Hands-On: Spec Ops: The Line

Don't get sand in your boxers.

Spec Ops: The Line starts off with a helicopter sequence straight out of Modern Warfare 3. You man a mini-gun with unlimited ammo through a scripted sequence, flying past buildings and threading through the windswept sands until an inevitable crash (which, of course, you survive). A brief expository flashback, and you’re crawling out of the helicopter, ready to do battle with the same generic terrorists you’re used to in the same drab, brown background of Afghanis… I mean, Ira… wait, Dubai? But we’re not at war there, yet!

Yes, The Line is a modern military shooter. Yes, it’s played in the third-person perspective. And yes, there is the cover system that has become standard since the first Gears of War. But the team at Yager Development wants the similarities to end there. The unique setting of a ruined Dubai, a surreal environment of destroyed opulence, combined with a plot heavily inspired by Heart of Darkness, will hopefully get players to pause before they shoot.

The gameplay is competent, if uninspired. Fans of the genre will notice improvements here and there that pry the game away from its generic origins as a sci-fi shooter. A second vault button in addition to the standard ‘run to cover’ button initially makes things harder, but leads to greater control of your character overall. You can mark enemies for your squad members to take out, again giving you greater control without forcing you to micromanage as with other, more tactical shooters. And if bullets and grenades lose interest, you can always use sand.

Ah yes, the sand. The premise of the game is that huge sandstorms, fittingly of 2012 apocalyptic proportions, smother Dubai. This sand is everywhere, and acts as both friend and foe. Shoot out windows and platforms of sand-trapped buildings and send tons of sand down to crush your enemies. Stay too long behind cover, however, and a blistering wind can turn the screen the same reddish brown color of the desert, masking enemy movements, and making your job that much harder.

The sandstorm, however, is not the main event. It is merely the set up to one of The Line‘s most promising features: its story. Unlike most military shooters, The Line aims to dig deeper, to get you to think about what you’re doing, and why.

After the sandstorms, Colonel John Konrad (get it?) led his famed battalion, the Damned 33rd, to Dubai for relief efforts. The U.S. Government orders him out with more sand incoming, but he refuses. The storm wipes out Dubai, and nothing is heard for six months, when Konrad sends out a strange radio signal. You, his former protégé and current member of Delta squad, are sent in to check for signs of life, and report back. Konrad has gone rogue. Or has he? When you’re killing former teammates in the Damned – fellow American soldiers – it would be nice to know for sure. But the game likes to play with shades of gray, and has multiple endings, so you’ll have to beat it to find out.

Yager tries to get you to find your own moral line, one that you will or will not cross, through morality moments in the game. These are much less gimmicky than in other games, and you won’t get an achievement for going one way or the other. But on occasion you choose who lives or who dies, whether to save civilians or stay on mission – and the story can change accordingly. Many of these are smaller moments that, quite frankly, didn’t have that much emotional impact, but the well-written dialogue maintains an atmosphere similar to the source novella. Instead of picking up laptop computers as collectibles, you pick up actual objects lost in the war. A child’s doll, for example, earns you an achievement / trophy, but also comes with a full page of background information and wartime musings. The music, a mixture of guitar power chords and licensed 70s rock gives off an Apocalypse Now vibe that fits the setting perfectly.

The Line features an unannounced form of multiplayer, but no co-op, so the branched storyline single-player mode will have to carry it through. It all depends on the story. It could end up a muddling mess, leaving generic gameplay in its wake, or it could elevate the gameplay to deeper meaning and make normal scenarios that much more tense. You’ll be able to find out if the line is worth crossing, yourself, when the game releases for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC this spring.

A new set of screenshots for Spec Ops: The Line can be seen at the gallery. A five-minute gameplay video can be seen below.

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