Hands On: Spec Ops: The Line

By Adam Smith on February 6th, 2012 at 2:05 pm.

Sand and a fissure

As I sat in 2K’s lobby waiting to play Spec Ops: The Line, a man played The Darkness II on a nearby consolebox. If I were to estimate, I’d say 84% of his time was spent eviscerating people, tearing them limb from limb, punching gaping holes through their most precious parts and lopping off their screaming faces with a twitch of his tentacles. It truly was one of the most gruesome displays I’ve ever been witness to. That man was Shawn Frison, senior designer at Yager Games. In Spec Ops, he has helped create something far more brutal than the comic book killfest of The Darkness.

Craig has already taken a look at Spec Ops but we were invited back to play more and to talk to Shawn. The demonstration build that I was left to play in privacy, albeit on a 360, begins with an on-rails vehicle section that seems intended to highlight the verticality of the setting, with helicopters weaving between the skyscrapers as a sandstorm swirls around them, threatening to send them spinning out of control. Although it’s a spectacular sequence, it doesn’t feel like the best way to introduce the offbeat and colourful setting that is the ruined luxury of Dubai.

Gladly, the narrative cuts back to the arrival of the three Delta Force operatives who have been sent to the beleaguered city to rescue the Kurtz-like Colonel John Konrad. The name alludes to Joseph Conrad and the game itself is partly a retelling of Heart of Darkness, with the journey into the buried city very much a voyage into the darkness that lurks within the souls of men. And what darkness it is. There are bodies piled high in the ruins and many of them are the bodies of the unarmed. They are victims, not combatants.

Despite all the horror, I wasn’t left with the queasy sense of sensationalism and headline-grabbing that some military man-shooters have instilled in recent years, and that’s partly because Spec Ops has a strong element of the fantastic. Dubai is an otherworldly place even without the bloodied, stained light that struggles through the clouds of sand. In this almost post-apocalyptic state, with Konrad and others maniacally commenting on the squad’s progress through loudspeakers and music filtering in from the decks of some demented DJ, this doesn’t feel like something that could happen but rather a reification of madness in which the violence mostly feels grubby rather than fetishized.

There are tonal inconsistencies, which is perhaps inevitable in a game which wishes to convey the horror and madness of war, while having a main objective of shooting people for fun. That said, in the chapters I played, which began at the beginning but jumped to later points in the game, there are some well-staged scenes between the squad that show their mental state eroding as quickly as the dying city around them. Indeed, it’s mostly the early dialogue that bristles uncomfortably, with a few too many swears thrown in to really hammer home the grittiness of it all.

In between the shouting and screaming, there’s a whole lot of shooting. Thankfully, with it being the core of the game, it’s good shooting. With a third-person control scheme that will be familiar to anyone who has played Uncharted, Spec Ops is a game of cover, simple squad commands and lethality. Why draw attention to lethality in a genre very much about killing? Because the weapons in Spec Ops cut people down quickly and effectively. One bullet to the head will not only drop someone, it will more than likely take their entire head off. Shoot them in the legs and they stumble or fall, ready to be stamped out of existence.

It’s a relief because the games it most reminded me of – Gears of War and Uncharted – suffer greatly to my mind from making their own meaty weapons feel like Nerf guns by having enemies who keep standing when they are perforated from head to toe. Gunning down a distant rebel with a rattling burst of fire, knowing that he won’t simply soak up the bullets and spit them out, is intensely satisfying.

Particularly in a cover-based shooter, it makes sense for bullets to be deadly things rather than the equivalent of bee stings. If I could take a shotgun blast to the face and barely react, I’d be less likely to spend my life hiding behind a pot plant. In fact, I’d show up at parties with a shotgun and repeatedly blast myself in the face to impress people. Eventually, I’d take the act on tour, never letting people know that despite my resistance to speeding projectiles, a single punch to the face kills me instantly, as do the same bullets that I catch in my teeth and eat for breakfast if the person firing them has crept up on me.

