Spec Ops: The Line Hands On
Developer: Yager Development, Darkside Game Studios / Publisher: 2K Games / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language] / Release Date: June 26, 2012
As much as I try to keep an open mind, I couldn’t play a preview build of Spec Ops: The Line without making a few assumptions. With a name like Spec Ops and a grizzled military-man protagonist clutching a rifle, I figured the game would be another me-too military shooter with an inverted relationship between its body count and plot depth.
This is one of those times where I couldn’t be more happy to be completely wrong.
The first hint that this game has something more to offer is its unique setting. The game takes place in Dubai after years of intense sandstorms. In this vision of Dubai, skyscrapers are half-buried in sand and its incredible, gilded structures have been completely abandoned. This is quite a playground for some mentally off-kilter soldiers armed and very dangerous, but I’ll get back to that later.
Spec Ops’ environment creates a series of insane, surreal moments. The first such moment in our playtest came during an intense ambush. I was hunkered down behind a chunk of concrete jutting out from the sand. A soldier takes aim with an RPG and hits my cover, shattering it completely and causing time to slow as the sound washes out. I run to the next cover I see—a blue ridge of metal protruding up from the sand a few feet away. The fight continues as an intense sandstorm moves in, making it hard to see enemies a few feet away and causing my reticle to stay permanently bloomed out. As the swirling storm makes it hard to hear or see anything, the ground beneath me opens up. I hang on to the railing for a few seconds before dropping into the massive sinkhole.
As it turns out, I was fighting on the glass roof of a building, and the blue railing was just a metal accent on one of the railings crossing the roof. The firefight continues below, as enemies run up on seemingly sturdy panes of glass to fire down below—and yep, you can totally shoot out the glass and drop the eager enemies to their deaths.
In my play time, that was just the first of many events where the game’s environment becomes a force of its own. Environment confusion is common and reinforces a surreal vibe running through the game. In another instance, I swore I was several stories underground thanks to the lack of light and my rapid descent down several elevator shafts. Then, I kick open a door to an explosion of light, only to realize that I’m on the twentieth floor in the expansive atrium of a posh hotel.
That confusion of space starts to morph into a running theme—that war is warped, and spending too long in it will change you. Given that, it’s not a huge surprise that the developers admit that their influences are Heart of Darkness, backed by the movie Apocalypse Now. Even though I only played the first handful of levels, I can already feel that creeping, Silent Hill-esque sensation. The Dubai in Spec Ops is a twisted place, where combat will take your inner demons and manifest them in front of you.
Don’t let the Apocalypse Now reference let you think this game is embracing 60s or Vietnam-era sensibilities. Conveniently placed radios blare 90s era grunge rock, while cinematic and subtle bursts of slow-mo trigger every time you pop an enemy’s head. The whole presentation feels very Desert Storm and reminded me of movies like Jarhead and Black Hawk Down.
Poetically, the game I assumed to be nothing but commonplace may finally deliver the elements I’ve been waiting for in a modern military shooter: interesting characters, challenging themes, and otherworldly environments. It reminds me of how I felt when I first saw Desert Storm footage on TV—American soldiers in this near-alien environment, fighting an unknown and almost indescribable enemy. That puts it on the short list of modern military shooters that have made me feel anything at all, which has me completely hooked. If you’re looking for a little more ambition to go along with your shooting, keep a close eye on Spec Ops which releases June 26 for PC, 360, and PS3.