Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, Windows
Platform Reviewed: PS3
The horror, the horror.
So said Mr and Colonel Kurtz, the enigmatic villains of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam reimagining Apocalypse Now. The horror continues as Spec Ops: The Line takes cues from both book and film to demonstrate the horrors of war and the extremes one must go to to survive in a savage land; all wrapped up in a balls to the wall third person shooter.
SOTL takes us to Dubai, the super rich oasis of western decadence in the Middle East. Buried under a vicious sandstorm two years prior to the beginning of the game, war hero John Konrad (subtle) volunteers the services of ‘The Damned’ 33rd Battalion, to save the day and fails miserably after declaring martial law and losing control. Dubai is given up as a lost cause until a mysterious distress signal is picked up prompting a Spec Ops recon team to enter the city and see what, if anything, remains.
The story is certainly the strong point of the game, although it takes a few hours to get going, and the initial hours will be spent wondering what all the fuss is about. Once the narrative finds its stride it does not disappointment, and is unusually well developed for a shooter.
Captain Walker (voiced by the ubiquitous and now slightly boring Nolan North) and his buddies Adams and Lugo begin the game as your standard cliché marine types, and although the vibe is more Generation Kill than The Expendables, there is initially little to separate them from any other military squad in any media. As the game moves on however we begin to see layers of complexity emerge, and I don’t just mean like Dom bleating on about his wife in Gears of War.
As your mission moves on your squad begin to question orders and their very purpose in Dubai, but as loyalty and survival keep them together tensions become clear and are exacerbated by every atrocity you see and every tough choice that you make. Developer Yager has created some interesting moral choices that sit firmly in the grey, which, as the game progresses, become less about right and wrong or following and disobeying orders and become more about living or dying as moral boundaries blur in the heat of conflict. Like the marines in real life, you’re often held accountable to the facts not as they are, but how they appear to be at the time.
It is arguably the villains of the piece that steal the show. Konrad’s cryptic messages across the radio urge you to understand the horrors of war. Konrad forces you to run a gauntlet, through multiple atrocities to put you in his shoes as he attempts to justify his position of maintaining order at any cost. Backing up Konrad is the Radioman. Speakers hooked up throughout Dubai blast out conspiracy-nut comic relief and 70s psychedelia in equal measure, which toys with videogame conventions that expect you to blithely follow orders over the radio, and making the man behind the voice an actual DJ is an inspired choice.
An honourable mention must also go to the everyday baddies who are, on the whole, American soldiers. Not only does this create an interesting dynamic in that you are not fighting a generic terrorist threat but soldiers like you, following orders, like you. Occasionally you’ll catch a couple unawares in mid-conversation, maybe speaking about their families, and it seems a real crime to kill them, but such is war.
Events are helped along the way by the fantastic Dubai setting. Not only is it rare to see an action game set primarily outdoors in the daytime, the faded opulence of the damned city is believable as a breathing world where events are occurring around and without you. Whilst it’s not quite Bioshock’s Rapture, one simply does not expect a game like SOTL to have so much care taken in the presentation of its world and, like Rapture, you feel as if you are a latecomer to a larger story.
The character, setting, and narrative all culminate in an experience that portrays the horrors that are committed in war as a survival tool and invites you to be disgusted by your actions whilst also seeing their necessity. In essence you are required to empathise to some extent with your enemy rather than just blowing them away. It also raises the question: as part of the game’s narrative, are you saving those you came to liberate or exacerbating the situation?
The story is where any semblance of originality ends. The combat and basic level design is so Gears of War that there could probably be a law suit. The only additions to the formula are simple squad orders that allow you to focus fire on a particular enemy and a contextual flashbang attack that crops up seemingly at random.
But, whilst there are plenty of similarities to Gears, SOTL doesn’t quite tick all the same boxes. The weapons (and especially explosives) lack weight, and it often feels like you’re shooting targets rather than people, which is somewhat counter to the ‘war is hell’ ethos of the narrative. There is a lack of variety in encounters, which is broken up only by some generic sniper sections and a couple of outings on vehicles which are essentially dull, on the rails target practice, and not in keeping with the rest of the gameplay. AI is dodgy on both sides of the battlefield with enemies showing limited self preservation and only sniper trained teammate Lugo being of any real use in picking off long distance targets.
Some odd design choices also let the side down, like the fact that checkpoints are before, rather than after, often lengthy cutscenes forcing you to watch again and again should you have the misfortune of dying, which you will do at a couple of hurdles where the difficulty inexplicably spikes to an unreasonable degree, before quickly snapping back to inexplicably easy. Another minor gripe is disappearing corpses, in the current generation of consoles I see no excuse for bodies magically vanishing. If Skyrim can remember where I butchered some innkeeper 3 months ago, SOTL can remember where I iced some fool 3 seconds ago. I just pretended they were getting buried in sand. Speaking of sand, this is the biggest disappointment of all.
Pre-release material suggested that the sand covering much of Dubai would be dynamic (similar to the water in Hydrophobia) and could be used tactically in combat, as well opening up alternative routes through the levels. Either this was a massive overstatement or something got cut prior to release because, aside from a few pre-scripted moments, the sand in the game offers little other than something beige to walk on.
So, what SOTL gets right is the story, setting, and atmosphere that is so often missing from core action games. It raises a lot of questions that most shooters would deem irrelevant, like, why am I fighting? Who am I fighting? Are my orders/objectives right or wrong? In terms of making an intelligent shooter it’s head and shoulders above most. Gameplay wise I think perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the recent Max Payne 3, but as cover shooters go I felt let down by SOTL’s standard combat and generic design that fails to gel with everything Yager have worked so hard to get right. It seems that in developing the game in areas usually untouched by shooters, the core mechanics have been left unrefined. Despite this, SOTL remains a well above average and competent shooter that will satisfy rather than wow but is worth a shot for the story alone, which sets a new benchmark for narrative in the genre.
The horrors of war laid barer than Marlon Brando’s slaphead in Apocalypse Now