Other than that, the combat has much in common with Uncharted and that’s not just because it features Nolan North’s voice running around in a desert. Blind-firing from cover or aiming and exposing oneself are the main approaches to combat, although shotguns are much easier to fire from the hip, providing a targeting reticule and decent accuracy at short range even while moving from cover to cover. That helps to make weapon choice more meaningful, as does the two gun limit, although with ammo often sparse, I was quite often forced into taking whatever shooty-stick I could loot from the tattered corpses I’d created.

Grenades come in three varieties – frag, stun and sticky – and are lobbed with an overlaid arc for assistance, making them unerringly accurate. Even a normal frag grenade can stun a group of enemies that are outside its blast radius if it is thrown onto sand, which billows up in a cloud when disturbed, causing confusion and panic. The almost constant chatter between enemies and squadmates helps to convince of their intelligence, which is a familiar trick and here it’s a well-executed one. It’s usually clear what kind of tactic is being used based solely on the shouted commands and as numbers are depleted, plans change and there’s a greater tendency to stay in hiding. My allies would often curse me as I charged an enemy position, ordering me to take cover.

The three of us aren’t as weak as the enemies – although I wonder if that will be the case on the hardest difficulty setting – but we’re not invincible either. The death of a companion ends the game and although I didn’t see it happen, I did have to abandon a firefight to stop one of my buddies from bleeding out. They’ll help each other too and on the whole they operate independently, although it is possible to instruct them to target specific enemies, or to use stun grenades in order to create an opening. They get on with things though, actually proving useful at the whole killing business, which I guess is what makes their ops so special.

I left with a feeling of pleasant surprise. Yager’s vision of Dubai is strong, with the sand almost a character in itself, and the almost surreal edge prevents this from being another gritty military shoot ‘em up. There are times when the sheer depravity of combat has the power to shock and one sequence, which I won’t spoil, is particularly gruesome. It contains what seems a deliberate nod toward Modern Warfare but then forces the player to stare at an aftermath that is more disturbing and grotesque than I’d anticipated.

What that level of horror needs is impact, not on the player but on the characters. If we don’t believe that they are being changed by what they are witnessing, we won’t believe in Konrad, who seems to have lost every single one of his marbles. From what I’ve seen, the squad become more interesting as they begin to question one another and the decisions made by the player; they’re more desperate and more human, rather than being macho murder-machines with a vocabulary of four letter words. The scale of the levels and enemy placement also left me longing to plug in a mouse and keyboard. We don’t see many third-person shooters of this sort on the PC and if the controls are implemented well, they could make the aiming seem less sluggish than it sometimes did.

The intro sequence aside, the most awkward part that I played was a shoot-out in a multi-level mall. It was the one point where I couldn’t find the way forward, so ended up killing endlessly respawning enemies for five minutes or so. The illusion was broken and for all their talk and unpredictability, the enemy soldiers were suddenly nothing more than targets popping up in a shooting gallery. It stood out from the other chapters I played, being the only piece of level design that didn’t visually guide the player.

If the full game contains more of the large spaces and environmental interactivity, and less of the chugging spawn points, the actual shooting mechanics are solid, backed up by impressive animation and punchy weapons, and that should be enough to entertain throughout what’s shaping up to be a surprisingly compelling grimdark story.

We’ll have an interview with senior designer Shawn Frison later this week, in which we talk about the Apocalypse Now influence, the difficulty of balancing horror and entertainment, and going to barbeques with a man who has killed on the field of battle.

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39 Comments »

  1. sabasNL says:

    Nice hands-on, Im really looking forward to this game.
    Hope they’ll launch some kind of demo though, would be nice to see for myself.

  2. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    Well, it’s quite an interesting way to dust off an old franchise.

    • Monkey says:

      I was hoping it would be a bit more of a sandbox experience

    • Coxswain says:

      I’m interested in this game, but i’m worried it will be trying too hard to be gritty.

  3. Brun says:

    Despite the passing attempt to be deep and meaningful with the tie-in to Conrad’s short story, this still boils down to a GoW clone with a brown color palette and a dash of Modern Warfare. Stale, boring, unoriginal. I’ll pass.

    • bill says:

      Surely that depends how well it’s done.

    • Somerled says:

      “The horror! The horror!” … of an X-Treme™ climactic closing scene! Still, Conrad at least makes for good inspiration.

