Spec Ops: The Line

As the start menu introduces players to a desolate albeit visually stunning Dubai and the strains of Star Spangled Banner ring out, will the third person shooter be a landslide victory or will it just be a (sand)storm in a teacup?

A Desert is a Place without Expectation

Dubai had experienced sandstorms before, but these passed with little ill-effects. This was until one sandstorm started… and never stopped. Those with power and money fled Dubai, leaving the less-fortunate to perish with no hope of rescue; all except the 33rd. Initially tasked with helping with the evacuation, the unit’s leader John Konrad refused to obey orders to abandon Dubai and the soldiers stayed behind to help the wretched citizens. An attempt at evacuating the remaining citizens ended in failure and many casualties. After the survivors returned, a radio transmission from Konrad was intercepted by US Forces. The game’s protagonist, Captain Walker, along with Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo make up Delta Squad. They’ve been sent to investigate Dubai and look for any surviving citizens and the Damned 33rd.

Two minutes into the game it becomes clear that this mission will not be simple. There are survivors alright, but they’re not happy to see Delta Squad. The storylines within shooters are not known for being memorable, but this is where Spec Ops: The Line excels. The next six to eight hours will take players on a rollercoaster ride of emotions as they head further into the madness and depravity that has descended on Dubai. The story continually twists and turns so that the boundaries of right and wrong are constantly moving. The relations between the three team members deteriorate as their mission turns into hell. Although the game is very much an on-the-rails shooter, occasionally players are faced with making a decision. Do you follow orders or disobey them? Who do you save? I can guarantee that, in some cases, you won’t be happy with either option and your team mates will continually remind you of your decisions, often with conflicting opinions. Your choices don’t affect the direction of the storyline, but it will affect the way that other characters will react to Walker and his team.

Yes, this game has collectibles. These take the form of pieces of intel, all of which give further background information on the characters and the situation in Dubai. Very little searching is required and they have a yellow glow to help players find them. The story is engaging enough that they’re well worth collecting and they’re not hidden in stupid places either. If you do miss any of the intel, chapters can be selected individually from the Campaign Menu. With four save slots from which to select, you won’t need to overwrite an important save either.

Shooting for Success

When starting the campaign for the first time, players have a choice of three difficulties. Walk on the Beach is aimed at novice players. Combat Op is aimed at competent players. Suicide Mission means that the enemies become more lethal and aggressive. There is a fourth difficulty, FUBAR, but this doesn’t become available until every chapter has been completed on Suicide Mission difficulty. To be honest, by the time players come to tackle this difficulty they will have picked up plenty of helpful hints and tips that will make this playthrough much easier.

The tutorial is quick and easy to follow without bombarding players with too much information at once. As well as the use of the buttons, the tutorial introduces players to one of the key game mechanics – the use of sand. Several fights take place in locations that are surrounded by towering sand dunes and a wall or window is often the only barrier between safety and a landslide. To end a gunfight quickly, players can instead focus their fire on the structure preventing the sand from entering the area. Destroying these barriers will submerge the enemies and end the fight easily. Although some of these moments are scripted into the story, there are plenty of other opportunities where players must make the decision whether to fight or whether to use sand. Listening to Adams and Lugo will often give hints about the team’s surroundings that the player may not have noticed themselves.

Enemies will not destroy their surroundings unless it is a vital part of the storyline. They will never shoot out windows or walls to bring sand piling onto Walker or his men. They don’t need to; they are incredibly accurate with both their gunfire and grenade throwing. Grenades will always land next to Walker, giving just a precious few seconds to get out of the blast radius. This often means moving out into gunfire, which I will guarantee will hit its mark. Walker’s health will replenish over a few seconds out of danger, but the higher difficulties certainly leave little margin for error.

There is No ‘I’ in Team

Even though the enemies can be incredibly accurate, so can Lugo and Adams. Holding RB over an enemy will mark them as a red target for the pair to kill. Neither Adams nor Lugo will run out of ammo or grenades, meaning that the attack command is extremely useful in moments where players are short of ammo. A long range target is likely to be taken by Lugo and his sniper rifle, which never misses a shot. Closer targets will be taken by either man. Occasionally this doesn’t work perfectly, as Lugo will sometimes refuse to snipe long-range enemies, leaving Adams to try and move closer to get a shot on the target. Holding RB on a target that is slightly too far out of range will mean that the men will move forwards to gain a better position. If there are enemies still in the foreground, this can mean that the pair gets caught in crossfire, leaving them injured and bleeding out in the middle of a firefight. Lugo and Adams can be revived, either by Walker coming to their aid or by tapping RB to get the remaining team member to help. There is a limited window to do this though, so surrounding enemies need to be dispatched quickly.

