This collaborative effort from Yager Development (singleplayer), Darkside Game Studios (multiplayer), with publication by 2K Games, treads boldly on lines that other games have recently tried to cross. It faced the same issues, and made the same blunders. A gritty, evocative story meets heavy 3rd person action, whilst trying to cover the delicate theme of moral relativity in war. If you haven’t already guessed by now, I’m drawing anecdotal similarities between Spec Ops and THQ’s Homefront - an unavoidable effort if I’m to do my job properly.

Like Homefront, Spec Ops’ superfluous kill-count and less than brilliant visuals put a dampener on what was originally intended as a sort of pseudo-profound insight into the madness of war. It’s hard to feel morally obliged to care about a situation regarding the lives of two, when you’ve killed literally thousands to get to that point.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Spec Ops tries to sell emotional authenticity, but do they actually pull it off?

“It looks post-apocalypstick”

I went into Spec Ops expecting what many PC gamers call a ‘Gears of War clone.’ We’ve enough cover shooters to merit the genre, so although I wasn’t as cynical as that, I did expect inevitable similarities in the game mechanics. In truth, the game feels more like Call of Duty than Gears of War – with fluid and open combat, albeit completely on rails.

Spec Ops is a story driven game through-and-through. Charting the adventures of Walker, Adams and Lugo, your three amigos for almost the entirety of the game. In a very fictional Dubai, your mission is to aide survivors of a massive sandstorm, and search for Konrad and his 33rd Battalion.

A looping message from Konrad informs everyone that the relief effort failed (and I never did work out how/why) so you’re sent in as a covert squad to look into the matter. Needless to say, the relief effort in the UAE is 100% US orchestrated, and the UN doesn’t exist… I guess.

You open with the task of downing 7 (I counted) helicopters with a mini-gun mount on your own, until you’re swept into a sandstorm and taken down. From then on, Walker, Adams and Lugo head into the alienated and deserted inner Dubai, which is where your story unfolds.

Although the story isn’t anything amazing (at this stage), I suppose we have to thank the developers for not including Russian nuclear missile codes, or anyone from a post-Soviet state. They deviated from the norm, and I like that. There’s funny dialogue like the above sign-post, and a real effort to create some characters – even if they are the stencil stereotype of 2 white guys and a black guy with an attitude.

I kept getting distracted by refferals to the ‘tallest tower in Dubai’, and it not being the Burj Khalifa

It soon becomes apparent that everything isn’t okay in sand-soaked sunny and secluded Dubai, when some “fat guy” on an ad-hoc radio system starts playing music for you and your squad to kill people to. I know it sounds like I’m not making any sense, but this guy literally rigged the whole of Dubai up with car speakers, in every building, and is sitting atop a tower playing music you’d hear on your local radio station.

Perplexed, the team search for this mysterious mentalist – killing a ton of Arab’s on the way for no real reason other than you had the choice to; which brings me to my next subject: choice.

Spec Ops sold itself as a game in which serious choices that affect the out-come could be made. Journalists have reported it so, also, but the evidence is pretty thin. For example, your first choice is presented to you when you’re stalked by some Arab guerrilla force. They start shouting at you, and your friend points out the situation could go either way. You’ve a choice, sure: shoot or no. I chose to shoot, and in retrospect what other choice did I have? For a very long while in the game this turns out to be your main enemy, and am I to believe that if I hadn’t have shot them then, I’d walk through 20% of the game with cous-cous and sandwiches provided by my new Arab friends? I doubt it. My point is that the choices you’re often asked to make often lead to the same situations, as far as I can tell, with the exception of how ‘vengeful’ you are – which may play a larger role, if I could be bothered to go back and re-play the game. But as far as a fair comment goes: for your one play-through, choices aren’t as far reaching and exciting as you may think.

I will say, however, that the situations in which you’ve choices play a huge role in the plot as a linear and pre-written experience. There is also an epilogue in which, I would assume, your choice would be fatal.

I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to give anything away, however.

I have killed so many people, I’m about as emotionally stale as good cheese

Combat mechanics in Spec Ops are genuinely good. Although cover sucks in multiplayer, which I’ll talk about in that section, it works really well in single player. It is essential, since you might die with relatively few shots. There’s been virtually no balancing for the PC version, so it’s incredibly easy to pop-headshots and storm through the game. In fact, because of this, it took me 5.5 hours total to complete the single player experience on normal difficulty, although I didn’t take much time to search for the audio-intel giving you some more insight into certain things; nothing too deep: things like a description of the guerrilla melting down silver to make bullets.

Popping headshots is great fun, with a little slow-mo for each one, allowing you the opportunity to chain hits if you’re fast enough. I’m not sure if this is an intended core mechanic; it certainly wouldn’t work with a game-pad, but if you’re quick you can take out a lot of enemies very quickly.

Recoil is high, and you’ll find yourself preferring small arms to some of the bigger guns. Pistols especially are great. The variation between the weapons isn’t much when it comes to damage, but certain guns have scopes, laser sights or silencers. Silencers can be useful for some of the moments when getting some sneaky kills can be beneficial, but don’t expect any dedicated sneaking missions, because there are none.

In reality, the core gameplay of Spec Ops revolves around entering a room, waiting for a swarm of enemies, killing them, and entering the next room. Rinse, repeat. There are a couple of ‘chases’ but for the most part you’re simply taking on swarms of enemies. This isn’t really a bad thing, though – because Dubai looks fantastic, and shooting is fun.