    • Tyrone Slothrop. says:

      I’m impressed you’ve played the game and the, evidently, dozens of other third-person shooters attempting a dream-like horror atmosphere inspired by Heart of Darkness. I also find your art criticism a revelation, finally synthesising the complex interplay of dozens of emotive and aesthetic qualities into a single trite judgement of the perceived colour palette.

      You sir are a truly open-minded and considerate sage and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

    • Echo Black says:

      Tyrone: The odds he’s right on the money are pretty damn high, you know. Or are we acting like derivative GoW/COD clones aren’t what you can safely expect these days? Sure, this could not be one of these, but you can’t blame the man for playing the odds!

    • Tyrone Slothrop. says:

      Echo Black, there’s grounded, reasonable criticism and then there’s exaggerated, specious, reactionary bullshit that speaks more to the person’s own assumptions than the object of attention. Even your response intimates a belief, certainly stated in the parent comment, that if you have a game with a third-person camera and a cover system, it’s a Gears of War clone or a game focuses on the military, it’s a Call of Duty clone, both postulations, by someone whose actually played the game are seemingly quite off the mark. Indeed, the only evidence to the contrary are the most ridiculously abundant commonalities. How this a sober position to take and one that shouldn’t be ridiculed?

    • Tams80 says:

      You’ve played it then?!

      I’m guessing you didn’t even bother to read the whole article nor been to a desert.

      @ Echo Black

      The tone of Brun’s comment was very much “I know what it’s like” rather than “I think this is what it may be like”.

    • newprince says:

      Even if it’s not a great game, I hope this moves the genre forward into more “Hey, let’s actually think about this mass murder we’re committing and what it all means” territory. Make me feel like I’m in a war, or at least enough for my civilian brain to handle.

      I mean, part of what makes stuff like Generation Kill, Band of Brothers, Full Metal Jacket, SPR, The Thin Red Line [insert your favorite war film here] some of my favorites is the tension, the palpable dread, the absolute terror of knowing you have a good chance of dying a gruesome death, the genuine concern about the squad members… none of that has really been addressed in modern war games. Company of Heroes at least touched on it a little bit in their cutscenes, but there’s SO much space to work with here. The first step is not focusing on kill counts, finding dogtags, shooting galleries. Honestly, you could make a title where you kill less than 10 men and it could be AMAZING.

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      lurkalisk says:

      Am I the only one sick and tired of that – “Us tough men of honor and duty and valor are so elite we must make the SUPER tough decisions (that have no effect on user interactions thereafter) that no one else could ever make, because our emotions are so manly they have their own beards” – thing modern military shooters are now all obligated to do purely for shock value?

      I want to like it, but I find it very difficult. Nothing about it looks compelling or original.

  4. Echo Black says:

    Should be better than 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand

  5. Hoaxfish says:

    Still looks and sounds interesting.

    Hopefully they’ll be a bucket and spade available.

  6. wodin says:

    Sounds better than the last report. I do hate games where the enemy constantly spawns…yuck.

  7. RagingLion says:

    The very first trailer of this game with Bjork it the background and then the previews at the time really excited me for this game. This media relaunch and latest trailer didn’t really grab me in the same way – partially because of the visual aesthetic not seeming as strong and also because I worry that over such a long dev cycle they won’t be able to convert with doing something really interesting narratively.

  8. Jimbo says:

    I don’t think this will be very good or sell very well. Sorry.

  9. chaywa says:

    Got this pre-ordered through GAME for a fiver due to a pricing error back in August! Looking forward to it!

  10. Khemm says:

    Sounds promising, I really want it to be good since we didn’t get Gears of War sequels on PC – and I found GoW actually fun in short doses.

  11. CaspianRoach says:

    One thing that bothers me is that the game will be considerably easier to play on a PC, what with the superior aiming device allowing faster reaction times.

    • Brun says:

      I’ve found that third person games are very much hit and miss with keyboard and mouse control. Some games work well with it, others are better played with a gamepad.

    • Adam Smith says:

      I’m not sure if it’s in the recorded section of interview because it may have been as we were talking after I’d switched off, but Shawn did acknowledge the need to tweak things in terms of aim assist etc for mouse and keyboard controls. Even though they know a lot of PC folk have joypads anyway, they are assuming PC gamers will use m & k.

