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Spec Ops: The Line

Review: Spec Ops: The Line

Jun 26 // Allistair Pinsof
Spec Ops: The Line (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC)Developer: Yager Publisher: 2K GamesReleased: June 26, 2012MSRP: $59.99 A soldier is nothing without orders and the orders are simple: Infiltrate Dubai to provide recon on missing Colonel John Konrad and his outfit, The Damned 33rd. By the time Captain Martin Walker and his two soldiers, Lugo and Adams, arrive, these orders mean little. The modern paradise of Dubai has been ravaged by sandstorms, spurring chaos on the streets below. At this point, Walker decides this is a rescue mission, not a reconnaissance mission. It’s not the last order he’ll give his team, but it’s certainly the most innocuous. Inspired by Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops is a harrowing, unassuming look at modern warfare. It neither glorifies it nor condemns the player and Walker, as tough decisions are made. Do you kill the thief or the soldier that murdered his family in response? Do you rescue the civilians or the opposing agent that may provide you with the information you need? Though Spec Ops' decisions are binary -- and mostly predetermined -- at least the moral views binding behind them aren't. In Spec Ops, you can only choose the least terrible decision and hope it eventually leads to a positive outcome. Converse to the lofty narrative direction of the game, Spec Ops plays it safe as far as mechanics are concerned. One in medias res helicopter turret sequence later and you are thrown into cover-based shooter 101: swap cover, roadie run to avoid fire, blindfire when enemies are close, etc. Though Spec Ops covers the basics, it covers them well, offering some of the most enjoyable cover-based battles since Gears of War popularized the concept. Guns are weighty and difficult to aim, making a tricky headshot feel all the more rewarding. Areas are wide and pregnant with tactical possibilities both horizontally and vertically. While taking cover feels good, maneuvering around it is a different story. In a misguided attempt to appear realistic, Spec Ops does away with Gears of War dodge-rolls and makes it dumbfoundingly difficult to avoid a grenade. You can’t throw it back, you can’t roll out of the way, and turning and running is more difficult than it should be (you need to double-rap the run button and press in a given direction, only for the game to frequently misread your command.) Once you get to the final chapters of the game, these problems with the game’s combat become hard to ignore. This applies tenfold to the rather lifeless multiplayer, where elevation and good cover will win a firefight nine times out of ten. Every time an enemy/player tosses a grenade near you, forcing you to awkwardly detach from cover and run, you'll want to throw down the controller. One thing that puts Spec Ops ahead of the pact is its squad dynamic. For the majority of the game, you’ll have Lugo and Adams to bark orders at. Though you can’t dictate their positioning as you can in the underrated Rainbow Six: Vegas or Mass Effect series, you are able to direct their fire onto a specific enemy. This becomes increasingly helpful since they frequently snipe and lob grenades at targets. Additionally, there are a handful of stealth sequences where you can exploit their snipe command, making these encounters a cakewalk (don’t fret: You can always break stealth.) I love this mechanic because it gives you something to do, while recovering health behind cover. The momentum of battle doesn't feel like a constant stop-start affair, like Gears of War and Uncharted. There are occasions where the AI doesn’t act as it should. I encountered a couple instances where a teammate would throw a grenade at an enemy directly in front of me and him, instead of melee him like any rational soldier would. The enemy AI isn’t so hot, either. The big heavy enemies will slowly walk toward your cover and then stand in front of it, as if an invisible barrier blocks their path to your obliteration. This made me succeed in some tough encounters later in the game, but I didn’t feel like I survived by my skill and wits, as a result. The AI is far from broken, but it’s one of the many things that plays directly against the grim reality that Spec Ops’ narrative tries so hard to build. While Spec Ops often reminded me of Apocalypse Now, there were also many moments where it brought to mind The Rock. Some characters feel cartoonish in their aspirations (a radio DJ barking nonsense throughout the game, for instance), many helicopter chases are had, and the game loves to make things explode: grenades, barrels, buildings, you name it! The much talked about sand tech and environmental destructibility are nice gimmicks but they don’t drastically change the flow of combat. It’s cathartic to wipe out a turret nest by flooding it with sand, flowing out of a nearby window, but I didn’t feel particularly crafty in shooting the marked objects in question. The scripted sandstorms that block your vision are just plain annoying. Spec Ops is a mixed bag in its visuals. The game spent a long time in development hell and it shows, particularly in the player models and dull texture work. While the exterior cityscapes are lavish and broad, the interiors rarely capture the luxury and glamor of Dubai. The setting is full of potential, so it’s very disappointing to see the developer rarely make use of it. Instead, we are given a decrepit ghost land full of charred bodies and civilians that feel mythical in their rare appearance, despite the story revolving around their presence. The game isn't without technical hiccups either, the most criminal of which are the prerecorded cutscenes that are terribly compressed, looking like 360p YouTube videos at times. Nuance in Spec Ops is restricted to the game’s storytelling which is dense and compelling. I can’t think of another game where I replayed chapters, after beating it, for the sole purpose of fully understanding the gravity of key story moments. While Spec Ops could have delivered some plot details more clearly, there is an appeal to how vague of a web it weaves; at times, leaving some major information to collectible intel items scattered around levels. Sitting through the credits of a game while you piece together its complex story in your head is a rarity in videogames. There are better cover-based shooters, better multiplayer shooters, and games that deal with moral choice in a more open manner, but Spec Ops isn’t about any of those things even though it includes all of them. At the end of the day, this is a game that drives the player forth by proposing questions; some relating to the plot -- you’ll ask “why?” as often as Walker and company -- others relating to your own ethics, but all of which are much more compelling devices than anything offered by Spec Ops’ competitors. In an odd way, it almost comes as a relief that the multiplayer isn’t worth sticking around for. At worst, it’d be an entertaining distraction for a week. At best, it’d be an ignorable distraction that doesn't sully a thoughtful, complex narrative about there being no heroes in war. Only killers. We don’t need to come to terms with killing people, because it’s all fun and games for us. Not so for Captain Walker, who must find reason and purpose in his rampage. Walking that long sandy, bloody road through Dubai is one of the most captivating gaming experiences of 2012 because of it.
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After all the door kicking, screaming, blindfire, grenade tossing, and turret handling, a soldier always walks away from battle alive with a strong moral compass intact. This last detail is the most disparate departure fro...

