Recently, rookie developer Yager Development released the Spec Ops: The Line demo for Xbox 360 and PS3, and although the game might not have the hype surrounding other big budget titles, it appears to be approaching the third-person cover shooter genre with a unique narrative fold. Set in a mysteriously crumbling and sandstorm-stricken Dubai, Spec Ops: The Line looks to add a few layers of meaningful depth and intrigue to the typical shooter formula, but does it succeed? Hit the jump to find out!
From the demo alone, it is clear that although Yager might be a rookie studio, this isn’t its first rodeo. Spec Ops: The Line features an excellently paced balance of deliberately slow and expositional moments with intense cinematic firefights. While the gunplay isn’t remarkable and the cover system could use a little work, the unique setting certainly sets it apart from its peers, even if its art style doesn’t. The typical Unreal Engine 3 gloss and shine is all here, and while the game really excels in some areas, muddy textures and pop-in are a recurring issue that damages the overall look of the game. Sand and wind are a common visual theme that permeate the entirety of the world, and blinding sunlight lends a sort of blistering heat to the visuals. Although animations can be a bit stiff or silly-looking at times, the Unreal Engine 3-powered title certainly looks good enough to keep you interested.
From a narrative perspective, Spec Ops: The Line has an interesting story to tell. Set in the once-prosperous-but-now-destroyed-by-insane-sandstorms city of Dubai, the game explores the intricacies of a failed evacuation and an unearthed government conspiracy through the eyes of Captain Martin Walker. Accompanied by two Delta Force compadres and voiced by the ubiquitous Nolan North, Walker is a somewhat one-dimensional character with a battle-hardened heart of gold. After being sent in to Dubai to rescue survivors, Walker and his small Delta Force team encounter U.S. government soldiers and refugees, both of which are none too pleased to have the small band of buddies on their turf. After battling their way through hordes of baddies, Walker and Co. discover that not all is as it seems in the war torn and sand-ridden city of Dubai, creating a few much-needed layers of narrative depth.
It’s not that the story is straightforward or tired, it’s simply that Spec Ops: The Line tends to play it a bit too safe with its remarkable and intriguing setting. The premise of an enormous and beautiful city destroyed by vast amounts of sand is an interesting and promising one, yet the levels ultimately boil down to small, enclosed spaces with no real illusion of scale established. What should feel like a focused barren wasteland (I know, odd choice of words, but bear with me) instead feels like a sandy sequence of “kill rooms” in well-scripted order. It works, but it’s missing something to make it stand out from the other shooters that pull off the sandbox (haha) shooter sequences with more finesse and focus. Spec Ops: The Line makes sure to offer multiple different ways to approach any given situation, but it stands to reason that these options feel linear in and of themselves. In games like Gears of War 3, you have to earn the ability to flank the opposition, battling your way through a small squad to get the drop on a more entrenched one. In Spec Ops: The Line, flanking is as easy as identifying the higher ground, and moseying on over there to score some free kills while your bullet sponge buddies act as glorified decoys.
“Clearing a crowded building filled with people who all want to shoot you shouldn’t be as simple as going to the top floor and wiping them all out.”
It’s an unfortunate, but sad reality of many cover shooters that betrays good level design. The layouts are all right and correct, but the enemy placement makes it simply much too easy to get the drop on them. Clearing a crowded building filled with people who all want to shoot you isn’t as simple as going to the top floor and wiping them all out, but in Spec Ops: The Line, it’s a perfectly legitimate (and almost encouraged) strategy that is far too effective to not repeat in every situation. It’s for this very reason that the game fails to capitalize on its setting, and without innovative approaches and situations, combat gets stagnant relatively fast. In the first 10 minutes of the demo, a glimmer of hope is offered for this very kind of innovation that isn’t demonstrated elsewhere in the trial. A bus, filled with sand, hovers over a group of enemy refugees all training their weapons’ sights on you and your squad, and rather than spray and pray your way to safety, a few bullets into the windows of the bus sends a wave of sand barreling over the enemies, allowing you to sprint over and clean ’em up with some good ol’ fashioned boots to the face. Nothing like this pops up anywhere in the demo for the remainder of the experience, which is a serious missed opportunity. Imagine being able to create cover and vantage points with piles of sand by shooting out ceiling windows or moving toppled objects to open up new approaches in various situations. The entire game would open up to an all-new methodology of combat sequences, and some of the monotony might be a little less frequent.
It is worth noting that the game does attempt to assuage some of this repetition by introducing new enemy types, which, to be fair, isn’t exactly a common occurrence in military shooters of this nature. It’s hard to implement different types of A.I. when the only enemies in your game are humanoid, but it is certainly admirable when Spec Ops: The Line throws a few curveballs your way.
All in all, Spec Ops: The Line is a fairly straightforward and familiar third-person cover shooter with an interesting setting that fails to meet its utmost potential. It’s a fun and fully functional romp through environments you’ve likely never seen before, but after each firefight you’re still left feeling like something is missing from the formula. Is it absolutely critical that this is omitted? No, but for me, the feeling of missed opportunity tended to be one that dampened my enjoyment of the game.
Time will tell whether the multiplayer component stands out from the overpopulated shooter crowd, but if the demo is any indication of the full retail title’s singleplayer component, I’d say that the game is worth a shot if you’re looking for a new itch to scratch for a bit.
Estimated average review score: 7.5/10