Spec Ops The Line: 'Grisly, disturbing horror sets 2K's shooter apart'
22nd Nov 2011 | 13:00
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.
Ammunition isn't plentiful and Walker is incapable of carrying around hundreds of bullets at a time. He's also limited to two weapons and some grenades, and he's not a bulletsponge, even on the easiest setting. Walker is, to put it bluntly, a far cry from the invulnerable breed of he-men who traditionally populate shooters.
In this way, the stakes for every single encounter in the game are raised considerably. Players need to secure cover quickly, preferably on the high ground and choose their shots carefully.
The player can issue commands to both of Walker's compatriots during battle. The pair of them can help turn the tide of a fight pretty quickly, providing covering fire and taking out the odd target. The game's AI tackles each battle dynamically; opponents and allies don't stick to fixed patterns of movement and, in the event of the player's death, they'll find that every battle plays out a bit differently after reload. A lot of the firefight environments are also constructed in such a way that offers a multitude of options in tackling them.
The game's location - a city built in the name of opulence now shattered and buried - also works hard to wrong-foot the player with scenes that are, bizarre, eerie and, at times, gut-churningly horrific. Aside from the aforementioned TV news station, Walker and his squad make their way through a crashed airliner, a deserted gym and the lower levels of a hotel filled wall to wall with hideously disfigured corpses.
It has to be said that the developers have gone to some lengths to hammer home how far off the rails the game's antagonist has gone. Apart from putting a nutcase DJ in charge of spreading his messages and edicts throughout Dubai, Konrad has allowed his men free-reign to indulge their basest instincts.
In one particularly harrowing level, Walker and his group track the signal of a live broadcast in which Konrad is torturing a CIA operative for information. As we made our way through the echoing corridors of several collapsed buildings, our nerve-endings became ever more frayed by the soundtrack, which mixed screams of pain with the sounds of bones breaking.
It's these elements of human horror - the torture, the corpses, the madness etched into the smashed and broken environment - that combine with the tense, precise gameplay, which imbue the player with an overwhelming sense of vulnerability. And this is before Konrad's leering presence enters the picture and he actually starts toying with them.
The scene that ended our preview with the game was chilling to say the least. In it, Walker, Adams and Lugo emerge from a broken building onto a stretch of cracked and broken road. In the distance, two figures are hanging helplessly from a road sign stretched over the tarmac. Konrad's voice hisses out of Walker's earpiece; on the right, he says, is a local man who stole water for his family - a capital offence under Konrad's rule. On the left, is the soldier he tasked with bringing the man to justice and who, instead, killed the man's entire family.
Konrad says one of them will die before the next five minutes are up. It's up to Walker to choose which one gets to live. The moment is positively agonising, not just because of the experiences that have led up to it, but because the decision isn't clear-cut. Kill the civilian, and you're no better than Konrad.
Kill the soldier and he gets what he wants anyway. You could always open fire on the snipers who have their guns trained on Walker and his squad, but then the chances of survival become negligible. What do you do?
It's moments like these that set Spec Ops: The Line apart from the shooter pack entirely. Tons of shooters demand quick reflexes and tactical awareness. But when is the last time a shooter asked you to consider the consequences before you pulled the trigger?
Spec Ops: The Line is garish, grisly and disturbing - usually all at the same time - and on the evidence so far, it looks set to carve out a rather dark niche in an overcrowded field.