Inspired by (but thankfully not blindly aping) Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Spec Ops: The Line is set in a contemporary rendition of Dubai that’s been all but decimated by an unexplained sandstorm. There isn’t a lot of intel on what took place after the city was cut off, although we do know that the Americans sent in their 33rd Battalion (the ‘damned’ 33rd) led by a veteran of the Afghan conflict – John Konrad, to help with the evacuation.
Things go from bad to worse as the intensity of the sandstorms block all communication and satellite surveillance. Konrad imposes martial law as tempers fray among the stranded, ultimately organising an ill-fated caravan of survivors to try and break through the sea of sand. With the caravan decimated, Konrad sends out a last ditch call for help over the airwaves that finally penetrates the sand wall.
High command immediately dispatches a three-man team of Delta Force operatives led by Captain John Walker, to locate Konrad and find out what the heck’s happening in Dubai. Yager’s unconventional take on the story means that Dubai is as much a character as anyone else in this tale. As are you, in fact, with the game continually peeking over the fourth wall in order to make you reflect on your actions.
As John Walker, you start your journey with a brilliantly executed title sequence followed by a mood setting walk through a desolate highway strewn with abandoned cars, luggage and personal effects – signs of life that once was. What seems like a daunting mission to start with, suddenly becomes even more so when you’re unwittingly caught up in a war where nothing is as it seems. What follows is some of the most intelligent storytelling I’ve seen in a game all year. You’ll watch Walker and his men transform from no-nonsense soldiers to men struggling to keep it together and make sense of the chaos around them, making it as much a thesis on PTSD and the meaning of conflict as it is a player-initiated act of gunning enemies down.
The enemies themselves aren’t as varied as they could be and tend to neatly slot into genre tropes. They’re fun enough to shoot, trying to flush, flank and outright rush you at times. Weapons mostly comprise standard assault and handgun fare, though there are a handful of occasions when the game gives you heavy weaponry to play with. There’s also a cursory nod to tactical play thanks to the ability to equip silencers, choose between a set of three grenade types, and switch your fire mode between burst and auto.
The now customary turret sections and on-rail excursions round the gameplay out. You’ll witness dismemberment and have the ability to execute downed enemies as well, and the game rewards you with a satisfying second of slow-mo every time you nail a headshot. The much talked about environmental kills never really comes to much, however. There are occasions when you’ll be able to shoot a canopy to let a heap of sand fall on and takeout enemies, but these are mostly scripted sequences. You can also issue rudimentary commands to your team, and the game does a good job of popping the occasional reminder up during battles so you actually make use of them. For a change, the AI does a commendable job in combat, thinning the lines and rushing to heal you when you go down (although you’ll be returning the favour as well).
You could argue that some of the weapons sound a bit tinny, but combat otherwise makes a decent showing of itself, aside from Walker occasionally refusing to take cover where you want him to and getting shot at in the process. Where the game really excels though (aside from the story), is the level design and general atmosphere. Yager’s masterstroke was choosing Dubai to set the story in. The epitome of irrational decadence built on the backs of the lower class, it lives on borrowed time. There’s a certain poetic beauty in it being reclaimed by the sand – both visually and metaphorically.
Rows of empty, crumbling skyscrapers tower over you, including recognizable landmarks such as the Burj Al-Arab and the Burj Khalifa. You’ll wander not just between, but through erstwhile malls, offices, convention centres, hotels; a lot of them now occupied by the different factions of survivors in the game. The striking, architecturally varied and colourful environments offer clues to the past and to how they’ve struggled in the present to sustain themselves at the edge of civilisation, and also of the depravities they’ve endured (and inflicted).
You’ll see topical graffiti giving subtle hints of what took place (and what will), and some of the imagery in the game stands right up there with the likes of The Thin Red Line and Jacob’s Ladder. That’s some stellar company right there. The desert also throws up sandstorms that you’ll get caught up in, slowing you down and reducing visibility to near zero. You can almost taste the grit in your mouth.
No one comes out clean in Spec Ops. Its biggest victory is how the choices in the game aren’t sign-posted Mass Effect-style: there is no black and white. You make a difficult choice and you move on. There are four possible endings (including an epilogue) and there’s no hand holding to be seen anywhere. There is some unnecessary spelling out of story specifics so the less interested can keep up, but that aside, everything else is just stellar.
Adding to the atmosphere is a brilliant curated soundtrack that straddles 60s psychedelia and a more modern alternative sound. The likes of Bjork, Jimi Hendrix, Mogwai and Deep Purple make an appearance; and the main menu screen is classed up no end thanks to Jimi’s Star Spangled Banner playing in the background. In addition to the superb instrumental score, the story actually involves the licensed tracks being streamed into levels as you play thanks to a character that’s rigged Dubai up with scavenged sound equipment.
As with most video games these days, there’s a shoehorned multiplayer mode included as well. There are six competitive modes to play in a handful of maps with the usual kills-for-XP and loadout customisation. It may stick out like a sore thumb given the single player campaign’s deconstruction of violence, but it’s nice to have around.
Spec Ops: The Line is a rarity, but that’s the last thing I’d want to be saying about video games as a medium. There just isn’t enough of this sort of game. As the medium matures, we’ll hopefully see more developers wanting to branch out and explore how far they can push storytelling. Defying expectations at every turn, Spec Ops eventually transforms into one of the best games to come out this year.