Spec Ops – The Line: First impressions

Last night I had a chance to head into the Take Two offices to play a bit of the upcoming shooter Spec Ops – The Line. They had a build of the game that was something like 50-60% of the whole game, so I sat down for an hour and just went in guns blazing.

Well, not quite guns blazing, because Yager Development must’ve taken a page out of Left 4 Dead 2’s book and limited the amount of ammo you can carry and find. What happens a lot then, is that you’ll be constantly scavenging different guns pretty often. I didn’t realize how little ammo there would be at first, and on a couple of occasions I was completely out of ammo and had to flank and melee some guys to pick up their guns.

Welcome to Dubai!

The plot

Anyway, the basic gist of this new Spec Ops is that Dubai has been hit by a massive sandstorm that has turned the luxurious city into one giant ghost down, dwarfed by enormous sand dunes and valleys. An elite military unit called the Damned 33rd, led by a Col. John Konrad, had gone in but went AWOL. Then there was a mysterious distress beacon, and your squad of Delta operators are sent in to investigate. And that’s when everything just goes completely nuts.

The plot seems to be what’s really setting this game apart from the other shooters (more about the gameplay itself later). It is based on Heart of Darkness, that same novel that the classic film Apocalypse Now was based on, and I initially had reservations about this, because the last thing I want to play is a carbon-copy of that movie. But from what I’ve played, it’s really quite different, and what they’ve taken from it is inspiration about the horrors of war, rather than just replicating a famous movie and switching Vietnam with Dubai.

During my session, I met up with unknown local insurgents, CIA guys of dubious motives, members of the Damned 33rd, and random civilians – and I have no idea who is on my side, or who I should not be shooting at. When I see bodies of executed soldiers, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad thing. The plot keeps twisting around, and in a good way thus far. Everyone’s either shooting at you, or seems mad, and you’re just confused while returning fire. It’s a bit like a David Lynch movie, except with more gunfire and no dwarfs that speak in reverse.

“What the hell is going on? Why is everyone shooting at us?”

At one point, I was in a tense stand-off with some guy, and it looked like things were getting settled because he was lowering his gun. I wanted to test just how much choice you had in the game, so I pulled the trigger and lo and behold – I shot the guy dead just as he was putting his gun on the floor. This action shocked not only my two squad mates (resulting in a dialogue sequence where they’re like “what the hell did you do that for?”), but the PR folks that were talking me through the game.

I’m told that there are many of these choices to make in the game. Spec Ops is not trying to be Mass Effect or anything, so these choices are not going to affect the ending or anything (then again, your choices in Mass Effect 3 affect jack shit too), but apparently these situations are there to push your own sense of ethics, and drive home the horrors of war where choices aren’t as clear cut as Paragon/Renegade, but more like bad/worse/what can your soul stomach?

Well, this part of the game is looking pretty good! I look forward to finding out what the hell is really going on in Dubai when I play the full build of the game.

The gameplay

One thing about the actual gameplay is that there isn’t anything that outstanding about it. There aren’t any gameplay gimmicks to shout out about, like a unique cover system, bullet time, or stealth-based gameplay. It’s just more or less a straight shooter. Left trigger to aim the gun, right trigger to shoot. There are some orders that you can give to your team-mates, but it doesn’t seem like this is really necessary to get through the game.

The things that were different about the game are the environment and the sandstorms.

Dubai is a city that really hasn’t shown up in any videogames much, so it’s a welcomed change to the usual assortment of space craft, jungles, and urban environments. Furthermore, this Dubai has been badly hit by a giant sandstorm, so it makes for a nice contrast between the obscenely luxurious hotels and the giant mounds of desert sand. One moment you’ll be in a sandy exterior environment, and then the next thing you know, you’re inside a hotel with high ceilings and expensive statues to shoot apart.

The environments are totally different from other shooters.

Speaking of shooting things apart, there are many moments in the game when you’ll be near a window, with a huge amount of sand just waiting to pour in from outside. Shooting those windows will cause them to shatter and allow the sand to pour in, burying any enemies in the area. It’s sometimes pretty subtle and won’t have a big glowing prompt that says “SHOOT ME”, so you’ll have to keep your eye out for opportunities like that. Most of the time, you’ll do this to conserve ammo while dealing with a lot of bad guys, but sometimes  you’ll also need to do it to get out of the building.

Remember that giant sandstorm scene in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol? Well, it happens a few times in this game. During the sandstorms, visibility will be extremely poor, allowing you to get out into the open and find proper cover while bad guys fire blindly. And these storms look good! Well, it sounds strange to say it looks good while also harping on the hampered visibility, but trust me it looks good.

One complaint is the sprint function – unlike most other games where you have to hold down on the A button, in Spec Ops you merely have to hold it long enough to activate sprint, and then you can let go of the button. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but in games like Gears of War, sprinting into a wall or obstacle will automatically get you locked into cover.

In Spec Ops, you have to hit the A button again. This lead to several instances where I’d run into a wall, expecting to immediately take cover, but I’d just stood around taking bullet hits until I remembered to press A again. I’m not sure why they decided to go with this, but I find it not very intuitive.

Once you’re in cover, you can perform cover-to-cover movements, but it’s not as easy as in Splinter Cell Conviction or Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.

One thing that doesn’t quite affect the gameplay but still looks amazing is the way soldiers die. Maybe I just haven’t been paying as much attention in other games, but it seems like the way soldiers die in this game are really quite realistic, and they’ve been given several animations in this area (in addition to the usual rag-doll animations) to further reinforce the horrors of war.

For example, I shot these two guys and they went down. I took cover and averted my attention to other more pressing matters, like the soldiers that are still shooting at me. Out of the corner of the screen, I noticed that these guys were still moving. So I looked over, and lo and behold, one of them had struggled up onto his hands and knees, and was coughing out blood. The other was lying there, dying but still visibly alive.

Out of curiosity, I just watched them to see if they’d eventually pick up a gun to shoot me, continue to gasp for life until I finished them off, or eventually bleed out and die.

They bled out and died. At the same time, the Take Two folks stared at me like I was the most sadistic videogame reviewer they’d ever met.

I tried to explain that I’m not really a psycho, and that this was just to test what they’ve done with the game. I think I successfully pleaded my case – that is, until I accidentally (and I stress accidentally) shot a fleeing unarmed woman a few minutes later.

Yeah, things in Dubai are cray-cray!

The sound

One thing I have to stress is how amazing the game sounds. The gunfire sounds like really thumping gunfire, and since I played it on a sweet 5.1 system, that meant I was twitching my head whenever I heard shots behind me and stuff. The explosions also sounded great, and this seems like it could be one of those games that you can use to test out a new set of speakers.

Something unusual about the sound design in this game is the choice of music. Usually games like this will use something Hans Zimmer-sounding, like all epic orchestral and shit. Just think the Halo theme pumping, etc.

The music in this game is classic rock. And it’s not like they chose to just pipe music over the action – there are literally speakers set up in the combat zones, either blaring out strange propaganda messages or classic rock. It really evokes that Apocalypse Now feel, contrasting a warzone with a rock concert.

The presence of this music just totally changes the vibe of the combat. They’re cool tunes, but when put in that situation, it really adds to the whole “world gone crazy” WTF vibe.

Anyway, Spec Ops – The Line is due out June 29 2012, and will be available for all the usual platforms.

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About Drew

I love videogames, movies, my wife and my dog (in no particular order). View all posts by Drew

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