The same favour can’t be returned for Walker. Players are either able to fight or they are dead; Walker can never be immobilised in the middle of a firefight. If Lugo or Adams sees that Walker is pinned down under suppressive fire, the option becomes available to get Adams to toss a stun grenade into the fray with a tap of RB. This command only becomes available while under suppressive fire and can’t be used at will, a decision that still confuses me after two full playthroughs of the storyline. There are several occasions where it would have been nice to get Adams to stun a group of enemies that were slightly out of Walker’s range.

My Precious Ammo

Unsurprisingly for a city that is abandoned, ammo boxes are not that easy to come by. Every now and again players will be able to replenish explosives and ammo from boxes, but the main source of ammo comes from weapons dropped by enemies. Players also have the option to press B to melee an enemy in close proximity. Once knocked to the floor, pressing B again will execute the enemy. Weirdly, this also grants players ammo (and occasionally grenades) for the weapons that Walker is currently holding. However, it will be inevitable that the ammo for Walker’s current weapon will run out eventually, forcing the player to pick up a different weapon from the floor.

Weapons cover six different categories: shotguns, pistols, SMGs, sniper rifles, heavy weapons and rifles. Each category only offers two or three different weapons throughout the game. There are three different types of grenade too: stun, frag and sticky. Smoke would seem handy but isn’t really needed; even if the enemies have dived into cover, a well-placed frag or sticky grenade can kick up a choking cloud of sand and give Delta time to move into a more convenient position while the enemies are distracted.

One thing that isn’t in short supply is explosives. There is a shocking amount of explosive barrels and canisters left lying around the city. If there isn’t an opportunity to bring sand crashing onto the enemies, there will definitely be a handful of opportunities to blow them up instead using the surroundings.

Taking Cover

Spec Ops: The Line is very much a cover-based shooter; running and gunning will get players nowhere fast. Pressing A will allow players to slip in and out of cover. At the edge of cover, players can press forward on the left joystick and press A again to slip out towards the next available cover. Pressing B will allow players to vault over low cover. Unfortunately, the cover system doesn’t always work as intended. Enemies will try to flank Walker’s position, but moving the joysticks so that players can get a visual on the enemy can result in Walker inadvertently stepping backwards out of cover and becoming an easy target. Vaulting over cover is also a little temperamental. Trying to press B in slightly the wrong spot will see Walker melee the wall instead.

Every now and then, sandstorms will rip through the area. These reduce visibility to approximately ten feet, meaning that enemies forget about you, come out of cover and stumble around in the storm as they attempt to regroup and retreat. They are easy targets but team commands are not available, meaning that players are left to do the work themselves. The cover system could definitely do with tightening – games such as Splinter Cell Conviction and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier have much better cover systems.

Taking the Battle to the Enemy

As with all modern shooters, Spec Ops: The Line has an online multiplayer mode. The game recommends that players start the campaign before they make a start on the multiplayer modes. I also can’t recommend this enough; if players begin the multiplayer modes before selecting a storage device for their campaign progress, the game is likely to reset the player’s multiplayer progress. You have been warned (yes, I’m speaking from personal experience).

The campaign for this game makes a real effort to stand out from the crowd, which is why it is a disappointment that the multiplayer takes obvious inspiration from one of the most popular shooting franchises of this generation. The game has an XP system that rewards players for kills, objectives and general teamwork. There are 45 ranks through which players can progress. Along the way, players will unlock weapons, armour, game modes and character classes – so far so generic multiplayer shooter. However, if I then mention that players also unlock perks, titles, badges, challenges and even the ability to add clan tags, the obvious comparisons with Call of Duty begin. When players reach level 45, they have the option to re-enlist and begin the unlock process again. This unlocks level two of the character classes, which offer bonuses such as increased damage, more effective armour and class specific traits. Prestige, anyone?

The multiplayer does try to be individual by bringing the campaign’s sand mechanics into play. There are plenty of opportunities to destroy walls or windows and bring sand crashing into the playing field, but unlike the AI enemies in the campaign, human enemies don’t usually spend too much time in the one spot and the encroaching sand usually misses. Sandstorms also make an appearance, reducing visibility again and blocking the player’s HUD. The aim of this is to introduce close quarters combat into the game, but most players usually find somewhere safe to sit and hide until the storm passes. The mechanics really don’t work too well in the multiplayer environment and straight-up gunplay is certainly more prevalent.

