‘Spec Ops: The Line’ Review – Burning In The Heart Of A Sandstorm

There’s a disturbing trend amongst shooter games of late, to make games more and more realistic to really drive home the harsh realities of war (or up the shock value). Games like Modern Warfare 2 and Soldier of Fortune have pushed the limits of what developers can get away with when by putting players in control of scenarios like killing civilians, or portraying gory deaths. For some, it may be too much to stomach, but for others it helps to virtually drive home just what real soldiers have to deal with on the battlefield. 2K Games’ latest release, Spec Ops: The Line, can now be added to the list of games that attempt to bring to life how taxing battle can be on the human body, and, more importantly, the human psyche.

Set in a sandstorm-ravaged Dubai, three Delta Squad operatives, led by Captain Martin Walker, are sent in to investigate a distress signal sent by Colonel John Konrad of the Damned 33rd. These three soldiers soon discover that what was supposed to be routine recon has quickly turned into a rescue mission in a city run by a madman. The situation inside the storm wall has deteriorated into a nightmare, for both the refugees that still inhabit Dubai and for Delta Squad.

As Walker and his team slog through the sand, an amazing story of intrigue, deception and psychosis unfolds as Delta Squad finds themselves in scenarios that test their values as soldiers, and morals as human beings. One of the great things about The Line is that there are crucial points in the story where the players are forced to make a moral decision, and there’s no real right or wrong answer, there is just the reality of survival. Going any more in depth about the crossroads where this happens would spoil some of the game’s best moments, but know that as you work your way through Dubai, Delta Squad is tested in ways that players may not be accustomed to. These moments come as a welcome breath of fresh air in a genre that usually doesn’t take too many risks. Additionally, it also gives players a reason to work through the campaign mode again, making different decisions to see if it nets a different outcome.

Outside of the story, the gameplay itself makes extensive use of the environment, and in doing so, manages to keep players on their toes throughout the entire game. On its surface, The Line is a fairly standard run-and-cover third-person shooter, chalk full of guns, grenades, and other incendiary devices. Players should find themselves accustomed to the dedicated cover-based combat areas that are broken up by woven in cutscenes, it’s the individual battles that really make this game feel unique. Each firefight can take a turn at any moment if the winds kick up and blow a sandstorm through the battlefield. The Line does a spectacular job of immersing the player in conflict, emphasizing the hectic and confusing nature of guerrilla warfare in a city covered in sand, mixed with classic rock tunes blasting in the background. You never know what is going to happen next, and when you get to a point where you think you might, the ground breaks out from under you and you end up in the middle of a hotel lobby, with all of your enemies buried in sand.

The fast-paced nature of the gameplay carries over into the The Line’s multiplayer mode as well. The game offers mostly your standard fair of competitive modes, allowing you to take out your opponents alone or as part of a team. So, while there isn’t too much new in the way of what to play (although players might like the fresh twist of the Buried mode), it’s how the matches are played that really shines. The level design for the multiplayer maps takes advantage of things like sand walls and zip lines that play vital roles in the campaign mode, allowing players a different take on shooting their friends. In The Line it’s possible to blow out a vent and bury an opponent on one end of the board, and then jump on a zip line and stealthily glide down two floors to sneak up behind a foe before they can even turn around.

Putting the good aside, there are a few things that are going to grind the gears of gamers. First off, the cover mechanic can grow to be a bit cumbersome and unresponsive, locking you in when you don’t want it to, and not when you need it the most. While it isn’t as bad as some games, since it is vital to every battle throughout the game, it becomes something that players will become intimately aware of again and again. The other thing that may wear a little thing on fans of the shooter genre is the repetition of the firefights. Yes, they all do feel unique, and influenced by the game’s tumultuous conditions, but cover-shoot-cover-shoot-gredade-cover-shoot tends to be a formula that comes up in every chapter. Yager does a great job of keeping players on their toes, but it falls into a rhythm that might get a bit too repetitive for veteran gamers.

It only takes a little bit of time with The Line for it to becomes pretty clear how heavily influenced it is by Joseph Conrad’s (note the similar name) novel, Heart of Darkness (and the subsequent film Apocalypse Now). Sure, it’s a different setting, but the desert of Dubai in The Line actually offers some new gameplay twists that the rainforests of Conrad’s story couldn’t, and besides, gamers have countless games set in jungles. Once you get past the couple of small complaints about the controls, it becomes pretty clear that the development team at Yager have put together a really enjoyable tale in Spec Ops: The Line. It’s the kind of game that is paced perfectly to keep you playing for just one more chapter, and then one more after that. It pulls you in with a satisfying story, and then uses the intense gameplay to keep you firmly seated in front of your screen. If you’re looking for a good way to endure the heat of the summer, head to the desert, and spend some time with Spec Ops: The Line, it’s a crazy ride, but it’s well worth the price of admission.

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