Death and Dubai

Applause to the artists, because Dubai looks beautiful. Although, as I said, the graphics are sub-par, and there’s no AA to speak of, the cinematography and artwork are tremendous, and there are some beautiful lighting and particle effects. Yager captured the grandeur and beauty of the Arab desert incredibly well, and turned it into an alienating and striking environment in which to host such a game. You’ll destroy and visit some incredible buildings, often using the environment as a weapon; unleashing sand slides by destroying huge windows and bringing buildings down on the enemy. The entire game is set in this atmospheric and tragic setting, and it’s the better for it.

Aside from the grandeur of the city, there’s the macabre of the gore. Spec Ops makes no secrets about its intent, and it is in some ways quite full on – although not as much as I had expected, from what folks had been saying.

Combat isn’t any more violent than any other game in the genre, which brings me back to my initial comparative example: Homefront. It’s hard to take the context seriously, after gunning down hundreds upon hundreds of people, so when you come across a room full of dead bodies with such low quality graphics that it almost looks like a PS2 game, I’d find it very hard to take seriously anyone who claims it drummed up the requisite emotions to fully carry across the mood that Yager were trying to evoke. For instance, there are body pits. There are charred bodies. There’s even a moment where you see a half-charred woman holding her child, looking towards you. These are probably the most ‘shocking’ moments in the game, and they’re not very shocking. It’s not because I’m a heartless bastard, it’s because the game and story is ridiculous – it desensitizes you to death within 20 minutes of playing.

It’s incredibly difficult to explain myself without ruining the story, but what I can say is that the plot becomes so silly and convoluted that without the drummed up passion of vengeance or moral white-knighting I assume Yager wished to instigate, you gradually start to loop “what is going on, and why is everyone insane and mental?” which is about as far as I got, emotionally. But hey, Toy Story 3 didn’t make me cry, either. Maybe I just watch the news too much.

At one point in the story, you’re killing CIA, Marines, 33 Battalion and the Arab Guerrilla at the same time. Why? What is going on? Why is Dubai the only country in the world? Can no one talk to the UN? What’s the problem here? No other Arab state cares? I cannot for the life of me work out why Dubai is segregated from the rest of the world, with a Mad Max style scrounge for resources, when the rest of the world is fine and dandy. By the end of the game I was tearing my hair out, asking myself “who the hell is emotionally involved in this?”

Don’t get me wrong, the story is cool, and the game is fun – it just isn’t clever, and it doesn’t tackle moral relativity and the grittiness of war in any real and meaningful way. Maybe it’s a matter of perspective, but hey – this is my review.

The Multiplayer

Not the games saving grace. I don’t feel as though the multiplayer of Spec Ops was designed to be a tacked on filler, but I also don’t feel as though it has any longevity at all. The graphics are down-right bad, and with no FOV sliders or PC specific options to speak of, it hasn’t been built for PC gamers. Given that, I can’t recommend it for anyone looking for serious competition to invest in. The cover mechanic ruins what could have been a fun third person shooter, with players often finding the safest spot in the map and hiding behind cover, looking over their characters shoulder, to pop out with whatever gun is the number of the week. It is an inevitable camp-fest due to the carrying across of the single player mechanics.

There are problems, too. Many times I saw my shots hit a characters head and not register at all. Bopping in and out of cover is also horrible. Any rash movement could take you out of it, when you want to be in it. When you merely want to shimmy to the side, likewise, you might find yourself out in the open. It’s also hard to see exactly what is cover.  I ran up to a container door expecting to be able to use it as cover. I pressed space, and low and behold I was in front of it, in the open! Team Deathmatch and Deathmatch are honestly stressful experiences which don’t rely on skill so much as whatever CoD tactic you fancy the most.

There are the obligatory unlocks, of course, with some modes and features only unlockable past a certain level. Promotions are granted very quickly, and gear and weapons also unlock fairly fast. There are a variety of customizable classes, too. It’s basically what you’d expect from a FPS or 3rd person tacked on multi, with one difference: each faction (of two) actually has racial stats, such as improved health, bullet damage, etc. An interesting thing to do, but sort of unnoticeable in the game.

Also: sand storms. What were they thinking? In the open maps there are sometimes sandstorms where you can’t see further than your own nipples, and you can’t use cover. You walk around aimlessly, firing into the dark. It’s as though they thought “what can we throw in which is as annoying as snipers in BF3, dogs in World at War, or choppers in Modern Warfare? I know! Sandstorms!”

If you weren’t convinced by the singleplayer experience, then I can’t persuade you with multiplayer. Cheating is also rife; with zero anti-cheat protection, even commonly found downloadable trainers for the single player work in multiplayer.

Is Spec Ops The Line worth our time, or should we bury our head in the sand?

With a plot-twist you’ll work out about 40% into the game, and a perverse, forced attachment to the reality of war that in no way mirrors the actual plight of the modern warrior, Spec Ops tries and fails at tackling serious, complex issues. Once you realise this, and unwind the main characters yourself, which I am certain you will, the story comes crumbling down around you and you really can’t take any of it seriously.

It isn’t enough to go “Look, our character is angry! Soldiers in real life get angry too, sometimes!” and then put the stamp of ethical validity on the front cover. If, on the other hand, you don’t take Spec Ops seriously, and you play it for what it is: 6 hours of shooting dudes with loud guns, you might enjoy it if that’s what you want. 

Yager tried to plant seeds in your psyche, and push you emotionally. I feel as though that’s admirable, but the other part of me feels like they’re not talking to people like me. You can’t just blow up a child a la Call of Duty, or massacre a family a la Homefront, or burn a mother and child a la Spec Ops to get me all passionately riled up against the enemy; in the end, it’s the developer who looks like the bad guy. If you want to emulate reality to draw attention to the horrors of war, don’t make it up as you go along – there’s plenty to work with in the real world.