Spec Ops: The Line review: A smart, compelling, but confused shooter
26th Jun 2012 | 12:00
Remember the bit in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness when Marlow picked off 500 people from behind cover? Er, us neither. But, despite its almost ceaseless violence, this German-made third-person shooter is less 'inspired' by Conrad's novel as full-on remaking it. (Or, at least remaking it via Apocalypse Now.)
The similarities between the two stories, barring Spec Ops' change of location and time (oh, and its continuous stream of punches to the jaw, gut and beltline - with a couple of ass-boots thrown in for good measure), are many. Here, after a series of catastrophic sandstorms half bury Dubai, unhinged Colonel John Konrad (along with his Damned 33rd) stays to help. After weeks of no contact and a bunch of horror stories, some fear Konrad's crossed the line. Your three-man Delta Force is sent to track him down and find out the truth.
In fairness, it's well-constructed, if brutal, retelling, unbalanced by Captain Martin Walker's (Nolan North) prominence at head-shotting people. Bloodying up platoons with skull-halving sniper rounds, or erupting innards with shotguns grows tiresome by the end of a seven-hour campaign, even if there's undeniable pleasure in hearing Nathan Drake shout "Fucking take him out!"
For developers Yager it's an evocative, well-realised backdrop against which they explore moral quandaries - What is justice? Should one die to save another? - even if disrupting the narrative to blow up a dozen soldiers isn't much of answer. But, arguably, action and not story is what you're here for, and it's here that Spec Ops benefits from collective design knowledge built up through six years of current-gen shooters. Simply, Yager knows what works.
Controls are spot-on. Sprinting, for instance, doesn't require you to hold A. This not only allows control of Walker, but the camera too. Cover is similarly functional: you lock to squarish things with A, vault them with B, and swap between bits with satisfying snaps. It's not as good as Future Soldier's 'look-to-lock' system, which is a high-water mark, and it suffers the age-old problem of needing a perfect right angle approach, but it enables the nimble and responsive shooting which forms the bulk of the game.
Aware of combat's prevalence, Yager varies scenarios nicely. Dubai is just a brilliant setting for a shooter, with Banksy-like political graffiti scrawled on billion-dollar buildings, black-eyed bodies hanging on multi-lane motorways like Christmas decorations, and a real sense of scale, from deep chasms to neck-cranking views from the world's tallest building.
It doesn't stop there: there are night aquarium raids with silenced snipers, shootouts in wider dustbowls under a burning sun, and even psychedelic sections as Walker starts to lose his mind. It begins with insubordination (teammates occasionally respond to your RB-issued squad commands, which you use to designate targets, with "Do it yourself"), and ends with a full-on reality-questioning mind-melt. And never underestimate the power of a score. The Good Morning, Vietnam-esque Radioman pipes digetic music through speakers wired throughout the city, and layering progressive rock over gritty gun fights is a masterstroke.
Despite variations in scenery and missions, the shooting itself would threaten to become stale but for the fierce impact of a fresh set-piece. A middle section sees you riding shotgun on a water tanker, firing inexhaustible grenades at inexhaustible waves of humvees. Nothing new, granted, but a blast nonetheless. Once you've had your fun the story rears its head: finding your feet you pass the leaking lorry, watching as citizens desperately try to fill bottles. "Get out of here, American!" they shout. You are an awful person.
Another highlight - though perhaps that's the wrong word - gives you white phosphorous with which to rain down hot hell on civilians. In most shooters this would have been a gung-ho backslap - but not here. When the flames die down you're made to walk through the devastation - all the terrible carnage you've caused - and bear witness to one particularly horrifying scene. In fact, Spec Ops is one long guilt trip - there are several big moral choices (albeit binary) and Yager even find time to introduce their own 'No Russian' moment.
The yellow sands present an emotional grey area and your actions have consequences. Throughout, the monstrous Burj Khalifa skyscraper is an ever-present feature on the horizon, practicably inescapable. It's implied from early on that that's where Konrad is, and the game slowly but surely draws you there, leading to a revelatory twist at the game's climax. It's the very definition of a sucker punch, comparable to Bioshock's 'Would you kindly?' in impact, if not necessarily in message. The game's live-or-die choices, however, are somewhat tarnished by the sheer amount of people you kill elsewhere. Simply, the game can't decide whether death is meaningless or meaningful.
You'll kill several thousand more people in the 'me too' multiplayer, and there's no narrative to get in the way. Rather, what does is the nagging feeling this is yet another publisher buckling under economic strain and desperate for an extra back-of-the-box bullet point, threading in multiplayer where there's absolutely no need. It's solid enough, mixing tight Gears of War-like cover-shooting, roadie-running and executions with Uncharted's more lithe cover-leaping and zip-lining (and chucking in Call of Duty's non-stop stream of player-congratulating gratification for good measure) but it feels strangely uncomfortable next to the single-player.
It's The Damned vs. The Exiles, class-based warfare veering between intimate all-against-all encounters and four-on-four team battles. Characters are ranked up, customised and rewarded. Some rewards are visual, like a skull mask or fetching head tat, and some have more important applications. One, for instance, disables the kill cam. Others make your bullets slow enemies, or allow you to sprint through sandstorms, or even vanish from the map.
Spot cascading steams of sand spilling from ceilings and window cracks and you can utilize Yager's half-baked environmental destruction. Shoot windows to send a billion grains avalanching onto opponents, or if you're too close, yourself. It's fun the first time but, honestly, the destruction's artificial and the sand looks terrible. Talked-up pre-release, all it really amounts to is a canned moment and a cloud of beige. Ultimately, the multiplayer works, just not outstandingly, and a military cover-shooter with an identity problem is hardly going to make Battlefield 3 and MW3 squirm. Plus, if it diverts funds away from singleplayer, it's a bad investment.
But while Spec Ops is tonally confused across the board, it's not brainless - snatches of well-paced story and snippets of existential battle-chatter show hearts and minds at work. The higher aspirations don't always pay off, but underneath is an always-entertaining shooter.