Spec Ops: The Line PC Review
Spec Ops: The Line is one of those games that was brilliant in concept and in some ways masterfully executed, but a key element is missing that makes it only a bit better than average. Unfortunately, the part that's missing is fun shooting, which is kind of important in a game where you're holding a gun nearly the whole way through.
Developed by Yager and published by 2K, Spec Ops seemed to wallow in development limbo for a while, and now, two years after the last time we saw it in action, it looks like... pretty much the same game, but now with more polish. The idea behind the plot and setting was certainly fantastic: a flurry of sandstorms nearly buries the shining desert city of Dubai in sand, and the soldiers sent to help with evacuations of the city got caught in even worse storms that rolled in. Months later, a distress signal sent from somewhere in Dubai triggers the Army to send in a squad from Delta Force to investigate. What follows is a complete Charlie Foxtrot where multiple factions of American soldiers are all killing each other.
From the perspective of the plot, the beginning can be a bit confusing. You're in control of Delta Force Captain Martin Walker, played by video game voice acting legend Nolan North The guy that recorded the distress call is a soldier named John Konrad, and it turns out he's pretty much Walker's mentor and hero. After a short while of investigating and defending themselves from locals with assault rifles, it quickly becomes obvious that Konrad's unit, the 33rd, isn't really trapped in Dubai; instead, they've had a bit of a mutiny, and one faction of them is holding refugees and survivors hostage and running the place like a bunch of warlords. Then there are some CIA soldiers, separate from Walker and his Delta Force pals that show up trying to do what Walker and his crew are doing, and pretty soon you've got a big mess of American soldiers all firing at each other. After a while, though, a true villain does properly surface, and the lines between friend and enemy become a little clearer... for a while, at least.
Walker and his AI-controlled buddies Adams and Lugo have to enter the treacherous, but still beautiful, city to get to the bottom of all of it. The game does actually branch the plot here and there based on the player's choice, giving people the chance to possibly get some extra replay value out of their sixty bucks, and as the characters descend further into madness, you might find yourself making choices you're not entirely comfortable with. Still, all of your choices are pretty much entirely made down the barrel of your gun, and what you're mostly affecting is the story. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of the locations and the combat are pretty much the same regardless of choice.
What was intended to make Spec Ops' gameplay interesting was the use of sand as a way to surprise either your enemies or, if you're not terribly observant, a way to throw you off your game. The game includes plenty of opportunities to shoot out a huge pane of glass to cause an avalanche of sand to bury your enemies in, but the developers do rely on it rather liberally throughout the fairly short single player campaign. The thing is, standing your ground behind cover, holding your crosshair steady, and simply popping enemies in the head with a bullet or two seems to be the most efficient way to deal with pretty much every situation, and while the designs of the opulent hotels (some of which are real structures in Dubai) makes for a great setting, it's unfortunate that the biggest drag in this game is the action itself.
The more I played Spec Ops, the less I actually wanted to play and the more I just wanted to experience it. I'd have rather just enjoyed the visuals and story. As far as the action goes, it's pretty standard fare: Walker can carry two weapons, and most enemies drop their guns so you've almost always got at least something you can pick up and shoot. Being that this is a third person shooter, the aiming mechanics need to work properly if you're ever going to hit anything, and thankfully they do here on PC. The cover system is pretty much a requirement for the player to use, as Walker ducks in and out of cover very quickly, making for very easy headshots when popping out to snap, aim and fire, and cover is generally quite safe as the rather braindead AI enemies will rarely try to flank you. Just about the only time you might get caught with your pants down in a firefight is if you move to a spot where you're getting hit from two sides at once, but just a tiny bit of trial and error involving a death and a checkpoint - if you even need it - will fix that problem very easily.
As a shooter, Spec Ops doesn't innovate much, and the action just isn't addictive or gratifying enough to stand alongside its peers. Other than maybe the shotguns, most weapons don't have a very solid feel behind them, and hit feedback (both in receiving and delivering bullets) just doesn't work very well. The game runs on the venerable Unreal Engine 3 and the mouse-based aiming is pretty much exactly what you'd expect out of games running on this tech, which is to say it's pretty nice, but it's just kind of disappointing that a game trying to outdo Call of Duty still isn't getting its shooting mechanics quite right. These issues can sap the player's motivation to keep going - even when the story really starts picking up.
The settings are interesting, and the visuals on the PC version of the game are very good, but most of that splendor here comes from artistry rather than technical prowess. Even on maximum settings, I often saw some rather muddy textures peppered throughout some otherwise very interesting level design; simply put, the PC version of Spec Ops is not something you're going to want to use to show off your newly built gaming machine to your console-playing friends. It barely looks better, and while this port can offer up 60fps action at resolutions much higher than a console can handle, that's about all it can do. This is a straight-up console port, albeit with a not-totally-insulting array of options and settings.
Spec Ops seems to have a fully-functional multiplayer mode, but for the purposes of this review on PC, I was completely unable to test it. The simple reason for this is that I couldn't find anyone to play against through Steamworks-supported online play. Glancing through the menus, I can see that this game generally mimics the Call of Duty model of ranks, perks, and the like, but there are dedicated classes with specific stats to promote teamplay to go along with the personal progression. There's a hardcore variant along with DM, Team DM, and several team-based modes made just for this game, but I have no idea what they're really like unless I play them. Hopefully some people pick this game up and at least a modest multiplayer community gets going, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Oh, I should also point out for the record that the game does support LAN servers, even if you still have to start up and run through Steam DRM first, and all multiplayer games are hosted on players' PCs - there are no dedicated servers here.
Spec Ops: The Line is trying very hard to improve incrementally on the Call of Duty formula, and it does look quite pretty and seem like a great concept - until you sit down with it and realize it's merely an average game when you try to play it. Much like THQ and Kaos Studios' 2011 shooter Homefront, the full package isn't really worth the sum of its parts. But unlike Homefront, Spec Ops has a multiplayer mode that, as far as I can tell, no one is even playing, so unlike what I did with THQ's game, I can't really give this one bonus points based on long-term online play. I can give it points for its interesting plot, player choices, and the ending, though, as those generally work much better than the actual shooting part does. Still, the end result is a great concept with a somewhat underwhelming execution and a lot of missed opportunities. If you're looking for a pretty standard military shooter with some crazy plot twists, this might be worth a shot, but if you want something that'll last you weeks or months, you might have to wait for some upcoming fall releases.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail PC copy provided by Valve Software through Steam.