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Talking narrative with Spec Ops: The Line's lead writer


Jun 25
// Tara Long
When Destructoid's Steven Hansen previewed Spec Ops: The Line back in February, he notably enjoyed its emphasis on narrative and atmosphere, adding that it looked to be "the necessary antithesis to the chest b...
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Live show: Spec Ops: The Line early play on Mash Tactics


Jun 20
// Bill Zoeker
Spec Ops: The Line intends to show you some of the hellish choices a soldier makes on the battlefield, but not until June 26th. If you can't wait to get a taste of the war, Mash Tactics has got you covered! King Foom is getti...
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E3: Spec-Ops: The Line to get downloadable co-op


Jun 04
// Maxwell Roahrig
Because it's 2012, and every action game ever needs co-op, Spec-Ops: The Line will receive downloadable cooperative missions. No word if the entire campaign will be co-opified (a word that is totally not made u...
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Here's a Spec Ops: The Line multiplayer trailer for you


Apr 20
// Jim Sterling
Spec Ops: The Line boasts four-player class-based competitive multiplayer action for your enjoyment. A new trailer shows off the online features in which two factions -- The Damned and The Exiles -- will fight each other. Th...
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PAX: Hands-on & chat with Spec Ops: The Line Lead Writer


Apr 07
// Tara Long
At PAX East this week, Max Scoville stepped into an abandoned bus near the 2K booth to chat with Walt Williams, the Lead Writer of Spec Ops: The Line, which is set for release this June. Watch to learn more about the game's storyline, its cinematic influences, and how you can use sand to your advantage!
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Borderlands 2 will be playable at PAX East!


Mar 28
// Hamza CTZ Aziz
Borderlands 2 will be playable at the 2K booth next week! You'll be able to mess around with the Gunzerker and Siren character classes in Caustic Caverns.  Additionally, Spec Ops: The Line will be playable and 2K will ...
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Spec Ops: The Line now set for release in late June


Feb 21
// Jordan Devore
Spec Ops: The Line is gearing up for release on June 26, 2012 in North America and June 29 for international audiences. As much as I'm still down for third-person shooters, it's mostly the setting and narrative tone -- the st...
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Guitars and gunfire fill this Spec Ops: The Line trailer


Dec 22
// Jim Sterling
I think I last saw this game at E3 two years ago, and heard very little about it since. Those worried that Spec Ops: The Line might be dead, however, can rest easy for Christmas with a brand new trailer.  There's plenty...
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Take-Two announces further delays to XCOM, Spec Ops


Nov 08
// Alasdair Duncan
Publisher Take-Two Interactive has announced that the forthcoming XCOM will be delayed into "fiscal year 2013" along with first-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line. This follows a positive financial report for the second quarte...
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Blood and sand: New Spec Ops: The Line images have both


Jan 09
// Brad Nicholson
The official word on Spec Ops: The Line fascinates me. Promises of a deep, fulfilling narrative and compelling moral choice are all too common, but something about that eerie reveal trailer continues to make me believe that Y...

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