    • Khemm says:

      @Brun
      That depends on the person, I think. Everyone told me to play Batman games with a gamepad, but I couldn’t stand how sluggish it made the gameplay feel. I vastly prefer k&m for those.
      Devil May Cry 4 for example – that on the other hand was made with gamepads in mind.

    • Brun says:

      The examples I tend to use are Dead Space and Just Cause 2.

      Dead Space and its sequel worked quite well with KBM, for whatever reason. Just Cause 2 was a huge pain to play without a gamepad.

    • CaspianRoach says:

      General rule is if you have to aim, go for the mouse. You rarely need to aim anything in DMC so it feels okay with a gamepad, you always strike forward from where your character is looking and you can turn around rapidly with enough precision. Aiming a gun with a gamepad is just stupid, you’re either left with autoaim that almost plays the game for you, you just have to press ‘shoot’; or you spend 2 seconds moving your slow targeting reticule around.

      Here’s a little test for you: press Left Alt + Left Shift + Num Lock and try to aim your mouse cursor with NumPad keys. Try targeting a URL in a browser. It’s pretty much how I feel aiming a gun with a gamepad.

      And it’s good developers mentioned this, because, for example, L.A. Noire port has 0 changes in difficulty across platforms leaving you with piss-easy shooting segments where you can headshot a guy in a splitsecond when it would took you at least 5-10 seconds of aiming with a pad.

    • shizamon says:

      I don’t understand why everyone always wants easier. That’s the reason I play with a gamepad, it isn’t the easiest thing in the world to get a headshot on the move. Shooters bore me with a mouse. Hell I played Arma 2 with a gamepad, just had 2 shift buttons on it so I could do all the commands.

    • Chainspork says:

      ^ I don’t know if portraying a gamepad as the equivalent to playing a game with one arm tied behind your back to make the game more challenging, is really all that compelling of an argument for the gamepad, as it is against the design of the game in question.

      I used to find shooters plenty challenging on the PC, back when they were primarily designed for the PC. Less so these years when most shooters are designed around the sluggish limitations of console gamepad shooter controls.

    • CaspianRoach says:

      There are degrees of difficulty besides controlling scheme. They are more enjoyable as well, I’d rather let the game give me a puzzle where I must think creatively on how to kill this guy rather than the solution be “just shoot him, but you can’t aim properly for shit”.

    • shizamon says:

      Fair enough, but I find using one rewarding.

      Another argument for the gamepad is analog movement control. Don’t know why there is still no analogue keyboard on the market, and don’t give me that guff about the mouse wheel speed, didn’t work well on Splinter Cell and didn’t work well on Hidden and Dangerous 2. It worked, but far from ideal.

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    ffordesoon says:

    I want to believe.

  13. bhlaab says:

    Gladly, the narrative cuts back to the arrival of the three Delta Force operatives who have been sent to the beleaguered city to rescue the Kurtz-like Colonel John Konrad. The name alludes to Joseph Conrad and the game itself is partly a retelling of Heart of Darkness

    Dude, that’s deep. Almost as deep as Snow Crash.

  14. mentor07825 says:

    Played the multiplayer beta on the InferiorBox. It was okay. Controls were a bit wonky and the gameplay was the same thing you find in every other 3rd person cover manshooter. Not really a bad thing entirely however.

    The only good thing about it was one particular map where a dust storm came in every few minutes, cutting visibility considerably. This was a good year or two ago, so things could change since then.

  15. DocSeuss says:

    “With a third-person control scheme that will be familiar to anyone who has played Uncharted.”

    Ew.

    Uncharted has bad gameplay. The guns feel wrong, the enemies and weapons lack variation, and worst of all: the enemies have x-ray vision.

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      lasikbear says:

      Funny, none of that has anything to do with how the controls are set up.

  16. Necroqubus says:

    Looks like GOW without Locusts and chainsaws.

    oh, and with a lot of sand

  17. fearghaill says:

    Personally I prefer to get the job done and go home.

  18. jimjam says:

    Its probably me, but this game’s stage is not unique enough to stand out. We have had quiet a lot of apocolytic arenas already (Rage,for instance didn’t sell that well).

    As they say in dragons den, for that reason im out!