In a way it’s a shame that everyone is so aware of what Spec Ops: The Line’s primary source of inspiration is. Its creators have been extremely keen on talking up their game’s close allegiance to Joseph Conrad’s you-know-what, so unless you’re completely unfamiliar with it, a valuable element of surprise has been lost. To be fair though, the way in which The Line’s story is told assumes no prior knowledge, and an unexpected u-turn in the finale reveals that it actually owes more of a debt to a certain pre-millennium Hollywood blockbuster. No spoilers.
Spec Ops: The Line is a tantalising, hard-to-grasp cocktail throughout. The gameplay mechanics are deeply familiar, but the action takes place in one of the most consistently fascinating and coherent game worlds ever seen; the most enveloping turf to have featured in a videogame since the stinging, devastated Moscow of Metro 2033. It’s also a tale that aims to say serious (if slightly prosaic) things about the fundamental stupidity of government-sponsored conflict, but only after it’s asked you to move through innumerable kill-boxes and dispatch hundreds (if not thousands) of assailing militia.
Unexpectedly, it works. Like Ubisoft’s most recent Ghost Recon romp, it creates an aura of chaos exceptionally well. Even on the default difficulty setting gunfights are routinely ferocious; make a bad judgement call or hold onto an inappropriate weapon for too long and you’ll hit the tarmac instantly. The wealth of enemies is merely a device that’s used to put you under ceaseless pressure, and when the game’s contentious, hot potato holocaust set-piece rolls around, the raw power of it somehow isn’t diminished as a result.
A couple of other moments aren’t as sure-footed, and one ludicrous He-Man set-piece in particular couldn’t feel any more out of place. But these blunders are made early, and once it gets into a steady groove both the plot and the combat only get more compelling as it progresses. There are a handful of startling stylistic devices used in the second half too – which broadly hint at where everything is headed – and while they’re dazzling at first, they would almost certainly have become infuriating if they’d been overused; Yager are clearly way too smart to have fallen into that trap.
Multiplayer is a necessary evil in a shooter like this, but there’s much to enjoy here. Environments are varied and almost always asymmetrical in every direction, so you rarely fall into that old Gears of War trap in which everyone hides behind cover and just waits for some chump to meander by; one enemy’s blind spot is another one’s vantage point here. As standard, there’s a ranking system and unlocks galore, and there are even a smattering of sand-based traps – lifted from the campaign – that are implemented craftily enough to ensure that they don’t get used solely to crush clueless newcomers.
Spec Ops: The Line isn’t a perfect game, but its missteps are minor and what it does right, it does really right. Don’t be surprised if it ends up getting serious awards recognition at the beginning of next year; those plaudits will be much deserved. It’s robust and fun to play, sure, but what really makes it fly is its stripped-down attitude towards narrative, and the well-spun story that isn’t afraid to take risks later on. In all, if you’re a fan of shooters, this is about as essential as an imperfect game ever could be.
Specs Ops: The Line is available now on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.
Watch the trailer for Spec Ops: The Line below: