PS3 Review: Spec Ops: The Line



War is hell. The nightmarish experience of combat – the bloodshed and horrible moral decisions which leaves soldiers hardened, psychologically fractured shells of their former selves – has been prime material for decades of military movies and books, but video games have always had an awkward relationship with depicting the horrifying nature of war. By their very nature, games are there to thrill you, to entertain you, which means they naturally tend to overlook all the soul-crushing, harsh realities of being a soldier and instead deliver the adrenaline-fuelled, gung-ho bravado of a Michael Bay movie.

Spec Ops: The Line admirably tries to tow that line, telling the more bleak and sobering tale of men of war struggling to hold onto their humanity as they’re faced with impossible moral quandaries and the inevitable toll that war takes on the human psyche. And while it strikes a sometimes awkward balance between that gritty realism and the overly familiar, over-the-top, high-octane action that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Call of Duty game, The Line does manage to deliver one of the most satisfying, well-crafted narratives you’ll find in any military game in recent memory.
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Drawing heavy inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness, The Line sees the city of Dubai swamped by catastrophic sandstorms, causing untold damage. The 33rd U.S. battalion is sent in to help the remaining civilian population, only to ignore their orders to evacuate, apparently vanishing as the storms worsened and the city is cut off from civilization. Six months later, the military receives a strange radio message from Colonel John Konrad, commander of the missing 33rd, and sends in an elite three-man Spec Ops squad to make contact.

As Captain Walker and his squad drop into the city, they find it a near-apocalyptic wasteland, glimmering skyscrapers half buried under hundreds of feet of desert, its remaining people struggling to survive amidst the ruins. Even more confusingly, the 33rd appear to be alive, but not quite well, as the rogue battalion has seemingly waged war on the locals, leaving Walker to locate the seemingly insane Konrad in hopes of piecing together what’s happening and why.
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The Line is a third-person, cover-based shooter, and the gameplay is pretty much as you’d expect: You duck behind walls and debris, popping out to shoot people, toss grenades and quickly run to the next point of cover, occasionally manning the obligatory machine gun turret. Sadly, there’s nothing at all new about the basic gameplay, which is one of the major downsides evident in The Line. Not that it’s bad – far from it – but the core combat never makes many attempts to steer away from the tried-and-true tropes you find in every other modern third-person shooter.

There are a few brief, clever ideas interspersed amongst the serviceable, generic shooter stuff, though. Post-sandstorm, the city and its buildings are mostly covered in desert and the game employs dynamic sands effects, so when you and your two squadmates are climbing through deserted skyscrapers fighting enemy soldiers, there are chances to shoot out windows and drown them in the sand that pours in. Sandstorms will encroach again, reducing visibility to near zero as you struggle to discern targets in the murky haze of sand to take them down before they kill you. It’s an interesting element, and one that makes great use of the environment, it’s just a shame that the use of sand as a combat tool is restricted mostly to scripted opportunities.

There’s also some simple and well implemented squad mechanics, too. The story-driven campaign is strictly a single player affair, but you’ll have two AI squadmates accompanying you throughout. They’ll attack and take cover as you’d expect, but holding the R2 button allows you to select an enemy target for your team to focus on, killing or distracting prime targets with cover fire while you push forward. You can also tap R2 to have your crew toss out flash grenades to blind the enemy, which is handy, but again, it’s sadly limited to certain situations in battle where you’ll get a button prompt, rather than being able to call on it as you see fit. They’re great little additions, and it’s a shame those elements aren’t put in your hands with the freedom to make better, broader use of them.
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Those ideas aside, the gameplay is solid, but familiar military shooter fare, with wall-to-wall gunfire, duck-and-cover mechanics and an abundance of OTT, action-packed set pieces, where you’ll do things like sail across zip-lines while taking down enemies, fire grenade launchers while hanging from a truck speeding through the city or blast buildings to rubble with a helicopter’s turret. But the gameplay’s adrenaline-fueled jingoism is strangely at odds with the other half of the game’s equation – its dark, subversive and carefully-crafted narrative.

In a medium where you usually tread a linear path where bullet-riddled corpses rack up in their thousands per game and collateral damage isn’t given a second thought, The Line’s stellar story seeks to poke at that issue in relation to war, forcing you to ponder the horrible consequences of every spent shell. It’s a game where the focus is on major moral choices; much like a less-fantastical Heavy Rain, you’ll be faced with life-or-death decisions where there there are no clear-cut right or wrong answers and the human consequences that result can and will be dire.

Most games that showcase branching plot decisions tend to be of the distinct “good” and “bad” choices, so it’s incredibly refreshing that the moral shades of grey take precedence over the more binary, simplistic options. The weight of those horrific decisions slowly and assuredly start to take a toll on main character Walker’s sanity, too, and the game’s delivery and presentation embraces that in some simple, but phenomenal ways.
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The narrative is benefited beautifully by some phenomenal voice acting and dialogue which evolves naturally throughout the course of the game’s story. As the stakes get higher, the fallout more horrifying and the battle unrelenting, your three-man squad shift from the calm and collected soldier lingo and banter of the opening act to become emotionally frazzled men struggling to shoulder the burden of their mission. They begin to crack and turn on each other, their nervous, pally jokes and comments during gameplay becoming sharp, volatile outbursts, the actors’ delivery of incidental dialogue becoming increasingly raw, ragged and emotionally exhausted. Coupled with quality writing which brings an unexpected amount of depth to its characters, it works terrifically, and stands as another great reminder why Uncharted’s Nolan North, who takes on the role of lead soldier Walker, is perhaps the most bafflingly talented voice actor in the game (figuratively and literally).

Other little touches stand out, too. The main menu screen shows you a fixed camera view of Dubai from a sniper’s nest, the American flag waving in the breeze. The camera’s position is always the same, but the scene changes, becoming darker and more filled with death and destruction depending on how far you’ve progressed in the story to reflect the plot’s increasing chaos. Load screens start to get more and more biting, too, and while they start out displaying generic hints-and-tips messages soon become biting jabs to remind you of your character’s choices, with comments like, “If you were a better person, you wouldn’t be here” or simply, “This is all your fault.” It’s an uncharacteristically great and unflinching narrative delivered with some amazingly good touches of presentation, and in a sea of generic “Kill the bad guys” military shooter games, The Line stands out as a shining example of how easily and effectively a game’s story can transcend rote, two-dimensional familiarity.
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Naturally, being a modern military shooter, the standard multiplayer modes are included but, again, while the combat is solid and engaging enough, it’s nothing new or exciting, and the chief draw here is the single player campaign and it’s stellar story. While the online support adds a little value, it’s nothing special if you already sink any time into the bevy of other online shooters out there.

Spec Ops: The Line offers some solid and enjoyable but sadly familiar combat to shoot your way through, ticking off all the familiar set-pieces and gameplay you’d expect to find in a modern third-person shooter. But while it’s an underacheiver when it comes to gameplay, as a narrative experience it goes above and beyond, with phenomenal voice acting, great writing and a surprisingly well presented story that doesn’t shy away from the horrifying nature of war. It’s a sobering counterpoint to the mindless, bullet-spraying machismo of the Call of Duty franchise, featuring the best narrative you’re likely to find find in a modern military shoot-’em-up.

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Spec Ops: The Line is available to buy now for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.
Click here to buy the game from Amazon.co.uk.