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Gaming Review

Spec Ops: The Line review (Xbox 360) A story with a heart of darkness

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Released on Monday, Jun 25 2012

'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games


Spec Ops: The Line continues the long-running Spec Ops shooter franchise, but takes an entirely new story and direction. Players are launched head-first into a hellish vision of Dubai, after the billionaires' backyard has surrendered to the sands and murderous madness.

While the intriguing premise could have proved to have been a 'BioShock in the desert', it's not, as the game lacks the innovative gameplay and all-encompassing sense of atmosphere as the acclaimed BioShock. But Spec Ops is certainly no dumb army shooter either, predominantly because of its brave and, at times, genuinely affecting storytelling.

Spec Ops: The Line takes inspiration from Heart of Darkness, the literature classic by Joseph Conrad, which also informed classic Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. The story focuses on the thin fault line between civilisation and chaos; particularly the darkness that supposedly dwells in all human beings to commit acts of pure evil if the right circumstances conspire.

'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games

'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games



"I did what was necessary," says a breathless Captain Martin Walker, Delta Force squad leader and main character in Spec Ops: The Line. "I kept us alive."

Walker has been sent into Dubai with fellow Delta soldiers Lugo and Adams to track down John Konrad (a literal reference if ever there was one), a decorated US military general who has gone seriously coco-loco in post-apocalypse Dubai, aided by his entire US 33rd company.

While the narrative is a little clumsy in parts and the ending not particularly convincing, the overall story in Spec Ops is impressive. The tale sees the typical role of military superhero turned on its head, as the gung-ho US bid to save Dubai actually wreaks even more havoc and suffering.

Possibly most affecting is the phosphorous mortar sequence, in which you are genuinely left feeling uneasy and shaken. Differing from the brutish bravado of Call of Duty, Spec Ops really explores the consequences of war on the human mind. Should a soldier blindly follow orders? Or, as Lugo aptly puts it, is there "always a choice"?


Whilst Specs Ops: The Line excels in its storytelling, it simply ticks the boxes at best with the third-person shooter gameplay. The cover-based system, first made famous by Epic's Gears of War, is present in the game, along with elements of the Ghost Recon games. Possibly the greatest overall similarities, though, can be drawn to Army of Two: The 40th Day, particularly in the mix of taking cover, flanking and big action set pieces.

Some parts of the environment can be used tactically to secure the upper hand, such as shooting out glass so that banks of sand envelop the enemies. Sandstorms also occasionally change the world, requiring you to pick enemies out of the haze and rush to cover.

Yager has worked to tighten the weapons and hit detection from the demo build, but Spec Ops is still not as responsive as other shooters. The guns often feel loose, while the aiming is sometimes questionable. The cover mechanic is okay, but there are times when it gets overly sticky, prompting a few frustrating deaths. There are other issues too. You go into cover with one button, but then have to press another to vault over an obstacle, which differs from other systems and just feels wrong.

'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games

'Spec Ops: The Line' screenshot

© 2K Games



But issues with the controls do not stop Specs Ops: The Line from being a shooter that feels fresh and interesting. Alongside the story, the visual presentation adds to the package. Surrounded by seemingly endless expanses of sand, the rich man's playground now lies crumbling; wrecked skyscrapers puncture the sky like half-eaten carcasses, luxury department stores now house pockets of scared survivors and Super Yachts lie hopelessly beached in the desert.

Banksy-style graffiti offer hints to the bubbling struggle that enveloped new Dubai, after a series of massive sandstorms turned it from rich Emirate into hell on earth. It's certainly a new take on the now familiar post-apocalypse, and one that lingers in the mind. The audio backs up the atmosphere, nodding to Apocalypse Now with trippy 1960s rock and roll, brimming with smiling menace.

Over the campaign, you're pretty much constantly in the company of the other Delta Force operatives, so it's a shame not to have campaign co-op. But to be fair, this is very much Captain Walker's story. There are Rainbow Six-style squad commands, such as ordering your teammates to focus fire or do a silent takedown. It isn't a very deep system, but at least adds an extra element.


Like the core gameplay, the multiplayer in Spec Ops largely sticks by the numbers. Similarly to BioShock 2, the multiplayer brings a story that is set before events in the main campaign, involving players either joining the Exiles or the Damned. Instead of vast Battlefield-style contests, the game focuses on 'intimate' small battles, as rebel bands hunt each other amongst the devastation.

Alongside deathmatch and team deathmatch variants, there are four other modes that offer slight tweaks on the multiplayer staples. For example, Buried offers a twist of Capture the Flag, as teams of players must destroy the enemy's base, while defending their own. What makes the action more dynamic across the modes are sandstorms, which spring up periodically, causing everyone to dash for cover and completely mixing up the action.

Another strong aspect about the multiplayer is customization, as players can level up from Alpha to Echo class, bringing the opportunity to upgrade weapons and perks, along with armour and kit. But the looseness in the combat controls is also present in the multiplayer game and it feels more pronounced with the lack of story. It is, therefore, questionable whether sandstorms and customization will be enough to keep players gripped to Spec Ops multiplayer in the long term.

Spec Ops: The Line lacks innovation or polish in its gameplay, but makes up for it with a story that genuinely has impact and meaning. Whilst the ending is a bit limp, the overall narrative raises serious questions about the duty of a soldier, and how far that goes. Whilst the multiplayer does not quite hit the same heights, this is still a shooter that stands on its own and is not afraid to show the ugly side of the Call of Duty dream.

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