The novelty of having moral choices in videogames has all but worn off. A mechanic that once seemed so progressive and revolutionary is now a comfortable part of the furniture, and gaming is an immeasurably richer pursuit because of it. That said, one problem with these morality systems is that you’re still given way too much breathing space in which to ponder each decision that you make, but this is an issue that Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t have. Barely ten minutes into the instantaneously slick and engaging campaign, you’re thrown into a situation that has been designed to throw you for a loop. The game doesn’t stop to highlight the scenario with a cutscene, and you are forced to rely completely on instinct: while your squad mates bicker (and offer up completely contrasting views on what’s going on) you’re forced to make a judgement call before everything threatens to become even uglier than it is already.
This morally troublesome situation – which involves hostages and needless brutality – doesn’t even have to be dealt with directly; you can simply hold fire and let it play out. This may lead to unfortunate consequences further down the road – at one point, we found an aggressive ex-Marine looting a body and decided to let him go, inadvertently allowing him to orchestrate an ambush further down the line – but there’s no neat morality “system” as such. Spec Ops: The Line may appear to be a familiar, hardcore action title, but these choices primarily allow you to sculpt the story yourself; and after only an hour with the campaign, the appeal of repeat playthroughs already feels sky high. Whether these dilemmas result in anything more complicated than additional gunfights remains to be seen, but how your squad’s allegiances shift because of them (which, in turn, promises to affect the narrative) remains one of the most tantalising aspects of the whole thing.
The core gameplay has clearly been inspired by Gears of War, and there is the odd peculiarity – such as the fact that developer Yager decided to implement an interface that’s almost identical to the one used in Gears, right down to that distinctive boxy typeface – but realism is to the fore here. It’s no surprise that its creators have cited Generation Kill and Black Hawk Down as two stylistic influences; the weapons are weighty, the dialogue is coarse and authentic and triggering some of the bigger action beats doesn’t always work in your favour. Throw a grenade carelessly and your vision will become blurred by the large dust cloud that it creates; use a well-placed shot to create an avalanche of sand and you may end up dramatically limiting your strategic options until the skirmish is over with. The sense of isolation is brilliantly conveyed too, and intrusive music rarely detracts your attention away from the shrieking winds and sounds of clanging debris and panicked bellows in the distance.
Though the game’s love for (and allegiance to) Francis Ford Coppola’s broad and manic Heart of Darkness adaptation Apocalypse Now has been common knowledge since day one, Yager have cited both David Cronenberg’s jet-black (and absolutely brilliant) adaptation of Spider, and the underrated cult oddity Jacob’s Ladder, as significant references points. Our hands-on demo climaxed just as the narrative started to go sideways, and the weight of Captain Martin Walker’s situation – exacerbated by a particularly grim discovery – took its toll in the form of some mild hallucinations. How Spec Ops: The Line handles Walker’s descent into madness could make or break it, but after a gripping opening hour and with those seriously alluring reference points in place, prognosis is better than good. The stage is set for a thoroughly arresting and unorthodox actioner, but potentially one that we’ll all still be fervidly discussing come the end of the year as well.
Spec Ops: The Line is currently due for release on the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC on Friday, June 29th 2012.
Watch the latest trailer for Spec Ops: The Line below: