Hands On With Spec Ops: The Line

By Craig Pearson on November 22nd, 2011 at 1:38 pm.

Someone put the red bulb in

The Spec Ops series has been going since 1998, although came to an abrupt end after eight games and an abandoning of the PC, in 2002. Now, a decade on, it’s back with Spec Ops: The Line. We sent Craig to take a look at an early build of the military shooter to see if it’s a welcome return.

Sand, like bullets, can kill a man. You need sufficient quantities, but it’ll eventually either crush, suffocate, or get in so many sandwiches that the victim grinds his insides away. Given the choice of what I’d rather die of, I’d go with a lead sandwich (bullets) over a sand sandwich (an actual sandwich with sand).

I had two hours with various stages of 2k’s new military shooter, Spec Ops: The Line. I clasped an Xbox360 pad in place of a mouse and keyboard and wandered my three-man squad into Dubai. A preternatural amount of sand has been dumped on the city by a massive sandstorm. It cuts the already isolated city off from the rest of the world. The American military sent in a platoon to help with the evac, and they’re lost in the isolated metropolis. I’m Commander Walker, head of the recon unit sent in to figure out what’s gone wrong, tracing a radio signal that suggests that horrible, horrible things have happened.

Even  an apocalypse has rides. Wheeeeeeeee!

For all the careful positioning of the battleground, in one of the few places in the world that could conceivably be completely cut-off, as well as the literary and filmic inspirations that pushes Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now ahead of Aliens, Spec Ops is a cover-centric third-person shooter. Finding out what’s going on mostly involves ducking and shooting at waves of predetermined enemies. The first of these were in the centre of a dusty highway. Wrecked buses and cars are the cover as the first meeting with the locals goes from shouting at each other to gunny bangs.

They are coercive manshoots, forcing me into cover at the start of pretty much every encounter, as the enemies popped up in overwhelming numbers. From behind a handy small wall I cowered and scoured, taking a few shots over the edge at the surrounding proles. The power of the sandstorm had tossed buildings and vehicles around, and the main force that had me pinned down was standing under a sand-filled bus. Bullets met window and the sand buried them.

"Hello, room service? Yes, my room has no wall and there's a terrorist cell in it. And I broke the trouser press."

It’s tuned to be tough and I died a lot, which exposed just how regimented the action is: everything is just so, from the enemy placement to the support waves that come in after being announced by the back-up AI (“The next wave’s coming in” sort of thing). I was killed twice by the same RPG guy in one of the bigger fights. To be fair, it was clearly designed to be a stand-out moment: a broken hotel front that fills with enemies on all the levels, to the tune of a 1960s psychedelic track that I’m not allowed to mention. It’s impossible to continue, instead I had to snuggle into a wall, and wait for the storm of bullets to finish. The AI team mostly did a good job of moving, covering and killing without any babying from me, although after dying twice from the second floor rocket launcher I set them to target him. We killed until it was time for that particular scene to end: a sandstorm hit and wiped everyone but our team off the face of the earth.

But there were a few other moments that felt just a bit too planned out for my tastes. A rooftop battle had three waves of enemies holding us back, and it wasn’t up to us to push forward, but to kill the specified number before it allowed us to proceed.

"Dubai that gun?" "No, my dad gave it to me." AHAHHHAAA!

The linearity and stage management is a symptom of developers Yager wanting to tell a specific story. Shouldering the narrative is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: as you follow Colonel Konrad’s 33rd platoon deeper into Dubai things get darker. You’re being dragged into the city, constantly aware of the impact he’s had on the place through tannoys and radio chatter and then mass graves and firing squads. Eventually I was given the choice over the murder of two people: on a family man that stole water, or the soldier that punished him by killing his family. It seemed like an easy choice to me, but there are nuances that I actually thought about: did the water the man stole also condemn other people to a painful death? It’s up to the player to make the choice to either condemn or to fight for them, and risk both dying.

But it’s an impressive spectacle, and there are moments where Dubai covered in sand makes you wish more games explored the world outside New York – a desert floor gave way to a reveal a squad was trudging across a glass ceiling; a whole city block is hidden in a ravine of sand. The demo ends, turning a fight along an abandoned highway into a fight through sandstorm. The sky turns blood red and the wind whips up. Every step is difficult for Walker’s team and the enemy, the winds are powerful enough to rip bonnets from cars. At the end, the men hole up in a concrete tube, talking to the taunting Colonel.

Those moments, and the tool tips mixed up with messages about the American army’s suicide rate, feel oddly out of place. A message occupying space with traditional, sometimes rarrrr-shoot-things-while-metal-blares gun game. Even when the squad is openly questioning your decisions, bringing the story from cut-scenes in-game, the two sit uneasily together. Maybe I’m expecting too much, or it needs the full game to appreciate how the two mesh, but it feels like a game without a coherant tone. It’s ambition, to be about something, currently feels at odds with the repetitive action.

Spec Ops: The Line is due out at some unspecified time in 2012.

