July 2, 2012 by Paul Curtin
After just getting through Inversion last week, which was a decent Gears of War copycat that will be almost completely forgotten by everyone who played it in a couple years, I wasn’t dying to play another third-person shooter this month. Spec Ops: The Line aims at Gears of War-style gameplay in a modern war environment like Call of Duty but never crosses over into knockoff territory and instead creates its own memorable path through its use of mature subject matter in a very violent and crazy story that will shock you in the end with a great twist.
Spec Ops: The Line is the ninth game in a series that hasn’t seen the light of day for a decade and is now making its comeback during the height of the modern war shooter genre in gaming. Before hearing about The Line, I wasn’t even aware Spec Ops was a running series or that the last game was in development by Rockstar Games for the PS2 and cancelled back in 2004. 2K’s latest take on the third-person shooter series plays like Gears of War, looks like Call of Duty, and sounds like Uncharted (the main character is voiced by none other than Nolan North). So is it as good or better than the sum of its parts?
In our first preview of the game last month at E3, we said that although the gameplay doesn’t come close to matching that holy trinity of elite blockbusters mentioned above, Spec Ops: The Line could very well provide gamers with a quick trigger-finger fix this summer. Many checking out the demo currently available on PSN and XBL might feel the same way, and that’s because Spec Ops’ strongest feature is its story. Without being invested in the story and the characters, the gameplay is a little too generic, but with the story backing the gameplay, Spec Ops holds its own against other big-budget shooters and was far more enjoyable of an experience than we expected from our hands-on demo last month.
Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, elements of which are obviously evident (the guy you’re looking for is named John Konrad) and set in a post-catastrophe Dubai, the game follows Captain Martin Walker (voiced by Nolan North) and his elite Delta Force squad of two other U.S. soldiers. Walker and his squad are dropped into what seems like a simple mission to evacuate any survivors that quickly turns into hell on Earth as the band of brothers are forced to fight other groups of renegade U.S. soldiers, resulting in the deaths of many innocent civilians — the same civilians that Walker was sent there to save and whose deaths will haunt him and his team for the rest of their lives.
Like the Uncharted series, Nolan North brings his A-game, and the voice acting is top-notch from the entire cast. Thankfully, the game is much better than the last time North wasted his Drake voice in a third-person shooter (Dark Void), but it’s still weird hearing the same voice come out of a character that looks so similar to Drake. Playing through Spec Ops’ campaign feels like playing an Uncharted spin-off where gamers get to play as Nathan Drake’s foul-mouthed crazy older brother, which is good if you’ve ever wanted to hear Drake drop hundreds of F-bombs and go crazy.
While the voice acting from the main characters is superb, the game’s design isn’t perfect, and you’ll hear characters, especially Walker, repeat the same lines over and over again throughout the campaign when racking up kills or being pinned down in cover. Even the enemies will often repeat the same lines, using the same voice actor, with their character models only being a couple feet away from one another. Like the repetitive dialog during gameplay, the lipsyncing could have also used more time in development to perfect. The way characters’ mouths move when they talk feels very dated at times, but the wonderful voice acting manages to make up for it.
The Line‘s singleplayer gameplay is simple and straightforward with very linear levels. Engage bad guys, take cover, kill bad guys, rinse, repeat. Scoring headshots results in a nice slow-motion animation, and there are some levels where the game challenges players to start off using a stealthier approach and a shot-calling system similar to the squad-based shooter Ghost Recon series, but everything is far more stripped down and simplified. In Spec Ops’ case, being simple isn’t a bad thing, especially when you don’t want to waste time customizing loadouts and just want to kick ass and progress through the thrilling story.
But said amount of ass kicking strongly depends on what difficulty you play on. Even the easiest mode can be a bit challenging, and with the ability to revive teammates but not be revived himself, Walker will die countless times when on harder modes and fighting out in the open. For the most part, the controls work flawlessly and any previous experience with games like Gears of War will have you jumping right into the action and instantly over any learning curve; however, like Gears, cover is essential and not using it will get you killed pretty quickly. Unfortunately, the cover system is hit or miss with it sometimes working perfectly but at times causing Walker to randomly stand up out of cover or just simply not take cover; it’s the only thing about Spec Ops that is truly frustrating and should have be refined a little more.
Although the gameplay is pretty generic, the developers at Yager have managed to incorporate one truly unique feature in the form of randomly generated sandstorms that can swing a shootout either way if used strategically. While levels with changing environments is nothing new in games, the use of sand to blind players and enemies and cave down ceilings and walls onto enemies and even transform the battlefield works amazingly well. Naughty Dog received a lot of praise for their use of snow in Uncharted 2, but they didn’t really blow anyone away with the sandstorm effects in Uncharted 3 like how Yager’s has been able to do in Spec Ops, which is also seamlessly brought over into the multiplayer.
Like the singleplayer, Spec Ops’ multiplayer gameplay is pretty generic. There’s deathmatch, team deathmatch, an assault-based mode where teams try to destroy each other’s bases first, and a mode that mashes all the modes up into one. Even with the sand physics and effects being brought over into multiplayer to make it a unique experience, without the game’s best feature, the story, Spec Ops’ multiplayer is just too generic.
In multiplayer there is a leveling system with perks and a loadout system with plenty of guns which can keep players interested with more stable guns being unlocked as a player levels up, but trying to justify heavily investing time in Spec Ops’ multiplayer this summer over so many other better third-person shooters is hard despite how fun it can be at times.
Spec Ops: The Line is this summer’s surprise hit that managed to win over our hearts with its very dark story. It’s refreshing to see a game take on such serious subject matter, and Spec Ops manages to do so without a single moment being cheesy. If you’ve played gruesome games like Gears of War or Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian level, then the amount of violence won’t be anything “shocking” like other reviewers have claimed, but some of the decisions that can be made throughout the campaign are enough to have you questioning if what you should do is right or wrong, right up to the end where the real shock comes and after the credits stop rolling with one of the best uses of a post-credits scene ever. Like the credits, Spec Ops: The Line should not be skipped. Spec Ops: The Line gets 4 out of 5 stars (Great).
- Dark and serious storytelling that you won’t find in many other games
- Superb voice acting from the entire cast and especially Nolan North
- Solid gameplay and shooter mechanics
- Innovative use of sand physics
- Multiplayer is enjoyable with tons of customization
- One of the best post-credits scenes ever
- Cover system can be hit or miss, resulting in frustrating deaths
- Multiplayer isn’t good enough to justify playing over other AAA games
- Lipsyncing feels dated and could have used more work
- Characters and enemies often repeat the same lines during gameplay