30 Reviews in 30 Days, Day 1 – Spec Ops: The Line

So, the day has finally come. For the second time since joining the Everyday Gamers, I have challenged myself to do 30 Reviews in 30 Days. As I have done this before, I know it can be done, but it is still a challenge. Now not all of the reviews I will be doing will be games, but they will all be game related.

So, without further ado, I will kick things off with my review of what has been one of the most pleasant surprises I have ever played, Spec Ops: The Line.

Falling Off the Radar

I first saw Spec Ops at E3 in 2010. The game looked interesting: a military shooter taking place in a destroyed Dubai with different choices you will have to make as the squad leader. At the time, the developers were emphasizing that the story was really going to be the focus, and from what little they showed there, I could see that being the case. I remember telling people this was going to be a game worth watching, and I was very excited to see what it would become.

The next I heard of it was when I was able to get into the multiplayer beta. While the beta did not really catch my eye, it did confirm that the controls would work. I was more interested in the storyline than the multiplayer anyway, and the beta gave me enough reassurance that the controls were not going to get in the way of the story.

Then the game vanished.

It was a while before anything was heard again about Spec Ops: The Line. When it finally did re-emerge, I found myself rather concerned about the delay. Many games that get delayed as much as this one did tend to not be that great, and I was worried that would be the case. As such, I paid a little less attention to the game, still interested but not really in a hurry to get it. It had almost completely fallen off my radar.

Then I started to read the reviews. People were loving this game. They were saying it did things no other modern military shooter had ever done before. It quickly jumped right back up onto my radar, and when Amazon had a 50% off sale for the PC version, I jumped on it.

I am really glad I did. This game is one that few gamers should miss.

Starting with the Gameplay?

If you have read my previous reviews, you know I generally focus on the story of the game first. For Spec Ops, however, I think it’s important to save the story, as that is the most important part of the game, so that means I am starting with the gameplay.

Spec Ops is a standard third person cover based shooter. You control Captain Walker as he leads his Delta Squad into a near future Dubai destroyed by sandstorms. What follows is what could almost be considered a by the numbers shooter, including the ability to hide behind cover, shoot blindly out of cover and give basic commands to your squad mates. While not revolutionary, the controls work, which is good as failing would lead to distractions from the storyline.

The gameplay, while technically sound, is not revolutionary.

Now while the basic gameplay does nothing to really distinguish itself from other third person cover-based shooters, there are a few things which do stand out. First, you are not limited by what two guns your character can carry. If you want to carry a shotgun and an M4, feel free. Want a P90 and an AK? Sure. Want a sniper and a pistol? As long as you can find the weapons on the battlefield, you can pretty much carry any guns you want with the exception of moments in the game where you are forced to have a particular one. This allows you to carry the weapons that fit your playstyle, and it’s a welcome break from the rather limited options of other shooters. Most of the weapons have an alternate fire which can really change their effectiveness as well, adding an extra element of customization.

Another interesting distinction is the way this game handles turrets. Like many games, you have turrets you can use at different points to take on waves of enemies. Unlike other games, if you come upon a turret pointing the wrong way, you can flip it over, making it much more useful. You can also take cover while you are using the turret, something which really comes in handy when you are taking damage. In fact, that feature has really spoiled me, and I do not look forward to the next game I play which does not have it.

Then there is the level design itself. Not only are the levels of this game masterfully crafted and stunning, they give you all sorts of ways of dealing with enemies. Want to take people out at close range? Use the cover to move in. Want to snipe from a distance? Find yourself a good perch and let your teammates draw out the enemy. See some soldiers standing near glass holding back huge sandbanks? Shoot out the glass, burying your enemy. It is clear that the Yager, the development team, took a lot of time building these levels; the time and attention paid to them really shines through.

Other than these things, however, the gameplay really does not stand out. You will find yourself going up against waves of increasingly more difficult enemies, and there will be more than a few times where you will be frustrated by what seem to be some cheap deaths. If the gameplay alone was what was supposed to make Spec Ops memorable, you would not have seen so many people saying this was not a game to be missed.

Fortunately, it is not. Spec Ops: The Line has what is in my opinion the best story of any modern military shooter I have ever played.