The Mode of Goodness

Players begin with access to three game modes. Chaos is a conventional deathmatch mode, whereas Mutiny is team deathmatch. The third, Buried, is an objective based mode where players are placed into two teams. Each team has to destroy the other’s three vital points. Once destroyed, the opposing team’s high value target is revealed and this must also be destroyed. There are a few maps, but players can only vote between a choice of two in the pre-match lobby. Each map supports up to eight players and they provide a good variety of cover and open areas. Unfortunately, for just eight players, the maps are a little too big. Mutiny just falls flat in these maps, as players can often spend ages wandering around the map in an attempt to find an enemy. Chaos fairs a little better as there are more possible targets.

Objective modes can both succeed or fail. Theoretically, players will either attack the opposing team or they will defend their own objective, so you always know where the enemy is likely to be. Unfortunately, with just four players on a team, the team can get stretched too thin. My first Buried match saw both teams rush past each other to attack the enemy’s objective, resulting in a rush to see who could destroy the objective first. Other matches saw the enemy attempting to defend their objective, but with nobody left to attack the opposing objectives, they were always going to lose. Shared objectives offer the best objective matches, but these aren’t unlocked until players have experienced the other three modes.

Attrition is one of the first modes to unlock. This is team deathmatch with no respawns and is the best of three rounds. Although this would be a popular mode on its own, this mode can only be played in the Combat playlist, which cycles Chaos, Mutiny and Attrition matches. Camping is the key to success here; anything that moves is likely to be killed quickly. In fact, camping in a high spot with a view of the entire map is generally the most successful strategy in any of the kill-based modes. Players who spend most of their time moving around rarely top the table at the end of a match and this is a real shame.

Players can unlock two more objective modes. Uplink gives each team a com station and an uplink location. The winning team is the first to upload a certain amount of data, but they must remain within the uplink location to do this. Meanwhile, the opposing team can attack the com station and take it offline, meaning that it must be repaired before more data can be uploaded. This mode also means that teams can get stretched a bit too thin. Both Uplink and Buried would work better with one team of attackers and one team of defenders. Rally Point, which sees a single uplink location become available for a limited amount of time and is identical to the King of the Hill mode from Gears of War, fairs much better as both teams are fighting for the same objective. Neither Rally Point nor Uplink can be played separately either, as they can only be played in the Objectives Playlist.

Being the Perfect Host

The matches are hosted by players with no option of host migration while in the pre-match lobby. If the host decides to leave while in the lobby, everybody will be kicked back to the Multiplayer menu. I can’t verify whether this would happen in the middle of a match or whether host migration would take place, as I never experienced the host leaving mid-match. While in the lobby, players are rotated between teams, meaning that you are very unlikely to play a match with the same players twice. This does often mean that squad mates are split up between the teams, causing frantic requests to change teams in the time before the match starts.

There are four minutes between each match, which is a little excessive. Three minutes are spent voting for the map while the final minute is spent loading the game. However, this is plenty of time to customise your loadout and classes. You start with three class slots and can unlock two more for a total of five. There are five classes – gunner, medic, heavy, officer and a faction-specific class (Scavenger for the Damned and Breacher for the Exiles) – but players can use their five slots any way they choose. If players want five different gunner loadouts then they can do exactly that. Each class has some different perks, but weapons and armour are mostly shared during the first few ranks, leaving little difference until players really start levelling up.

How Do I Look?

The multiplayer modes don’t really have the visual impact of the campaign. The environments aren’t as pretty and there are occasional blurred texture issues. The campaign, however, can look absolutely stunning in places with panoramic overviews of a sand-torn Dubai. The only visual issues in the campaign come during the cutscenes. Some cutscenes will stutter slightly, while the lip syncing will be out in some others. As for sound, the voice acting and sound effects can’t be faulted. The soundtrack is also surprisingly fitting, and I still find enjoyment in the irony of a firefight to the sounds of Kula Shaker’s “Hush”.

Spec Ops: The Line really is a game of two halves. The campaign is one of the most memorable that I have played, even if I was left with an uncomfortable feeling through most of it. Some of the gameplay mechanics could do with tightening a little, but I think that Yager really hit the mark with attempting to stand out from the crowd. I’m intrigued to see how the promised free co-op missions will hold up in the future and I can’t wait to get my teeth into those. On the other hand, the multiplayer has been cloned from several other games, most notably Call of Duty, and those other games just tend to do it better. This is backed up by the fact that it can be challenging to find a full lobby on some of the game modes. I don’t think that the multiplayer modes are engaging enough to keep players returning long into the future.

Hit; The storyline. One of the most memorable shooters that I have played.
Miss; The multiplayer. The modes stretch teams too thin.
Needed; Tweaks to the cover mechanic. It doesn’t quite work properly.

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I'm an avid gamer across many platforms, and I love to write about them. I'll try most games once, but I draw the line at fighters and racing sims.

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