Spec Ops: The Line Preview — The Horror, The Horror
Spec Ops: The Line is a fascinating game with a cripplingly bland title. Speaking with lead designer Cory Davis on the floor of PAX East, I was impressed by the extravagantly bearded developer’s vision: a third-person shooter that showed the “darker side of the solider’s journey.” In contrast to the soulless heroics in other popular military titles, Davis and lead writer Walt Williams emphasize psychological realism.
Their game depicts a three-man Delta Force squad that gradually succumbs to the pressures of a rescue mission gone spectacularly awry. Citing Joseph Conrad’s 1903 novella Heart of Darkness as a primary influence, Davis described a narrative centered around the ambiguity, atavism, and mental deterioration that results from prolonged exposure to combat.
Conrad’s Congo River is exchanged for the Shiekh Zayed Road, a massive superhighway that runs through the heart of Dubai. In Spec Ops: The Line, massive sandstorms have all but buried the oil-rich emirate, turning the road into a river of sand. Players take control of Captain Martin Walker (voiced by Nolan North), a veteran commando who is sent by the U.S. Army to investigate the disappearance of Colonel John Konrad (no points for subtlety). Dispatched to Dubai on a humanitarian mission after the sandstorms hit, Konrad refuses to leave when ordered, remaining, he claims, to continue evacuating survivors.
When they first arrive on the scene, Walker and his two squadmates are confident and professional, their conversation full of well-written banalities and vulgarities influenced in part by the HBO miniseries Generation Kill. As they delve further into the city, however, they encounter atrocity and violence, and the three Delta Force operatives gradually succumb to doubt, uncertainty and fear. Horrific experiences chip away at their psyches, and the events of the game become more and more surreal.
Caught in the shifting sands of Dubai’s post-disaster dystopia, it becomes increasingly unclear what Walker and his team are doing, or why. Most games avoid ambiguous situations, but Davis values them for their realism. “We wanted you to question why you’re shooting these people,” the developer explained. This commitment to ambiguity is mirrored by an ambitious player-choice system. Spec Ops: The Line will ask players to make difficult decisions on the fly, often in the heat of a battle, with little information about the far-reaching consequences of their actions.
Unfortunately, this laudable commitment to storytelling and realism is married to gameplay that is absolutely bog standard. Judging from the demo available at PAX, the game is an extremely conventional third-person shooter, full of chest-high walls and endless waves of hapless cannon fodder. It’s hard to put much stock in psychological believability when Walker and his team gun down enemies dozens at a time.
Despite its conventional trappings, the game does offer smooth animations and useful AI squad dynamics — Walker’s allies will direct fire towards a selected target at the push of a button. The level design, all pulverized high-rises and sand-swamped chaos, is frequently impressive, and there was at least one sequence that deployed a physics-powered sand avalanche to engrossing effect.
Still, considering the literary ambition of its designers, it’s a shame that Spec Ops: The Line couldn’t innovate more in other areas. Due out on June 26th, the game will provide an interesting study in contrast — between a ground-breaking, creative story and shooter gameplay that feels all too familiar. Hopefully the former outweighs the latter.
Game Front was on-site at PAX East all weekend (April 6-8), bringing you daily news, hands-on previews, interviews and pictures. Stay tuned for more PC gaming-focused coverage!