The run-up to the launch of Spec Ops: The Line has been a surprisingly quiet one, and deceptively so. Though it may not grab the headlines in the same manner as new entries in the Call of Duty or Medal of Honor series, Spec Ops: The Line is planning to do more for modern action videogames than either. Instead of simply placing you in a battlefield and telling you who to shoot, Spec Ops: The Line is intended to put a question mark at the end of every bullet.
This is a grim reality. Spec Ops: The Line takes place in Dubai, six months after a devastating sandstorm tore apart the city. Players take on the role of Captain Walker, the frontman for Delta Recon Team sent to infiltrate the city and investigate a strange radio signal. Your mission begins simple enough – locate any survivors and bring them to safety – but it certainly doesn’t end that way.
Spec Ops: The Line does a remarkably good job of imitating the atmosphere of what is arguably one of the finest war film’s ever created: Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. From their flippant comments to casual observation of enemy tactics, Delta Recon Team is clearly made of men who know little else but war. This is their job, what they do every day instead of sitting at a computer or adding the next part to the product on an assembly line: they are killers, and killing is what they do. That being said, when things go wrong they are fully aware of their own mortality, and just how abruptly things can end. For the player it may only be a checkpoint restart at stake, but when that rain of bullets comes down and you scramble for cover it certainly doesn’t feel that way.
This is what makes Spec Ops: The Line stand aside from the usual run-of-the-mill action videogame. Yes, it has all of the modern apparatus that’s become convention since the first Gears of War arrived – the roady run, single-press cover attachment/detachment and over-the-shoulder aiming are all present and correct – but there’s a feeling of togetherness presented by the characters that is absent elsewhere. Players can issue simple commands to their teammates, being squad leader and all, but they don’t mindlessly follow orders to the letter: give them a distant target and they will slowly move into position, working off one another to break a line-of-sight and tactically take down an overpowered foe. Despite the somewhat brash nature of their personalities, Delta Recon Team is a disciplined, well-oiled machine, an asset which is indispensable when playing on the harder difficulty settings.
The first half of the videogame is about setting the scene; establishing the plot in an otherwise entertaining, but wholly familiar action experience. Later on however, things begin to become considerably more interesting. As you begin to unravel the mystery of the distress call and your supposedly fallen brothers in arms, you will find yourself faced with a number of choices: the one or the many; the mission or the greater good? The decisions are not black and white, and the consequences are not always clear. One sequence in particular has a rather horrific outcome, and one that shapes the emotion of much of what follows.
In addition to the remarkable single-player campaign Spec Ops: The Line offers multiplayer gameplay for up to eight players online. Sadly, it has significantly less impact on the genre given its less prescribed nature, and as such feels much more familiar. The incredibly well balanced gunplay does make the transition intact, but regardless it’s never less than second fiddle to the story-based component. It’s an enjoyable sideline that allows you to get more out of your videogame purchase, but isn’t a reason to buy in itself.
The technical quality of Spec Ops: The Line aids it’s narrative efforts significantly, with both the visual and aural standard set particularly high. The characters are believable in both their stereotypical ‘war hero’ presentation and their differing perceptions of what their job is, and where that titular ‘line’ should be drawn. It’s a standard of characterisation that’s very rare in videogames – though increasingly becoming less so, thanks to the advancement of technology – and one of the stronger aspects of Hollywood’s influence on the industry. The voice acting is of a standard very few titles manage to achieve, and as such even the smallest of characters can have a significant impact on the player, if not the story.
Spec Ops: The Line is the definition of war videogames in the same manner as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are for motion-picture productions. There’s an emotional level to the action that’s uncommon to say the least; prior to release Ninja Gaiden 3 was billed as a videogame designed to humanise every kill, and while it fell short of that goal by a significant margin it sent a premise into the ether that Spec Ops: The Line has managed to make it’s own. This isn’t running and gunning, this isn’t taking down buildings with a handily placed rocket launcher and this isn’t a jaunt across a lush green pasture to infiltrate an enemy unawares; war is hell, and Spec Ops: The Line wants you to be acutely aware of that. Quite simply, Spec Ops: The Line stands as one of the most finely crafted action videogames of 2012 so far.