Review: Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops has a deep and colorful history. It reached the peak of gamer awareness back in the days of the PlayStation. At the turn of the century, TakeTwo Interactive released Spec Ops: Stealth Patrol, marketed at a crazy-low $10.00. Players were happy enough to get a decent game for a fifth the cost, that most of the bugs and gameplay issues were overlooked. Rolling Spec Ops: The Line out as a blockbuster title, 2K Games had a chance to establish Spec Ops as a competitive franchise. So how does a full priced Spec Ops title fare?

In The Line, main protagonist Captain Walker leads his tight knit team of Delta Operatives into the remains of Dubai. Dubai suffered waves of destructive dust storms months prior to the events in-game, and now the once great city is in shambles. After receiving an ominous recording from Walker’s old mentor and friend (Colonel John Konrad) generating from the heart of Dubai, the Delta Team is sent in search of survivors. As you “travel down the rabbit hole” (to quote Walker’s use of the cliché), there are even more elements to the story that make you realize The Line is a unique experience. No choice ever presented is the “right” one. No matter which path the player takes, Walker plunges deeper into moral disarray.

While The Line features an impressive story about a soldier’s morally reprehensible choices, the execution is questionable. The plot elements seem digestible laid out, but things are much harder to swallow in-game. The beginning feels like walking into a movie halfway through (not even counting the helicopter sequence). It tells the player “BTW, Dubai was destroyed and now you’re here. So, go do your thing.” When a megacity like Dubai gets destroyed… I want to see how it happened! I want to experience it, and survive it.  Starting the game frustrated and disappointed leaves a lasting impression.

Depending on how the ending is interpreted, major pieces of the story don’t seem to fit. For example, why did the Damned 33rd (your main enemy) give up their vast military training to go rogue in less than 6 months? Not years of seclusion: 6 months. Yes, explanations are given in the game, but the connections are loose at best. These missed opportunities and weak plot devices are some of the biggest reasons why the game’s overall quality suffers.

The gameplay fairs better, starting with the impressively smooth aiming system. Short of a few gripes about controls (revive teammate button is the same button as sprint), The Line handles well. Tired of shooters with enemies that survive five rounds to the face? Dropping enemies with only a couple well-placed shots make The Line one of the most realistic and satisfying shooters around.

The gun selection is comprised of 3-4 variances in all the basic classes of shotguns, heavy weapons, snipers, SMGs, rifles and handguns. The most impressive weapons exist in the environments. There are some pretty epic shootouts that involve burying your enemies in sand by shooting out glass walls. Shards of glass explode from the pressure of the sand. If anyone survives that razor blade shower, they get buried in the sand. Or shoot out a glass ceiling and watch a goon fall helplessly to his death.

Enemy A.I., even on the harder difficulties, isn’t always the sharpest. They like to conga line right down your sights. It seemed as though they saved the good A.I. for Walker’s squad members: Lugo and Adams. They feel like real players. The Delta Operatives are even smart enough to understand when to hang back and when to move forward without having to command them anywhere (which is great because there is no point-click command function).

The biggest issue with The Line is the length of the campaign — adding up to an utterly pathetic 4 hours. The only saving grace, at face value, is that there are key choices in game that make it worth a second play. But even on the second play through, there are no significant changes to the outcome of the story, and it brings about another moment of disappointment. Ultimately, the replay value here is relatively low.

The Unreal engine makes The Line look beautiful. From inside the palaces, across the broken rooftops, to hiking through broken streets, everything looks great. Textiles load slowly at times, and I would highly suggest downloading to the harddrive to promote smoother visuals (I learned that my second play through). Otherwise, the game is on the same level visually as the rest of today’s shooters.

The visuals also reinforce the story. The game wanted to deliver a clear message: war changes man for the worse. Walker transforms throughout the game, illustrating the ugly truth with eerie precision. The soldier in the end, with his charred flesh, bloodied arms, and tattered clothes is not the cookie cutter crew cut that arrived in hopes of finding an old friend. It is evident Walker crosses a line for which there’s no turning back, and it’s done so through commendable presentation.

Another notable ‘line’ about this title is the fine line it walks between paying tribute and copycatting. There are areas, environments, and certain art directions that border a little too close to things found in other shooters. Lighting effects are very similar to BulletStorm (and even the “crazy/funny arch enemy” radio man is reminiscent of a cleaner-mouthed Sarrano). One of the only untouched buildings Delta Team travels through looks like it was yanked straight from the mind of Andrew Ryan. Call me an optimist, but I like to think of it as paying homage to other great shooters (or at the very least coincidence).

Closing Comments:

In the end, the rich qualities in The Line outweigh its flaws. If only it was a budget title, we could all just turn a blind eye to what holds this game back from being phenomenal. If the game was longer, it would have been a must-have instead of only a must-play. It looks, feels, and plays like the best of shooters — but without the story or originality to support it. As it stands, Spec Ops: The Line is the best rental you never bought.

Version Reviewed: PS3