Sunday, 18 November 2012

Spec Ops: The Line

The Title Screen

Introduction
Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person, cover-based shooter from Yager Development. Released in 2012, it is available on PC, Xbox and PlayStation  It features a singleplayer campaign, as well as a multiplayer mode. This review is on the singleplayer only.

DisclaimerThis is a very adult game, with frequent strong language and violence. However, whilst these are unsuitable for some, it is perhaps the psychological component that could be the most disturbing.


The First Thing
The upside-down flag and ironic American song in the menu screen is designed to catch your attention and establish the tone, but what really struck me first was the fluid and elegant transition from the menu into the campaign. The menu is rendered in the game's engine, and once the player has chosen to start a new campaign, the camera simply moves and starts to follow the action, with no downtime (most games just fade to black and load). To spend money and time on something so small that has the sole purpose of quick immersion impressed me greatly. It results in an overall polished feeling, with a focus on style and storytelling.


Plot & Devices
Due to an unprecedented chain of sandstorms, Dubai is now in ruins. The leaders and the wealthy have evacuated in secret, leaving everyone else behind. American Colonel John Konrad disobeys his orders and leads his men, the 33rd Battalion, into Dubai to evacuate the citizens. Never to be heard from again he and his men are branded as traitors. Six months later a distress call from Konrad is heard saying that the evacuation ended in total failure. Captain Martin Walker (You), Lieutenant Alphanso Adams, and Sergeant John Lugo are sent in to assess the situation and radio for extraction. Caught in the middle of events featuring the worst horrors humans are capable of, Walker and his team face terrible decisions in order to do what they believe is right and to survive. In the destroyed city of Dubai, there is a war...and no one is a hero.

Walker, Adams and Lugo

The story is Spec Ops: The Line's greatest strength and is the clear focus of the game. It is delivered through in-game events/dialogue and cutscenes. The cutscenes are either pre-rendered, or in-game but always flow smoothly and are usually short and punchy. "Intelligence" items can also be found in each level and provide extra voice-acted narration to how the events in Dubai came to be. It is a dark story - but I will expand no more than that. It features the strong themes that you would expect to arise from war. The characters will face issues and decisions to come to terms with, and often the player is expected to make morality calls. The central plot remains unchanged by these choices, but the player will have influence over little pieces here and there. The game is skilled at providing choices in a way that requires consideration.

Talking about Spec Ops: The Line can easily result in a philosophical discussion; but is that not appropriate? It also raises the interesting question of the role of the player in the story. Are we controlling the actions of the character, or is the character stuck in a sequence of events where his actions are essentially determined? At one point the game references a condition called dissociation disorder, where people in traumatic situations feel separate from their own actions and it is easy to see that as an analogy of the relationship between the player and Walker.

Take Cover

The Game
In terms of gameplay, Spec Ops: The Line is a standard, third-person, cover-based shooter. The player and AI must hide behind objects and lean around, or over, to shoot. The third-person perspective is used to see from behind cover and although the player has regenerating health, it is not possible to be out in the open for long periods of time due to the high incoming damage. It is possible to vault over much of the provided cover, and the player is able to sprint and crouch to minimise incoming damage. The level progression is quite linear, but a effort has been made to disguise this with large open vistas and minor exploration.

The player can only carry two weapons and three types of grenades. Weapons can be fired from the hip, or in a zoomed-in aimed mode. Most weapons feature an alternate fire of some type and the usual weapon variety is featured: pistols, shotguns, automatics, sniper-like rifles, etc. Turret sections are found occasionally to break up gameplay. Ammunition is not particularly plentiful, so a precision focused approach is preferable to "spraying and praying"; especially skilful shots will cause the game to slowdown briefly in recognition. Ammo boxes are scattered around the level to provide a one time, small refill for the currently equipped weapons. There is a mêlée attack and an execute function but is hardly ever required and will mostly go unused.

Due to location, Spec Ops: The Line uses 'sand' in some gameplay mechanics. Areas might have windows/walls that hold back large amounts of sand that can be broken to smother and kill enemies who are underneath. The withdrawal, or addition, of sand is also used to progress the story along sometimes. When outside, the player can find themselves enveloped by sandstorms. These make visibility much harder and combat becomes more challenging - although enemies are also afflicted by the same problems, so it balances out. There are no additional mechanics to consider, so sandstorms just become a visual phenomenon that is in keeping with mood and setting.

