It’s probably not unfair to say that the military shooter is in a pretty crowded market: to be generous we could talk about “genre fatigue”, but some have even raised the spectre of “boring vanilla”. Spec Ops: The Line has had a somewhat fraught development history, so it’s reasonable to approach it with some degree of scepticism. Having said that, players demand engaging campaigns with impressive narrative elements and immersive environments, and this might just fit the bill.
Before a hands-on demo, we had the opportunity to sit down with Francois Coulon, Executive Producer on Spec Ops: The Line (and designer of the original Splinter Cell games), and chat a little about what he’s been working on for the past few years.
Set in Dubai, this game has attracted some interest (if not controversy) by depicting a massive disaster in the form of a mammoth sandstorm, drawing suggestions that it may become banned in the United Arab Emirates. While the general setting may be a bit familiar by now, a pseudo-post-apocalyptic urban mecca may be an interesting place to play. Visually the game looks stunning: the demo opens with a Black Hawk Down-like scenario in Dubai and treats the player to wide cityscapes and a post-apocalyptic freeway scene. Trailers suggest that the core aesthetic will remain with some variation to general environmental design and lighting based on the time of day. The narrative, however, is a clear focus of the game, and we’ve seen this work well in popular FPS games like Call of Duty: Black Ops.
The player fills the boots of Captain Martin Walker, voiced by Nolan North, the voice of Nathan Drake among many others. Walker is sent into Dubai to collect US Army Colonel John Konrad, who has reputedly gone native and incited an internecine war between former US troops with his own brutal brand of order restoration. This immediately puts one in mind of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (see what they did with the name there?), and the film Apocalypse Now which adapted the same story into the Vietnam War. Seeing this key narrative adapted once more in a very-near future will make book nerds raise an eyebrow.
The campaign gameplay is fairly standard for a squad-based third-person shooter, with sticky cover mechanics, mantle kicks, a variety of weapons, and so on. And to be honest it feels pretty standard too, with some slight variations such as a stun effect on melee and quite visceral executions. One intriguing element is a squad management component, whereby the player can direct NPC squadmates to attack specified targets. This may introduce an element of strategic planning and a more in-depth immersion in the level design than we have seen so far. There are notable environmental effects, but again this is nothing particularly mindblowing.
The multiplayer promises class-based squad mechanics with two factions and a new “Buried” mode, and it is likely that we will get few gameplay surprises here. In fact, a company rep speaking off the record steered us strongly in the direction of the singleplayer, to the point of suggesting that we not play the multiplayer until we had tried the singleplayer. The company’s effort and focus clearly is driven towards the singleplayer experience, which is refreshing for an FPS, although he did of emphasise that he also wants the game to deliver a holistic experience as well. Obviously 2K wants to have its cake and eat it too, but it’s likely that this game will appeal to players who feel estranged by the near-inevitable focus on multiplayer in franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield.
One defining feature of the game seems to be the eruption of sandstorms, which not only limit visibility (as per Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception) but also initiate environmental destruction effects. These are supposed to be dynamic and random, but it remains to be seen whether they give the genre the shot in the arm it needs, especially in terms of gameplay.
To be honest, the development of Spec Ops: The Line has had a bit of a chequered history that goes back to 2003. After falling sales of the Spec Ops franchise, the project bounced between Take-Two and Rockstar and a possible 2011 release was pushed back to June, 2012. It’s hard to tell without a full playthrough, but there is the danger that Spec Ops: The Line will play poor cousin to the multitude of military shooters out there, and that the push to ship may turn out to be a case of 2K cutting its losses. If you’re a hardened fan of first-person shooters (especially those with a strong narrative element in single player) you may well get just what you need here. By the same token, it may have just the right things for those who have considered the genre but not gone so far as to try it out. If you are happy with your current favourite multiplayer, it may not offer enough to make you convert.
Spec Ops: The Line comes to PC, PS3, and Xbox360 on June 26; to play the full demo yourself via XBLA or PSN, click here.