Now that shooters set in modern times are firmly in vogue, each new game featuring modern military needs to quickly establish its identity in order to stand out.
COD's Modern Warfare games have their close-quarter fragfests that mix authentic weapons with arcade superpowers. Battlefield prizes its vast open spaces and painstaking realism. Ghost Recon asks the player to be equal parts foot soldier and armchair general.
The hook for Spec Ops: The Line, the latest modern-themed military shooter to enter this fray, is horror. By that we don't mean the horror featuring the supernatural or nightmarish monsters. No, the horror in this instance is wholly the type one man is capable of visiting on another man, and, indeed, everyone and everything else in his immediate environment.
In Spec Ops: The Line, the player takes control of a flint-like soldier called Martin Walker, who is voiced by Nolan North doing his best 'grizzled veteran' impression. Walker and his two teammates - a straight-talking heavy gunner called Adams and a wisecracking sniper called Lugo - have been dispatched to Dubai to track down an old comrade of Walker's from his days in Kabul, Colonel John Konrad.
Dubai has just been hit by a massive sandstorm that has laid waste to much of the city. After the Dubai authorities requested aid from the States, Konrad was dispatched with his battalion of soldiers to secure the city, round up survivors and establish some sort of order. The reason Walker, Adams and Lugo have been called upon is because the top brass hasn't heard anything from Konrad since the Colonel touched down in Dubai.
The driving force in Spec Ops: The Line is its narrative and this is as rare as it is welcome in a genre that, more and more these days, seems content to treat single-player campaigns as disposable wrappers for meaty online modes. By contrast, Spec Ops: The Line begins immersing the player in a genuinely disturbing story from the moment Walker and his comrades step out into the sun-bleached dunes covering much of Dubai.
The group are set upon by local militia, who Walker immediately assumes are part of some insurgent group from one of Dubai's more radical neighbours. As the trio make their way into the drowned city, however, telltale signs start popping up that the sandstorm that wrecked everything may be the least of Dubai's worries.
Further investigation reveals that the insurgents are, in fact, locals who seem rather pre-disposed to fire at anyone wearing an American uniform. The walls of a gutted television station are filled with graffiti decrying the place as a haven for "liars and whores".
Walker and his men come across a series of speakers that have been jerry-rigged throughout the city. A sly, sinister rasping voice announces that the truce between "the 33rd and the locals" is now over and quickly the next gun battle erupts.
The game's story owes a debt of inspiration - if not direct influence - to Apocalypse Now and, obviously, that film's source material, Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness. It's not long before Walker, Adams and Lugo discover that Konrad has done a Colonel Kurtz in Dubai, and his battalion have gone feral, butchering the locals and stringing up any soldiers sent in to find him.
The experience of playing Spec Ops: The Line is by turns unsettling and intense and everything about the gameplay is geared towards keeping the player constantly on the back foot. The game's third-person cover-based shooter mechanics are the only standard thing about it, although there's a premium on headshots.