The Game Effect Review
Spec Ops: The Line Review
Does this shooter get buried in the sand or rise above?
The Rifleman's CreedUp until a few months ago, I hadn't really thought much about post traumatic stress disorder. I don't come from a military family and had never really known anyone who had been effected by the tragic disorder. That is until a shocking crime rocked the small town where I grew up. A young man I attended school with was arrested after shooting and almost killing his girlfriend during a night of drinking. Though I was never good friends with him, I had just seen him recently and knew him well. Admittedly, my first reaction was to judge him guilty without possessing any proper knowledge of the situation. I just assumed that his life had taken a wrong turn in the ten years since high school. As it turns out, it did, but not in the way I was expecting. Looking further into it, I learned that he is a veteran of Afghanistan and is suffering from PTSD. Unfortunately in the court of public rumor mill opinion, like me, our small town's inhabitants had already judged him guilty.
I tell this story now because I have thought about this young man more in the past few days than I have since the crime occurred. The new third person military shooter from Yager and 2K games, Spec Ops: The Line has put me in a state of mind that I never expected from a video game, much less one in the era of Call of Duty's big explosions and glossy action scenes. Sure, the actual shooting gameplay isn't as tight as some of its competition and the multiplayer can't hold my attention, but when a game's single player story is as affecting as this, all the complaints I have about its gameplay elements just seem trivial. That's because for me, Spec Ops isn't just a game, it's an experience.
This is my rifle, there are many like itYager and writer Walt Williams have created a disturbing, dark and emotional tale that stands alongside some of the best military films in recent memory including its most obvious inspiration Apocalypse Now. Set in a ghost town version of Dubai that's been ravaged by massive sand storms, Spec Ops centers around a squad of three soldiers sent in to recon the situation. The squad, led by Captain Martin Walker (voiced by Nolan North doing his best Nolan North impersonation) has been tasked with finding Colonel John Konrad who seems to have gone rogue and set up camp in the city. It may sound familiar to anyone who has read Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, but the story takes some strange and unexpected turns toward the end that make this a unique commentary on violence, war and even video games themselves.
Spec Ops is that rare game in which every element is in service to the story. Players will amass a terrifyingly high body count throughout the game including some oppononents who don't seem like enemies at all. Looking over the battlefield after a skirmish is enough to make you uncomfortable as enemies writhe on the ground calling out for help among their (your?) fallen comrades. Players can mercy kill these wounded men in gory displays that would serve as quick machismo rewards in other shooters but here they become a grisly reminder of the horrors of war. Spec Ops' message is as heavy handed as it sounds but it's delivered with finesse and subtlety while still allowing the gameplay to breathe.
But this one is mineThe gameplay itself is competent if not outstanding. The shooting isn't as smooth as Gears of War's pop and shoot perfection, the cover controls are a bit off and even after two times through the campaign I still find myself hitting the melee button when I meant to hit the cover button. Yager seemed to be trying to fix something that wasn't broken with the third person shooter, when it would have been fine to just copy and paste the controls from its highly successful contemporaries. Melee is also fairly useless as contextual actions would have been a more effective alternative to the wild flailing that Walker usually exhibits whenever an enemy comes within arms length.
Similarly, the scripted action scenes such as hanging off a tanker truck while blasting foes with a grenade launcher or a helicopter chase through a sand storm break up the action nicely but won't thrill anyone who has played Uncharted 2. They help keep Spec Ops' campaign from becoming repetitive but these moments don't leave as much of an impact as they could have.
I must master my rifle as I must master my lifePlayers are often presented with situations where they are forced to make a quick judgement call as the leader of the squad. These moments not only enhance the story but also often present players with branching gameplay paths. Do you destroy that battalion of troops with the inhumane white phosphorous missiles or do you take the brave approach, facing them head-on and eschewing the weapons of mass destruction altogether? I found in multiple play-throughs that taking a certain path could potentially block players from experiencing a certain gameplay variation. For example, a short but intense stealth sequence is tied to one of these moral quandaries. Had I elected to make a different choice, I wouldn't even have known this mission existed in the game.
Those moments are just one example of how every element of the campaign seems to be in service of the story's message. In this way, Spec Ops has as much in common with indie games like Dear Esther and Journey as it does with Call of Duty and Battlefield. The city of Dubai's architecture and color is stunning, but it's the contrast of the city's beauty with the ruined skyscrapers and dead bodies that exemplifies the outstanding visual storytelling on display here. Likewise, as the plot descends deeper into the rabbit hole, Walker's clothes become tattered and his face bloody and scarred. He wears his burdens on his sleeve in a similar fashion to Ryan Gosling in last years film Drive. Again, this isn't something we see often in video games.
Nolan North turns in a fantastic performance that will have you saying, "Nathan who?" as his character arch leaves us questioning his motives and wondering how we ever thought Captain Walker was the hero of this story in the first place. Elsewhere the supporting actors certainly don't drop the ball, only further complimenting the strong screenplay. The licensed music is a tad out of place but I would take Vietnam rock over heavy metal any day. The explosions are jarring and breathtaking especially with surround sound, but the pop of the guns is more pellet gun than AK-47.
We are the masters of our enemyAnd of course, like any big budget military shooter, Spec Ops has a fully fleshed out multiplayer mode (with free co-op DLC on the way). However this part of the package does nothing new with the tried and true formula. Players earn perks and new weapons as they rank up. Team deathmatch and a variant on king of the hill deliver what players expect from the genre. The controls are adequate, though little annoyances like the cover system and melee stick out more when going up against unpredictable human opponents.
The maps are well designed. The verticality of some of these battlegrounds helps keep the matches intense and fresh, though most maps are too large for the small number of combatants on the field (matches max out at 8 players rather than 16). The one thing that stands out about the online gameplay is the way sand affects the battles. Like in the campaign, players can use sand to bury opponents, often changing the layout of a map. Also, the occasional sand storm will blanket the area, rendering radar useless and obstructing everyone's vision unless they're in the safe confines of a building. Unfortunately these sand storms eventually just throw off the rythm of the matches and become a minor annoyance as you can sense everyone in the party just waiting for the storm to pass so they can return to the fun part. The multiplayer in Spec Ops is well executed but it won't be competing with the biggest names online.
Overall ImpressionYet multiplayer is certainly not why anyone should be playing Spec Ops: The Line. This is a single player game first and foremost and taken on that alone it can compete with the best in the genre. If you put more stock in how well a game lets you shoot moving targets than how well it tells you a story, then you might not agree with me. However, after playing through Spec Ops, I almost feel silly judging it against other military shooters. This game had me questioning what I want out of the games I play, and flipped my hero fantasies upside down. It is a brilliant commentary on the state of the art form and a deeply emotional experience that may not be what gamers want, but may just be what we need.
- Gripping, emotional story
- Fantastic setting
- Moral dilemmas add to the branching gameplay
- Weak multiplayer
- Some control issues