Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Spec Ops: The Line

Year: 2012
Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Metacritic score: 76 (cross-platform avg)
VGChartz sales to date: 740,000

The mind of man is capable of anything--because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.  Those words come from Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, a tale uncovering man's descent into madness driven on by the horrible realities of of dealing in death.  In the novella that was the subjugation of the African people in pursuit of the ivory trade, but the themes have since adopted many forms such as the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now and here they take on the guise of insurgency in Spec Ops: The Line.  Fans of the series, which has been dormant since it's PC (and inferior console ports) releases a decade ago, may remember the name and the squad-based 3rd-person shooter gameplay, but little other connection exists between those games and this first major project by Yager Development.   

This game takes place in a version of Dubai that has been ravaged by recent sandstorms.  Lt. Col. Konrad and his 33rd Battalion were en route back from Afghanistan when the onset of these storms stranded them in Dubai.  As sandstorms intensify nearly all forms of communication are knocked out and rioting sweeps the desert nation causing the wealthy ruling class of sheikhs quietly flee, leaving the once shining metropolis of skyscrapers in utter chaos.  The 33rd tries to enforce martial law before attempting to lead an evacuation of over a thousand civilians out of the city.  But the caravan of refugees never arrives and further communication is lost leading the U.S. Army to disavow the 33rd and accuse them of treason.  Then a looped broadcast from LTC Konrad is picked up declaring the evac a failure and casualties too many to count.  That's when three Delta operators are sent in, led by Capt. Walker (voiced by the inimitable Nolan North).

Between the sandstorms and the collapse of organized society the architecture of  Dubai has seen better days.
As you progress your team uncovers the extent to which the situation on the ground has deteriorated.  You are quickly confronted by a group of insurgents engaging remnants of the 33rd. It would seem that after the evac failed, the 33rd returned to claim control of Dubai by force.  Not all of Konrad's soldiers agreed with his methods and many split off to become Exiles.  With so many different combatants involved there's a nice variety of weapons to try out but don't expect to get very far with a Rambo approach.  You'll need to stick close to cover to make your way safely through the cross-fire and find Konrad, especially on the harder difficulties where any mistake can result in a quick death.  Because your primary objective is to gather intel and find Konrad you aren't interested in taking on the whole city in a firefight, but there are still some impressive set pieces in a dynamic landscape.  The ever-present sands can shift from blinding obstacle to lethal hazard and have taken a visible toll on the city and it's inhabitants.  You have some light tactical controls over your squad mates, but ultimately the decision making is handled by the player.  As the pressure of those decisions mount your team is strained and your grip on things broken.  

There's lots of hard choices to be made, many of them don't have an answer we'd think of as "right"
It's that narrative aspect that makes Spec Ops so enticing.  While the goal of many shooters is to gun through waves of enemies, the goal of Spec Ops is to make you think about how an individual reacts to committing those actions.  The gameplay still borrows heavily from the genre's established formula, but toys with our expectations.  It uses the same Middle East setting found in many games, but places it in the modernized and extravagant city of Dubai.  Rather then being driven by religious extremism, the conflict is driven by the chaos of an extended natural disaster.  The story is centered around the increasingly instability of Capt. Walker as his team goes further into the dark center of the storm.  This is reflected in both the game's story and the setting as your actions become more aggressive, your orders more forceful and the city deteriorates around you.  Even the soundtrack becomes more jarring and intensive.  As the game approaches the end, you are given more control in the outcome of certain decisions even as Walker loses control of himself.  It's unclear which choice, if any, is the right one and often comes down to which you feel is more necessary.  But it's the decision you make upon finally reaching Konrad the carries the most weight, both in terms of which ending you see as well as how you ultimately view your earlier actions.

The white phosphorous scene might just be the most gut wrenching gaming moment of 2012.

The competition in the shooter genre is fierce and difficult grounds for a new publisher.  Gameplay mechanics are an integral part of making an enjoyable cover-based shooter and can also be difficult to master on your first attempt, even when using the excellent Unreal Engine 3.  If a studio nails that, as fellow German developer Crytek did with FarCry and then Crysis, you can achieve commercial success even without a particularly unique or compelling narrative.  Publishers also place a lot of pressure on including multiplayer suites because of the potential for DLC and regular new installments.  Both these aspects compete for resources, and Yager's commitment to developing a story was not an area they wanted to compromise on.  

Much like publishers, sandstorms are a powerful and dangerous force that must be endured.
Reviewers universally praised the narrative and the complementing soundtrack of licensed rock songs.  Their was also a clear recognition in the game's lifting of the genre through the inclusion of a more contemplative storyline that asks gamers to analyze what they're feeling as they play though the game.  That's something few shooters attempt, and even less manage it convincingly.  What's more, the story accomplishes guard it's twists carefully and pull them off in a way that makes you rethink what you've already played just as much as it effects how the story ends.  It's a technique common in film and literature, but one less often applied in video games where how you interact with the story is often more important than what that story is trying to say.

For Spec Ops that interaction is perfectly middle of the road in most regards, unable to impress in the same way the narrative did.  The cover mechanic worked well enough but lacked the smooth flow of the stalwart Gears of War series.  Friendly and enemy AI was intelligent if not especially aggressive.  The particle effects, so critical due to the nature of the sandstorm threat, are sufficient but don't fully stress the UE3 engine.  The multiplayer especially felt tacked on, and not surprisingly it was handled by an outside studio.  Lead designer Cory Davis (no longer with Yager) went so far as to openly blast it's inclusion in an interview with Polygon, calling it a "cancerous growth" and waste of resources that hurt the overall game. He specifically cites the game mechanics as one area that had to be changed to accommodate "literally a check box that the financial predictions said we needed".  

The multiplayer passes for fun but fails to utilize the unique setting or hook of the single player mode.

Since the usual heading for this section doesn't exactly apply, let's instead ask whether we think this game could live to become a successful series.  When the first game came out in 1998 for PC it was well received and achieved moderate success, spawning an expansion pack and then a proper sequel.  A few console ports and spin-offs came to the PSX in 2001 and 2002, but the series fell dormant after that.  Rockstar Vancouver was on board for a PS2 release but was later halted.  Will Spec Ops again fade back into hibernation?

Sand devours all things given time and wind.  After just 6 months the desert has begun to reclaim the sprawling bustling of Dubai
It's too early to tell what's in store, but 2K Games while Yager has shot down rumors that their in-works next title is a sequel.  It's unclear how you could apply the same themes explored in the game to a new setting while remaining as fresh as the original.  But perhaps a future entry in the series could continue to apply the same reflective and literary tone towards a new conflict.  A heavier reliance player choice and their consequences could be expanded with more decision making points and branching storylines to achieve the replay value (and opportunities for DLC) that make both publishers and developers happy.  Combined with greater opportunities for squad based tactics and controls that better complement the tactical elements of the series this could easily be a winner.

In the meantime, the game can be picked up on PC for under $8 online and there are plenty of console copies still floating around.  It's certainly worth a look, especially to enjoy the single player story.  And who knows, maybe continued sales will convince 2K Games to give it another shot.  Even if the only result is to remind the genre of the importance of plot it can be counted a success from the perspective of its fans.  In any case, you might want to do yourself a favor and check this game out before it gets buried in the sands of time.

Shine on, you crazy diamond.

Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else seems to have heard of it?  Sound off below in the comments, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!
Get it here!

1 comment:

  1. Completely agree. This game was a tough one to play through. You don't really enjoy playing through the levels like you would in Halo or CoD or something. But the story is there. It's like watching a terrifying war movie. Hits you in the chest... as long as you have a heart!