follows a three-man Delta Recon Team led by Captain Martin Walker, our player character, as they arrive on the outskirts of Dubai. Joined by Lieutenant Alphonso Adams, the squad's second-in-command, and Sergeant John Lugo, the resident sniper/translator, Walker makes his way into the city and discovers the horrible truth: Konrad has gone off the deep end, along with some portion of the Damned 33rd.
There's more to the unfolding story than that in the game's first half. The CIA is on the scene, working against Konrad with the help of local refugees. Konrad himself has seen dissension in the ranks, to the point that he uses white phosphorous to execute his command team. The enemy you'll be shooting at for much of the game is dressed in the fatigues of a U.S. soldier.
This is heavy stuff. The name "Konrad" is no coincidence; Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness beats steadily at the core of Spec Ops: The Line. There are high aspirations at work here. The hope is that The Line will do for video games what the film classic Apocalypse Now did as a thematic adaptation of Conrad's highly regarded work.
That's the hope, at any rate. Based on the bits the preview runs through, things are certainly leaning in that direction. The most telling moment comes when I'm presented with a choice, one of many which pop up throughout the game. This is late in the 90-minute demo, shortly after Walker and his men realize that something's gone horribly wrong with Konrad.
The three-man squad comes upon a gruesome scene as proceed through the sandy environment. Two men are strung up by their wrists and dangling several feet above the ground as snipers monitor the situation from on high. Konrad gets on the radio and lays out the situation: One of the two men is a water thief, which is a capital offense in Dubai's decimated present-day condition. The other is a soldier who bungled the thief's arrest, leaving his family of five dead. Konrad wants you to make the choice-- which one should die?
Control at this point returns to the player, and it's up to you to decide how to proceed. It's not necessarily a binary choice either. While you can certainly accept Konrad's one-or-the-other scenario, having full control over Walker means you can do anything else you can think of. Shoot the snipers. Shoot the ropes holding the men up. Ignore the situation completely and walk away. I won't say which path I chose, but there's no tangible "reward" or "punishment" for making a choice; the text simply plays out a bit differently.
It's a moment that I've been stuck on since I played the game last week, one that I've rewound and considered again and again multiple times. Video games are big on choice these days, with the decisions you make often affecting any number of gameplay-oriented features.
In the scene I played, The Line stripped away the risk/reward elements that you'd expect to see. You won't get a more powerful gun for making the "right" choice. There isn't even a "right" choice when you get right down to it. But you'll need to act -- even if your chosen act is inaction -- in order to advance the story, and Yager hopes that you'll learn something about yourself in the process. My anticipation for the game at this point stems entirely from the promise of seeing more of those choice-driven moments, and how they impact the narrative.
On the gameplay side of things, Spec Ops: The Line compares most easily with Gears of War and other third-person cover-based shooters. A few minor tweaks aside, the controls will be immediately familiar to fans of the genre. That's not to say that the gameplay is entirely generic, however. Simple, contextual orders can be handed out to Walker's squadmates by holding down RB (on an Xbox 360 controller), highlighting a target and releasing the button. Your team responds dynamically according to the situation; if you want a particularly distant target taken out, Lugo will automatically pull out his sniper rifle and do what needs to be done.
The environment also plays a key role in the gameplay, for good and ill. At one point early on in the demo, Walker and his men are outnumbered a group of men armed with AK-47s. A target appears above their heads, indicating an unbroken pane of glass holding back a mountain of sand; shooting it triggers a flood of sand that crushes the enemy soldiers.
The sandy environment isn't always your friend, however. Sometimes the ground isn't actually stable beneath your feet, and an errant explosion can suddenly leave you dangling from an I-beam and firing your weapon with one hand. You'll also have to contend with freak sandstorms, not only limiting your visibility but also taking away the ability to issue squad commands.
The only aspect of the demo that left me wanting was the weapons. You'll have a range of familiar firearms to play with if you're a fan of modern warfare shooters, everything from automatic and burst-fire assault rifles to sniper rifles, LMGs, SMGs, and pistols, though you can only carry two at a time. My beef here is the feel; the weapons don't sound very chunky, and the recoil on most of them is pretty severe. I often found myself spraying bullets wildly in the hopes of hitting something. That said, Yager is still hard at work on The Line, and difficulty balancing is a key focus for the dev team right now.
Overall, my first look at Spec Ops: The Line proved to be an illuminating one. The game boasts some fantastic visuals even in its early state, and the play is immediately familiar to shooter fans. It's the story that caught my attention though.
There are so many military shooters out there that willingly court controversy; this one is no less guilty, but based on what I saw, it's actually going to give you something to think about as well. We'll see if Spec Ops: The Line can deliver on its promise when it hits stores in spring 2012.