Spec Ops: The Line Review: Do You Know the Enemy?
Despite having yet to play it, I named Spec Ops: The Line as one of my 12 favourite games of 2012. The game created a fair bit of discussion about its story which delved into the psychological effects of war on soldiers. I was amazed that a military shooter, a genre that usually omits any effort when it comes to storytelling in lieu of spending money on graphics and multiplayer content, was making waves over its plot and a complex sounding plot at that.
I figured that I couldn’t name the game one of my 12 favourites of last year without giving it a try. So when it went on sale during the recent Steam sale, I put my money where my mouth was to see if it was actually worth a spot on the blog’s de facto year-end award list.
I could be stereotyping slightly but you aren’t likely playing military FPS games like CoD or Battlefield for their stories and single-player campaigns. Sure, they’re a part of the game but that’s not where the vast majority of players will spend their time. However, in Spec Ops: The Line, the best part is the single-player campaign.
You play Captain Martin Walker, a US Army soldier leading a small recon team sent into Dubai to find out what is going on in the city. In the game’s back story, Dubai was devastated by a series of severe sandstorms that crippled the city’s infrastructure and cut it off from the outside world. The US Army’s 33rd Battalion went into Dubai to facilitate an evacuation that never happened but refused to abandon the city so they were branded traitors by the US Government. Walker and his team were deployed when a looped radio transmission from the Battalion’s leader admitting failure in Dubai starts broadcasting.
The great thing about the story is that you’re only ever aware of what Walker is aware of. While it doesn’t seem like much, that’s critical to how Walker develops as a character and how you develop as the player controlling Walker.
You see, the situation in Dubai isn’t black and white. Walker and his crew are mistaken by both the locals and the 33rd as enemies and are forced to defend themselves. Being shot at by almost anything that moves influences both your and Walker’s thinking. You’re trying to survive and take an attitude of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” as the game progresses. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that the 33rd went rogue and you have to stop them to save the citizens of Dubai.
If the plot was that simple, this probably wouldn’t be on a few critics’ year-end lists. The situation is fluid and you’ll change your mind on what’s happening several times as you start to fill in the blanks of what is and has happened in Dubai.
Perhaps the best part is that this game shows evidence of what happens to soldiers in combat. Most war game heroes have no problem charging head-first into danger and shooting everything that moves. Walker and his team have their sanity slowly eroded by the death and destruction caused by both Walker and the 33rd. The psychological impact of events on Walker (and you) is the most interesting part of the story.
This is a game that starts by making you think that you’re in a typical military shooter game but quickly pulls the rug out from underneath you. That’s not so much a plot twist in the game as it is a plot twist on you. Even having an idea what was coming, I still found this a strong plot. After stopping playing after the first big plot twist, I couldn’t help but think about it for hours afterwords. This game sticks with you and makes you think about the morality of what we call war in other shooters.
Spec Ops: The Line goes to an unusually dark place with its plot, especially for a shooter. We’re used to being the hero when we shoot thousands of enemies. Spec Ops and the shooter genre are all the better for this change of pace.
While Spec Ops: The Line has a great story, gameplay is nothing to write home about. It’s a standard cover-based third-person shooter. Gee, a game with Nolan North (more on him in a minute) that’s a cover-based TPS. Why does that seem familiar?
Anyway, the gameplay is basically run to a waypoint, find cover, shoot enemies, cutscene/dialogue and run to the next waypoint. It does that well enough. Moving around the battlefield was a little more difficult. Sprinting to cover was hit and miss as you could easily overshoot your destination or miss it because directing Walker is hard after starting sprinting. Running up to low cover and trying to vault also occasionally resulted in meleeing thin air rather than an acrobatic jump.
The AI in this game isn’t very smart on either side of the battle. Enemies would often break cover to charge at you but get gunned down quickly. Your AI squadmates would often do the same. That would be forgivable if they were actually capable of killing things. Throughout the campaign, I probably wouldn’t need to use my toes to track the number of enemies they put down.
Another of the highlights is the environment that Yager creates. The sandstorm devastated Dubai is beautifully imagined. We’ve all seen pictures of the architectural marvels of Dubai but many have been torn apart by that sandstorm. Similarly, the stereotypically extravagant building interiors of Dubai have been recreated but damaged from the storm. There is little in the way of flat ground as the sand blew in and settled creating dunes across the Dubai landscape. It really is amazing to see the devastation on a large scale.
The actual graphics themselves are okay. It’s an Unreal 3 Engine game so it’s not top of the line like the Frostbite 2 engine EA uses or the IW engine used for CoD. While the graphics are good, they can occasionally edge to slightly cartoony as the textures aren’t realistically crisp unless running on a higher-spec PC.
The biggest problem I have with the graphics is that the colour palette used seems quite small. This isn’t a problem with the interiors but outdoor action is where it’s noticeable. It’s hard to see where enemies are because they tend to blend in with most of the environment. I suppose desert camouflage would explain that but I still found it difficult to pick out enemies unless I saw them shooting at me.
If you don’t instantly recognize the voice of Martin Walker, you clearly don’t play many games (or watch that one episode Haven of Syfy [which I did and am now going back through the whole series and will have a post about the season finale on Monday]). Walker is voiced by none other than Nolan North. Yes, the guy who voices the sarcastically comical Nathan Drake plays the psychologically traumatized soldier Martin Walker. While Walker doesn’t look like North or your typical North character, we were treated to a piece of acting that I never expected from North. He’s perfectly believable as a squad leader and mentally destroyed soldier in this game. I was slightly surprised that he was nominated for a Spike TV VGA for voice acting for this role but after playing, I was surprised that he didn’t win.
On the whole, the voice acting is very good, not just North’s performance. While some of what’s shouted in combat gets repetitive quickly, it’s all said with a believability that reflects what your characters have gone through. A simple “enemy terminated” at the beginning evolves to reflect Walker being worn down by the game’s events. That weight of their actions carries through to everyone from Walker to your squadmates to the leaders of the 33rd.
The soundtrack is guitar based which fits with the military action. It also fits with some of the popular rock songs that the 33rd plays over their makeshift loudspeaker system, sometimes for entertainment and sometimes to taunt you. I’m not sure if there’s a standard set of sounds that come with it but the footstep sounds are a bit generic. At least the guns sound like they have punch to them.
This game is a hard one to sum up. I think that has to do with the fact that it’s hard to wrap your head around what happens in this game. Rather than having an omnipresent view of the world, we’re trapped inside the mind of Captain Walker so you’re along for the ride as he goes through this. Basically, I feel just as shell-shocked on the other side of this game as Walker. If a game can accomplish that, I’d say it’s a damn well written story.
What I find odd about this game is how few critics considered this among their top games of the year. Sure, it ended up on top of Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation top five but that’s about it. With so much emphasis on story in games lately, you’d think that it would get some consideration. The Walking Dead was on every critic’s year-end list despite repeated complaints about technical issues (like the save game glitch which is kinds of an important one). Spec Ops has an equally powerful plot but is bogged down by poor gameplay. There are obvious comparisons between TWD and Spec Ops so why is one the critical darling and the other panned?
When I set out to review Spec Ops: The Line, I wanted to find out if this game was worthy of its spot on my best games of 2012 list. After playing it, I think I put it too low on the list.
Spec Ops: The Line was reviewed on the PC but is also available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Your impression of the game will change depending on your PC specs and which platform you played the game on.
Cross-posted from The Lowdown Blog.