I recently played Spec Ops: The Line, a 2012 videogame by a German development team, Yager. As a videogame, Spec Ops is far from the realism of an Armed Assault, yet, it is not a Call of Duty copy and brings some fresh air to action games with military backgrounds.
The plot is set nowadays (or maybe in a near future, as date is not specified) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. As the city has been wiped out by massive sandstorms, US Army Colonel Konrad volunteered his battalion to help the relief efforts and the evacuation of the population. The situation went “FUBAR” when Konrad deserted with his unit and decided to remain in Dubai to help the population whilst the Pentagon ordered him to withdraw as the sandstorms intensified. Left alone and in the hope of maintaining order, the 33rd Battalion enforced martial law, which sparked off an insurgency Konrad and its unit quelled in blood. The game begins as three Delta operatives arrive in Dubai to investigate what is left of the city and the 33rd Battalion.
Regarding the gameplay, Spec Ops has no real assets over its competitors and can sometimes hardly stand the comparison with other third person shooters, such as the Gears of War serie. As in every TPS, the player gets his character to cover, aims over the cover to target enemies, gets back under its crate/concrete wall/whatever… to avoid shots and regain some health points he has just lost and then move to the next cover. Classic, without any surprise and sometimes a bit boring due to repetitiveness of this concept.
Regarding the sound and visuals, the artistic direction is however quite good. When entering the game, you are greeted by Jimi Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner, and you will have the pleasure of listening to great rock music by Deep Purple, Björk, Nine Inch Nails… along the game.
The Unreal Engine used to depict this apocalyptic Dubai works wonders. The delta team strides along a city crossed by dunes, home to skyscrapers sunk in sand and refugees camps mopped up by the 33rd Battalion. Yager also made great use of the graphic engine to picture injuries (explicit content) suffered in the forsaken city, which can shock players with the same strength as combat footage or photography.
A beautiful yet average TPS at times we are being overwhelmed by humdrum military first person shooters with simplistic plot (Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, etc)… The case would have been closed, if not its storytelling.
In fulfilling its mission, the delta team will go deeper into this man-made hell. Its journey will remind the player of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (both the movie and the game share the same inspiration: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and as he goes through the game, he cannot help but wonder what horrors or madness will he witness in the next cinematic.
An expert in crisis management or military operations is likely to notice some inconsistencies: what are white phosphorus mortar shells doing in the crates of a military unit deployed as part of a humanitarian mission? How do marksmen manage to shoot with accuracy during a storm blowing sand at 80 miles per hour? Is the deployment of a three-men Delta team a realistic option to investigate a city and a military unit that went off the grid? However, Spec Ops is a videogame and does not pretend to achieve great levels of realism such as the ArmA serie.
The player is offered the possibility of making some choices between harsh options (spare civilians, or a CIA agent whose methods are doubtful but who might be working to achieve a greater good?), which strengthens the immersion into the journey. The player’s choices will have limited impacts on the development of the scenario but these choices are welcome as they change us from the imposed black and white plot of the latest shooting games. These choices have the merit of involving us a little more in this hell and having us think a bit more about the filth of war and the madness it can trigger.
This experience will not be as moving as watching Peter Kosminsky’s Peacekeepers but it is refreshing (if I may use this adjective whereas the game depicts a hot and dirty environment). Not to mention the different endings of the game and an unexpected deus ex machina that shatters all you experienced during the game.
Hence Spec Ops is definitely a game to play for players interested in games with a military background and looking for something a bit more clever than the usual Call of Duty /Medal of Honor series big editors sell to the general public.