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25 Comments »

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  1. jellydonut says:

    Sounds quite poo tbh.

  2. Teddy Leach says:

    THE LIIIIIIIIIIINE.

  3. The Ninja Foodstuff formerly known as ASBO says:

    since 1998, although came to an abrupt end after eight games and an abandoning of the PC, in 2002.

    They released 8 games in 4 years?! Wow, and I though Activision treated their audience like a cash cow.

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      PoulWrist says:

      That’s not what it says

    • Magnetude says:

      “The Spec Ops series has been going since 1998, although came to an abrupt end after eight games and an abandoning of the PC, in 2002.”

  4. Khemm says:

    I never played Spec Ops, but wasn’t it a Rainbow Six/Ghost Recon type of tactical shooter back in the day?
    I’m honestly starved for a third person type of game, so I’d be great if the Line wasn’t an average shooter this “hands on” makes it sound to be.

  5. kyrieee says:

    I thought this game was dead.

  6. Manburger says:

    Greg Kasavin (the writer of Bastion) worked as a producer on this game.
    He made it sound intriguing (in interviews), especially the story/atmosphere.
    I guess that was a while ago? Looking at it now, it does seem like just some more manshootan. Hope it’ll still turn out to be interesting.
    I feel like Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now is a good source of inspiration for a game about the grim journey of men who need to shoot some other men in the face and neck. FOR JUSTICE(?!)

  7. Radiant says:

    “The developer wanting to tell a specific story” is a sure indicator that if I bought this I’d play it once and then look for a refund.

  8. Shooop says:

    Another shooter “wanting to tell a specific story.” This has crapware written all over it.

  9. DrazharLn says:

    They still have time to improve. Hopefully they’ll take that time and address these concerns.

    • xavdeman says:

      You are treading on a fine line there, my friend. The one between naivety and cynicism.

  10. SirKicksalot says:

    Meanwhile Eurogamer praised the AI, expansive combat arenas and variety. These two previews cancel each other out. Who should I believe?

    • Manburger says:

      I feel like this (quite good) GiantBomb preview paints a picture of a more intelligent game. Or at least that the developer has ambition to make something more genuine than the standard military shooter. I hope they succeed. I remain intrigued!

    • BreadBitten says:

      @Manburger

      I was just about to post that. While it seems that both previews share a similar feeling towards the mechanics of the game, Alex’s preview felt, for the lack of a better word, ‘sincere’ in sharing what the game’s really going for.

      Maybe it’s just me, but whatever…

  11. iamaelephant says:

    We don’t come to this site for XBox reviews, kthxbai.

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      ffordesoon says:

      I love the idea, and I’m absolutely up for a sort of autocritical Modern Warfare game, but the “moral choice” trumpeted by all the press coverage seems a little stupid to me. While I appreciate the intent behind it, and the fact that you recieve no reward or punishment from the choice other than having to live with it (a feature Skyrim also possesses, and which I’m slightly surprised hasn’t been discussed more in all the writing surrounding the game, particularly as the repeated tut-tutting whenever you swiped something was one of the most aggravating bits of Fallout 3 – and, if I recall correctly, Oblivion), but the solution seems obvious, as Pearson mentioned. Shoot the poor guy who stole water for his family, or shoot the guy who caught him doing it, and slaughtered his wife and kids in response? I mean, unless you’re some sort of hideous racist, the choice seems rather clear: shoot the guy who caught him. I realize it’s all in how the choice is presented, but it sounds rather silly.

      That said, I do appreciate that you can shoot the snipers and possibly save them both as well, though I hope the game doesn’t make that option particularly clear, a la Deus Ex’s “Paul” scenario. The genius of that moment was that it was always your choice to save Paul, rather than a binary choice served up on a platter by the game. In this moment, it must be a pleasant surprise that you can shoot the snipers, rather than just another track on the railway switchboard.

      You know?

      That said, I’m cautiously optimistic.

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      ffordesoon says:

      Oops, that was meant as its own post.

      Still, as long as I’m here, I might as well respond to the OP: Ew. Some of us have Xboxes and PCs, you know. I know PC gamers are anointed by Heaven because they spend more money than console gamers on things that work correctly much less often, but perhaps you could not so obviously lord it over us disgusting heathens?

      Kthxbai.

  12. MistyMike says:

    >>>to the tune of a 1960s psychedelic track that I’m not allowed to mention

    I bet it was I Am the Walrus

  13. malkav11 says:

    A Heart of Darkness style journey into an isolated city under siege by apocalyptic sandstorm sounds positively brilliant. But will the execution match the concept?

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    phuzz says:

    Can we at least give them some credit for using a pretty unique setting? That second screenshot down does make it look pretty epic.
    Hopefully they’ll add a worthy game onto the setting…

  15. mickygor says:

    Already predicted a sequel set in the void left where all that sand came from! Jeez.

  16. DaftPunk says:

    This game is going to rock,i watched all released videos and writen previews by RPS staff and it sounds like awesome game!