Spec Ops: The Line Review
Yager Development has one thing not common in the video game industry: ambition. When the German studio took over the Spec Ops series, which had been dormant for almost a decade, it planned a radical re-imagining of the modern military shooter. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s 1903 novella Heart of Darkness, the writing team worked to portray the psychological torment of combat, sending players on a harrowing journey up Dubai’s Shiekh Zayed Highway, in place of Conrad’s Congo river.
The representatives on hand at PAX East spoke convincingly about careful research and mature storytelling. It wasn’t until E3 that the cracks begin to show. Despite Yager’s vaulting ambition and innovative ideas, Spec Ops: The Line collapses back into convention and mediocrity, leaving players wondering what might have been.
Spec Ops: The Line
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Playstation 3, XBOX 360
Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games
Released: June 26th, 2012
The game’s problems begin with the story. Some time before the events of Spec Ops, massive dust storms hit the United Arab Emirates, isolating Dubai (a decadent metropolis of some 3 million inhabitants) behind a “storm wall” that conveniently cuts off any kind of surveillance or communication. Despite Dubai’s prominent role in geopolitics, the world’s only response is a volunteer effort by a single U.S. Army battalion, commanded by the subtly named Colonel John Konrad.
The situation in the city quickly deteriorates, and communication with Konrad is severed. Instead of coordinating a massive rescue effort to save a crucial hub of international commerce and transport, the world’s only response is to send a single three-man team of Delta Force operators to find out what happened.
Joseph Conrad based Heart of Darkness on his real experiences as a riverboat captain. 76 years later, director Francis Ford Coppola adapted the novella, setting his film Apocalypse Now amid the all-too-real horrors of the Vietnam War. Both settings give crucial heft to powerful messages about combat, colonialism, and man’s atavistic inhumanity to man. Spec Ops’ ridiculous story confers no such legitimacy — it’s classic video game claptrap, which breaks down at the first application of logic.
Players wade into Dubai’s swirling sands as Captain Martin Walker, portrayed by fan-favorite voice actor Nolan North, a crucial asset. Walker is accompanied by fellow Delta members John Lugo and Alphonso Adams; the trio are afforded one instance of expertly written Generation Kill-style banter before the squad is attacked and character development is subsumed to the demands of action.
This disappointing state of affairs is typical of Spec Ops. The game’s best moments are often brilliantly conceived, but they’re few and far between. The PR campaign wisely highlighted these standout ideas while glossing over the connective mediocrity that ensues as the trio venture into the city, beset from all sides and on the trail of the enigmatic Colonel Konrad.
For all the big talk about transforming military titles, the bulk of the gameplay is an utterly conventional third-person shooter. Players will use a familiar if slightly sub-standard cover system to move between chest-high walls, dispatching enemies one by one when they dare to poke their heads out. The design of these encounters is formulaic, with little variety in either challenge or pace. The game’s idea of novelty is a turret massacre, a rail-shooter sequence, or a seven-foot behemoth in magical body armor that enables him to survive multiple shotgun blasts to the face — lazy game design that detracts both from the fun and the purported realism. The difficulty spikes abruptly, almost apologetically, at the end.