Sandstorm

The game features a simplistic team orders mechanic for the two AI companions you have most of the time. An enemy target can be designated a priority, or a group of enemies can be attacked with flash bang grenades. Other than that, your companions will attack soldiers fairly intelligently, although their weapons do considerably less damage so as not to remove the need for player interaction. They are not immortal and if they take too much damage they collapse, but can be revived by either you or through a team order to the other. If they die the game is over and must be restarted from the latest checkpoint.

The graphical fidelity of the game is quite good and the style is thematically appropriate. High quality visuals are used to heighten the intensity of some situations and they do the job well. Occasionally texture quality can be a bit low (especially in the pre-rendered cutscenes), but that's to be expected from a game primarily designed for consoles these days. It is not a particularly taxing game graphically and I had a solid 60FPS for the most part. Sound is important in Spec Ops: The Line and there is a lot of well acted, spoken dialogue. Music is used to establish mood, and sometimes features licensed american rock tracks for irony. The sound effects are solid and believable.

There is no problem with the PC controls specifically. All keys are rebindable and the mouse support is excellent - I played the entire game with Keyboard and Mouse and experienced no frustration. However, the controls are a little clunky at times but this is the case for all versions of the game - it is arguable whether this was intentional, or just the result of bad design.


Wrap Up & Negatives
The biggest negative is that the gameplay is not very varied and is the same all the way through. In fact, I hardly ever used a gun different from the starting rifle because I felt comfortable with it. I never used a shotgun because of how rare it was to be within ten feet of an enemy and enemy variety is also quite limited. Cover based shooting can be considered quite formulaic/boring at the best of times and this game brings no innovation to change that. Since enemies never charge your position, and rarely use grenades to flush you out, you can essentially just hide till your health is full again ad infinitum. Being shot does hurt, and I did die a few times but I never really felt challenged in the combat side of things.

Visual effects emphasise the harsh environment

I did have a major issue with one part of the story, but this is something not every player might encounter. Without ruining it, there is a part of the story where a series of events leads to an outcome of horrific consequences. The game sets this up as a decision, but there is no choice. I wasted about fifteen minutes trying out a solution only to find out that it was purposefully impossible. This annoys me and there was no reason for it to appear like a choice - especially given how the plot is dependant on it. I could be missing the overall point about how little choice we have in life, but it still frustrated me; it could have been handled better.

Other issues include the cover mechanics that felt a little clunky and sticky at times, and how the team orders mechanic is shallow and essentially pointless. It could also be considered a short game, but I'm unsure if that is really a negative in this case. It has a story to tell, and it tells it. If it was much longer then it risks being padded for the sake of padding, which could not be held up by gameplay alone. It took me six and half hours to complete, but if I wasn't exploring everywhere I could have completed it faster. The pacing was good throughout, with no slowdown.


Personally
Easily one of the top games of the year - even with it's fairly unvaried gameplay. Why? The story, characters and the peerless combination of the two. It was so refreshing to have real emotional feelings about events that occur (which I suppose may not be the case for everyone). Since games are built on rules, usually it is clearly obvious the routes and choices one can/should make but here as the game progressed I found myself more and more actually thinking about the issues - especially towards the end. Spec Ops: The Line takes effort to point out that the choices we make are hardly ever as binary as they're presented in many games; sometimes all options are bad, and the challenge to pick the least destructive.

It is a reflection on war, but also on the games industry in general. War is not nice and people can do terrible things, often under the impression that they are in the right. We all want to be the hero, but when push comes to shove most will choose our own survival. It also shows how conceptually ludicrous modern shooters have become: super-soldier main characters killing vast numbers of foreigners being labelled as "realistic". War is not cool, or should be some escapist fantasy. The games have become completely out of touch with reality, and Spec Ops: The Line reminds you of this with a bang. A 'realistic' war game will make you feel horrible for the pain you've inflicted and the lives that have been cut short, not because you can carry two weapons instead of seventeen.

More games like this please; it was amazing.


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