Specs Ops is a game franchise that was first released in 1998 on the Windows PC Platform by developer Zombie Studios. Since then the series has seen a few other developers, as well as other releases on other platforms such as the PSone, the PS2 and the ill-fated Dreamcast. That last game was released in 2002, and since then the series has remained dormant. In 2009 2K Games announced at the Spike Video Game Awards that it was developing a new Spec Ops game called Spec Ops: The Line. My first exposure to this new chapter in the franchise was in 2011 at E3, and since then I have been quite curious to what the final game would be like. Well, my questions have been answered as over the last 7 days I have had the chance to play through the game. So, is it worth consideration? I would have to give a big “yes it is indeed”, even though some may find an issue or two with it.
You take on the role of Captain Martin Walker. You and your squad, Delta Squad, are tasked with going to Dubai to search for Colonel John Konrad and the 33rd Battalion. Konrad and his men were sent into Dubai to evacuate the city as it was being hit by a series of cataclysmic sandstorms that were increasing in size and severity, but they disappeared during their mission. A weak distress signal was received and you are sent in to answer the distress call, and this is where your adventure begins.
I have to say that right from the beginning the game’s narrative sucks you in. You learn a bit about Konrad, why he was sent to Dubai, and why your team is there. As the game progresses you learn more about the 33rd, why things are so messed up, how things get more messed up, and you watch as your team’s personality and makeup change during the story. Things are not what they seem and as you explore your surroundings, engage in battle, and plan your next attack. The plot that unfolds in front of you is, in my opinion, quite captivating. I found myself wanting to play more to see what unfolded. You come across some very interesting characters, some attention grabbing cut-scenes, and there are more then a few moments when you just watch the screen and think “WTF”. The game has a mature rating and the reason for the big ‘M’ on the box is more then just the gunplay and resulting carnage of such. The story itself has many mature moments and I found they were not just for shock value as they added to narrative’s quality and experience.
Spec: Ops: The Line is a third person shooter. Although it is action based, as most third person shooters are, you can also control the other two members of your squad through the various presses (e.g. tap or hold) of the Right Bumper Button. You can order them to focus fire on specific areas or throw flash bang grenades. You can also order them to heal one another or have one of them snipe specific enemies. You have to be careful when having your squad perform these actions though as it can make them more vulnerable to enemy fire, especially in the normal to harder difficulties. When on their own, your AI provides key support and can take down an enemy or two. As you’ve seen in other reviews on our site, we have used the term “band of dummies/idiots” a few times for other games, but Spec Ops: The Line is not going to be one of them.
Gameplay itself is somewhat standard for a third person shooter, as you can sprint, take cover, and move from cover to cover with a fair amount of ease. If you are hunkered down trying to avoid enemy fire, you can sprint from cover to cover using the “sprint” button and you can slide to safety from a further distance, allowing you to avoid bullets a little bit earlier then if you were just moving regularly. This can give you a little extra advantage when you are facing a large number of enemies or a pain-in-the-ass turret. The only issue in this area is that you may a find a few instances where you stick to a wall when you don’t want to, or have some difficulty getting off a wall when a grenade is near by, but this won’t happen to often, but when it does it can be a bit of an annoyance.
The majority of your gameplay involves facing waves of enemies, going from such locations as the outskirts of Dubai to the downtown city core and even in and out of high-end hotels. All the while the story plays out in front of you. Although the story is linear, you’ll come across key moments where you have make a choice of one of two different actions to take, and what you do affects the story right at that moment. It was pretty neat and some of the choices you are given are moral in nature forcing you to think for a moment two before you act.
One of the more interesting features of Spec Ops: The Line is that as it takes place in Dubai, which has been battered by many devastating sand storms, and you can use the sand to your advantage. Should there be a wall of sand pressed up against a window or wall, you can shoot out whatever is holding up the sand and have it come sliding down on your enemies. You can also temporarily blind your enemies with sand as well. To do this you only need to toss a grenade into the sand, and when it blows up it kicks sand into the air. Sand can also be found in some building vents, and when you shoot the vent sand can fall out blinding your foes here too. Using sand to your advantage is a pretty neat gameplay addition and I found myself having to actually be aware of this ability given that it is not something that I would usually think about when playing a third person shooter.
For review purposes I played this game on the normal AI setting, which in Spec Ops: The Line is called ‘Combat Op’. The hard mode is called ‘Suicide Mission’, and should you complete the game on this skill level you open up an uber-hard mode called ‘FUBAR’. The normal mode can be quite a challenge now and then, and you will find that you will die more then your fair share. Those of you who are veterans to FPS or third person shooters will have an easier time, but even in normal mode you will still find some areas of difficulty now and then. The enemy AI is adapt at moving around, and although you will find some ‘out in the open enemies’ (cannon fodder) there are still many who will utilize their environment such as cover and other routes to try to flank or rush you. There is no doubt that they may not always be the smartest AI, but they are far from the ‘dumbest’ that is for sure. And did I add that they don’t just keep rushing you until you find that magical point to cross as in other FPS or third person shooters, as once you have disposed of the requisite number of baddies, that section is over and you can breath a sigh of relief as you see the “checkpoint reached” text come up.
To add to the AI of the enemies you face, there are different types of soldiers that you will battle. From basic grunts to those highly trained and more mobile to those wearing heavy armoured suits who are able to take a beating. The variance in the enemies comes into play further into the game, and towards the end of the single player campaign you’ll find yourself battling many different types of foes at one time.
