Dubai, once a glorious city, now lays in ruin. The skyscrapers stand battered and broken by the destructive might of regular sands storms. Why would anyone return to this city? That is where you come in. As Captain Walker you are tasked with finding the missing US commander John Konrad, a reference to Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, the novella upon which the game is loosely based. Konrad was trying to evacuate the city but has gone dark.
The setup is promising and things only get more twisted; Dubai has become a warzone between desperate refugees and Konrad’s cruel rogue battalion. One soldier has gone so mad that he’s taken over the role of radio DJ, commenting sadistically on the events as they unfold.
The storytelling itself is well handled. Cut scenes are used when necessary but Captain Walker’s voice over and the humorous chatter between squad mates mean that storytelling isn’t entirely absent from minute to minute gameplay. From our preview it’s clear that the game is attempting to address issues of morality in a more sophisticated manner than most shooters: rather than killing an army of zombies you are gunning down crazed US soldiers and civilians turned guerrillas. However, the game’s overall narrative success remains to be seen. It teases some puzzling questions, leading you to wonder what exactly it is about Dubai that drives its inhabitants insane.
A third person shooter akin to Gears of War, the gameplay revolves around a cover system that has you running from cover to cover popping out to take well aimed shots. It’s nothing revolutionary but environmental elements such as destructible cover and the ability to shoot windows and weak ceilings to drop sand on enemies adds another tactical dimension.
Your squad is just as vital to the gameplay as they are to the narrative and you can instruct them to take out specific enemies or perform special actions. They are also capable of taking out the odd enemy by themselves and in doing so don’t feel totally useless. This is a nice addition to the game and helps you to feel more involved in the squad. You might think twice before sending them running into machine gun fire as bullet shields. Your enemies are just as competent, flanking and forcing you out of cover; you aren’t able to hide and treat the game as a shooting range.
The graphics stand up well, using some of the Unreal Engine’s more recent lighting and particle effects, allowing for crisp action scenes and detailed environments. There is an unavoidable issue in that the sand blasted city is an easily exhausted aesthetic but the game’s use of vertical level design and its interesting combination of interior and exterior locations alleviate this issue. The sound design also adds to the experience with crisp rifle effects and convincing crazed enemies.
Spec Ops: The Line has a lot of promise, especially with regards to its storytelling ambitions. You’ll have to wait for a full review to see if the gameplay holds up for the length of the experience.
Spec Ops: The Line will be released on 29 June 2012 on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.