You are NOT the Hero of this story

You start out the game in medias res, or in the middle for those of you not familiar with the literary term. Manning a chopper mounted machine gun, you try to take down other helicopters and keep them from blasting you our of the air with missiles. After playing through that, you flash back to some undisclosed time before, where the main character, Delta Force Captain Martin Walker starts to give the background of why his team is being sent into Dubai. Colonel John Konrad and the 33rd Battalion were supposed to be leading a group of survivors of the sandstorms out of Dubai, but all anyone has heard from him was a cryptic radio message saying the evacuation has failed. Walker and his squad mates Adams and Lugo are instructed to go in, find Konrad any survivors and get out.

Yager does a great job of depicting the toll the events of the game takes on your squad.

It does not take long for you to find out this is not going to be a simple operation. Early into the mission in Dubia, you will find yourself having to take arms against both refugees and members of the 33rd who have gone rogue. As you try to piece together just what has happened in Dubai, you will be drawn into a power struggle between the CIA and the 33rd, with your squad never quite getting enough information to make the informed decision. As stress levels start to climb, your squad mates start to question the mission, each other and even you.

And then it happens. A decision you make goes horribly wrong, and the story of the game takes a completely unexpected turn. I will not tell you what happens as I do not want to spoil anything, but I found myself having to stop playing for the night, allowing what I had just done to sink in. Not long afterward, you find a radio through which you begin to have an ongoing conversation with Konrad, who constantly harasses you and questions whether the decisions you are making are the right ones. The mission starts to take its toll on you and the team, and as you finally make your way to the end, you are not prepared for the truth you will find.

The storytelling of this game is impeccable. Yager had mentioned in interviews that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a major influence on the story, and it shows. For those of you not familiar with that story, it is the one upon which Apocalypse Now is based. Like the source material, you are faced with the true horrors of what is happening, and the mission takes a toll on your team both physically and emotionally. Konrad asks you at one point if you still feel like the hero, and I have to admit that by the end, I most definitely did not.

What really drives this all home is some absolutely amazing voice acting. As much as people like to joke Nolan North is in just about any game made anymore, he is at the very top of his game as Martin Walker. Omid Abtahi is great as well as Staff Sergeant John Lugo, and if I did not know 1st Lieutenant Alphonso Adams was Christoper “Kid” (of Kid and Play) Reid’s first foray into voice acting, I never would have guessed. The interplay between the two of them is amazing, and they make great foils to Nolan’s portrayal of a leader slowly losing his mind. Add to that the accomplished Bruce Boxleitner as Konrad, and you have a powerful cast that manages to drive the story home without ramming it down your throat.

I cannot stress enough how powerful the storytelling of this game truly is. The only other game I have played which has this level polish in terms of plot is Alan Wake, and anyone who has followed me here knows what high regard I have for the story of that game. Yager managed to make a game that is a true homage to its influences without being a copycat story.

You need to play this game

Spec Ops: The Line is by no means a perfect game. As I have already mentioned, the gameplay is not revolutionary, and the multiplayer is rather uninspired. Yager did release some coop missions, and while I have not played them, even those alone would not be enough for me to recommend this game.

The story is, however. Spec Ops may be one of the most important military shooters ever made because it does not make war into just another game. This game will stick with you in ways no other modern shooter ever has. While you will do some very questionable things as Walker in this game, in the end, you will find yourself understanding why he made the decisions he did, even if you disagree with them. You will also find yourself wanting to talk about it but not wanting to ruin it for anyone else. It’s just that kind of game.

Despite its flaws, Spec Ops: The Line is currently in contention for Game of the Year in my opinion, sitting at the moment I am writing this review only behind Mass Effect 3. If you are looking for a modern military shooter that is about as far removed from Call of Duty as you can get, this is the game for you. Spec Ops: The Line gets a 9 out of 10.

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If you are interested in listening to a group of people who have played Spec Ops discuss the game, check out our Spec Ops Spoiler Cast featuring myself, Travis Johnson, Chris “Lefty” Brown of The Married Gamers and Scott Ellison of Saving Content.

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