Weapons also play an important role in Spec Ops: The Line. There are quite a few different types from handguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, heavy weapons, shotguns, sniper rifles, a rocket launcher, and various grenades. All of these have their definite pluses and minuses. I found that I used the submachine guns and shot guns during indoor and close quarter sections, and I used the assault rifles and heavy weapons when outside or facing enemies that were a further distance away. Each weapon felt different too, so the SCAR felt different then UMP and a sticky grenade had some amazing advantages over a regular grenade. You will also find that you don’t have an infinite amount of ammo, and you will have to pick up guns from your enemies to keep on shooting.
The single player campaign should take you anywhere from 7 to 9 hours depending on what your skill level is, what skill level you play the game on, and how much time you spend looking for Intel items. Intel items are various items found throughout each level and there is usually one or two per level. I recommend taking the time to ‘listen’ to the recording attached to each one as they do provide a bit more to the game’s story. Beyond that there is really no reason to play the single player campaign again unless you want to try the more difficult skill levels.
Spec Ops: The Line does offer some online or local multiplayer madness. You can play against up to 7 other players in one of 6 modes. Chaos is a traditional deathmatch mode while Mutiny is a team deathmatch mode. Rally Point has teams holding down a specific point on the map. These points move around during the match. Buried has teams trying to destroy Vital Points and High Value Targets of the other team. Attrition is a last man standing match. Finally, Uplink has teams trying to take over a central rally point to earn points and your team’s COM Station must be active to earn points, so you have to defend that as well. Multiplayer allows you to earn XP, and the more you level up the more items and perks you open up for use in multiplayer. There are some pretty sweet weapons in the higher levels, so there is something to look forward to as you play.
Overall my limited time online was pretty enjoyable. What I discovered was that most of the modes are very squad based, so if you don’t play with a regular team you better hope the strangers you end up with are wearing a mic/headset to allow you to communicate and strategize on the go. Although I enjoyed the modes I played, I really think that the online play will be specific to a set group of people, and you won’t likely find a large contingent playing all the time. Those who play MW3 or BF3 online won’t be dropping their favourite game for Spec Ops, but I have to say that they should give it a chance, as it really isn’t that bad at all. It is not a run and gun game and learning each level is key. I had fun going from cover to cover in search of those I was playing against. Random sandstorms also hit the levels, so this provides some extra oomph.
2K Games has also noted that everyone who purchases Spec Ops: The Line will be able to download a co-op mode as free bonus content sometime shortly after the game launches. The co-op mode includes four maps of fast-paced action as two players can work together to fight through waves of enemies and random sandstorms while completing their objectives.
Visually Spec Ops: The Line is solid. Dubai is rendered beautifully amidst the destruction that the sandstorms have laid on the city. With a great use of colours and an amazing sense of scope, as you play the later levels where you navigate from tower to tower, and end up on the streets below, you will want to take a bit of time to soak up the work that went into recreating Dubai for this game. You traverse outside you will venture into some pretty lavish hotels. From marble floors to large in-wall floor to ceiling aquariums, there is a lot of detail in all the levels here. I was also amazed with the work that went into recreating something as simple as sand in a video game. From sand dunes collapsing through windows and walls to seeing you and your squads footsteps in the sand, you have to appreciate what developer YAGER did bringing so much virtual sand alive.
The game’s cutscenes are created using the in-game engine, which is based on the Unreal engine. This not only keeps the visual look of the game consistent throughout, but it is a solid game engine, and everything looks good. Characters are well animated and they interact with their environment very well. I found that they blended in with everywhere they were and there was nothing awkward about them. Enemies are rendered with the same quality. As this is a military based shooter, don’t forget the special effects, such as explosions, sand blowing in the air from grenades, and destructible environments. All is present and accounted for here. I didn’t notice much, if any, visual issues either, and that includes clipping, slowdown, and camera issues. Pretty amazing for a game set in such an original environment.
Wrapping up the whole package is the sound. The voice acting is, in my opinion, one of the best that I have seen in a shooter in a long time. There are some recognizable names in, such as Nolan North (Captain Walker) of Uncharted Fame, Bruce Boxleitner (Col. Conrad) of Tron fame, and Jake Busey (Radioman) from Starship Troopers. Along with a great cast of supporting voice actors, the narrative comes alive and you’ll want to pay attention to the story that is wonderfully acted out for you. As for the music, it is an interesting mix of classic rock n’ roll, very reminiscent of the Vietnam War era. These tunes are played during key scenes, including some very intense battles, throughout the game. I found myself reaching for the remote to crank up my media room’s speakers as the music made for some great scenes. Finally, the sound effects are just as good as all the other sound. Weapons have their own distinct sounds, environmental effects are quite evident (e.g. walking in sand, walking on marble floors, etc), grenades exploding in sand have a great muffled effect, glass breaking has that shattering sound you’d expect to hear, and explosions can rock your speakers. There is great use of directional sound too, so if you are playing Spec Ops: The Line through a surround sound system, you’ll really hear some great stuff.
At the end of the day I enjoyed my time with Spec Ops: The Line, as it is a fairly good game. The story managed to keep me involved, the choices I had to make made me question why I made them (yes, I know they are not real choices people), and the production values, such as the visuals and sound, were solid. If I had to criticize anything that takes away from the game though, it is the length of the single player campaign and the fact that the multiplayer will struggle against other well-established games and their online multiplayer following. In a season where game releases generally slow down, gamers should take a close look at Spec Ops: The Line as it has some great qualities that most should enjoy, but the ride may be over a little too quickly for those who those who invest the money and don’t play online.