War is Hell. Or at least, it is for those who are thrust into in real life. In the video game world, however, first-person shooters rarely touch on the psychological aspects of how combat can affect a person and instead feel more akin to a game of tag, albeit one that replaces a hand slap with a bullet.
Yager Development is attempting to fill-in this gap with its third person shooter, Spec-Ops: The Line.
We last saw Spec Ops back in E3 2010 where we got a preview of what would separate its gameplay experience from the fun run-and-gun, explosion-filled, and addictive multiplayer of the Call of Duty series. Back then, we were told that Spec Ops would offer a strong narrative that could explore the horrors of military conflict and the occasional difficult choices that heroic men and women must sometimes make for the greater good. The concept sounded intriguing, but was bound to cause controversy if not executed properly. We were concerned that 2K Games, the game’s publisher, may have gotten cold feet on the project when news about the game became sparse.
As a result, we were pleased to see a playable version of the single-player experience offered at PAX East 2012. The demo was easily the longest offered on-site over the three days, and what we saw has us excited for the potential of the full release. In order to convey how the narrative would play over the course of the experience, two portions of the game were playable.
The first section launched into the action right out of the gate. While the intro credits roll, the protagonist of the title, Captain Martin Walker (voiced by, of course, Nolan North), is manning a mounted machine gun in the side hatch of a helicopter, which engages in a hectic firefight with several other helos – over the sovereign state of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Flying through a skyscraper jungle, my helo weaved back and forth while I aimed the machine gun at the enemy. I was a little concerned about the shooting mechanics at this point, because the machine gun was sluggish and difficult to aim once in use. Of course, in real life, such a weapon would not be easy to aim while fully engaged – and the other guns in the game ultimately offered a satisfying mix of kickback and control.
After one of the enemy helicopters met a sudden end crashing into a construction beam, a sandstorm started and grounded Cpt. Walker’s chopper as well. Once on the ground, we learned the reason why Walker and his two squad members were in Dubai: to rescue Colonel John Konrad (voiced by Bruce Boxleitner) and the 33rd Infantry – which had gone missing during a rescue mission of its own. What is immediately clear upon the squad’s arrival is that they have fallen smack in the middle of a small war between Col. Konrad and a group of local rebels led by a CIA agent. Worse, Cpt. Walker and his men are unwelcome by both sides for unknown reasons.
Adding to the freakishness of the events is an impressive soundtrack featuring a guitar-driven rock track that amps up the tension during particularly harrowing sequences. Additionally, speakers set up around the warzone will often play licensed rock music during tense combat situations as a former newspaper reporter, now known as Radioman (voiced by Jake Busey), plays these Vietnam-inspired tracks to taunt Cpt. Walker and his squad.
The combat of Spec Ops: The Line is not bringing anything especially new to the genre. It relies heavily on a cover system and presents gameplay reminiscent of the Gears of War franchise. As is the case with that series, shooting while out in the open is a quick ticket to death. The controls are intuitive and responsive during combat. Interestingly, Cpt. Walker can seemingly run nonstop after holding the “A” button down for a few seconds – which could be upsetting to players hoping for a more “realistic” shooter. It’s a minor gripe, and did not bother me, but I heard others mentioning it.
While engaged with the enemy, Cpt. Walker can issue orders to his two squadmates to take out a specific target. Such orders can also be issued when the squad has the element of surprise. Weapon choice is extremely important as guns appeared to shoot in a similar way to their real-life counterparts. For example, AK47s were difficult to fire unless very small short bursts were used, bringing a whole new meaning to, “spray and pray.”
The choice of Dubai is an interesting one as it is one of the richest locations on the globe and its real-world landscape is littered with projects by people with too much money. Yager is looking to capitalize on this environment by juxtaposing apocalyptic scenery against the luxuries of a gilded age. The never-ending sand in and surrounding the city also appears to be an active participant in the story.
While we didn’t have to make any of the vague morality choices mentioned by Yager Development in the past, Lead Designer, Cory Davis stated that the decisions the player makes during the game will affect the overall ending, which is another departure from most other shooters. According to Davis, the endings will fully resolve the game’s narrative, unlike, arguably, a recent high-profile RPG title. Fans of Apocalypse Now will want to keep an eye on this military shooter.
Spec Ops: The Line releases for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC on June 26, 2012.