Spec Ops: The Line Hands On
Developer: Yager Development / Publisher: 2K Games / Played on: Xbox 360
Back in late March I had the opportunity to go to Germany with 2K to get some hands on with Spec Ops: The Line, a game that was announced in 2009, disappeared for a long stretch of time, then resurfaced out of nowhere with a “hey, look at me! I’m not canceled!”
What was nice about this particular event is that it wasn’t a sensory overload full of spectacle and flash. Instead, I got to spend two full days at the developer’s studio in Berlin talking to the game’s leads, looking at all of their concept art, and generally listening to them relay the story of the game’s creation in all its various facets.
This was a nice change of pace. It really gave me a sense of appreciation for just how difficult it is to make a big-budget videogame. That’s a process that a lot of people don’t appreciate because they only to get to see the final product. What they don’t see is the multi-year workloads that the art team has to visually construct a virtual world, or the amount of iteration it takes for the tech department to craft visual effects.
What this really means is that when the team pulled back the curtain on their proverbial Oz, showing me how the sand mechanics work in Spec Ops: The Line, how in-game sequences are scripted (and just how many moving parts work together in even very simple scenes), it made playing the game a much richer experience.
On its surface, yes, it’s your classic third-person military shooter. Yes, there is a cover system. Yes, there is semi-irreverent banter back and forth between the playable protagonist, Martin Walker (voiced by everyman Nolan North), and his pair of wise-cracking squad mates. It’s tough to get excited about all of that as we’ve seen those pieces before in other games.
What is strikingly unique about Spec Ops, however, is its setting. The game takes place in a disaster-ravaged Dubai, a city of Middle Eastern cash-fueled dreams. Visually, it’s a vertical glass-and-concrete jungle covered in sand and bathed in blue and orange hues. It’s striking; Dubai is the ultimate playground, and Spec Ops is aiming to take that grandeur and turn it into fun gameplay areas.
And they do; fighting my way through a high-rise fitness club, taking cover amongst the treadmills and juice bars of the opulent hotel that encased Walker that was an experience I can definitively say I’ve never had in a videogame. When I stepped out on the transparent glass edge of a building I assumed I was at ground level, I realized I was looking down into a huge sand pit from the 40th floor… yeah, that was neat.
Really, the game plays with spatial awareness in cool ways. Up sand hills, down sand hills, inside rooms with no sand that suddenly fill with hills of sand when you shoot out the wrong window; there’s a lot of minor terrain variations that make the game feel more “rounded” than your typical third-person shooter room full of boxes and low walls.
But really what intrigues me the most is the story of Spec Ops: The Line. The team at Yager was really open about the inspiration: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (hell, even the antagonist of the game, Col. John Conrad, shares his name in homage). I mentioned that in-game Dubai is a jungle; I meant that literally. It’s an enclosed city, totally cut off from the rest of the world, the surviving populace isolated from all hope. And like Heart of Darkness, Walker will be put up against some of the dark, twisted horrors of military combat. The suggested question on the Yager team’s lips: What toll does that take on his psyche?
One such example was a firefight sequence in an outdoor mall far later in the game that I got to play. Entering a shop, one of the game’s tougher enemies (called a “heavy”) came down the stairs at the far end of the room. As I tried peppering him with bullets, every shot caused the lights to flash. Suddenly, the target at the end of my gun was not a heavy, it was a mannequin. This scene starkly opposed the heavy real-world tone of military conflict. Brief hints of Walker’s slowly deteriorating mental state (as well as the small glimpses of horrific violence depicted in the game’s trailers) have me very curious to experience Spec Ops’ story. PTSD-affected soldiers returning from troubling combat zones is a theme that games have yet to tackle with the appropriate gravitas, but I’m really hoping that Spec Ops: The Line can deliver a meaningful narrative that goes beyond just guns and glory.
If any publisher out there would take that risk, Take Two would be it. And given that the game’s narrative underwent heavy reconstruction after its 2009 debut (and Yager consulted a veteran of the U.S. Special Forces for accuracy), I await the launch of the game on June 26th with grim anticipation. The mechanics are solid, the game is very pretty, and its vague hints of dark themes make it a wonderful wild card in the summer game season.