Before the shooter market became dominated by the same two publishers (more or less), there used to be a time when the genres of third- and first-person shooters were bursting with different intellectual properties across the board. Every IP was vying for attention, and there was a little bit of everything for fans of these genres; the last generation was riddled with games ranging from semi-realistic shooters to about 50 games based solely on World War II.
This prominent group military shooters eventually began to shrink and were reduced to a much smaller sphere of influence. In my own reviews of games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3, I likened the differences between the two to the differences between The Shield and The Wire. Both were excellent in their own right; one was predicated on telling compelling stories via a strict adherence to realism (Battlefield 3), while the other utilized a formula that could be described only as balls-to-the-wall insanity (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3).
Where does Spec Ops: The Line fit in to all of this? A combo-breaker is something that it is not, it is however, a breath of fresh air – in fact, it was the most fun I have had in a third-person shooter ever since my days on the old SOCOM games. The strength of Spec Ops: The Line lies in its story, it is one of the most visceral and intense stories I have seen in a military shooter, this is due in part to the source material. The stories featured in other shooters are more like glorified tutorials for the multiplayer, with utterly forgettable characters and storylines; Spec Ops’ narrative is much more memorable than that. It follows more of the formulas of a psychological military film, much like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, or The Hurt Locker.
The single player campaign is based off of Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel, Heart of Darkness. The thought of a video game – a third-person shooter no less – based off of a famous piece of literature was enough to pique my interest in the months leading up to the title’s release. What I found more interesting, however, was how the writers of the game made it clear on more than one occasion that their game was solely based off of Heart of Darkness.
This perplexed some of us whom are film buffs who had already made the obvious connection with Apocalypse Now (both the game and film are war-themed adaptations of the novel). Apocalypse Now was a film about Vietnam, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, it is one of the quintessential Vietnam films. What has made the film so memorable was its arguably honest portrayal of the horrors of war, the lack of glory, and the impact the soldier’s psyche. Whether the developers wanted it or not, there were quite a few parallels between Apocalypse Now and Spec Ops: The Line. The references to Apocalypse Now seemed to be skillfully included in a way so as to be a nod to fans of the film while at the same time not alienating those were not familiar with. The adherence to the source material also meant that there were many moments in Spec Ops’ narrative that dealt with the deconstruction of the characters, and the major overarching themes being that of hopeless, and the slow, painful decomposition of morality. This made for a very powerful single-player campaign – on the side of the narrative.
The game is set in Dubai in the not-so-distant future. After an unfathomable onslaught of sandstorms, the city is essentially buried, with the survivors cut off from water, supplies, fuel, and civilization. The premise is very similar to that of the aforementioned Apocalypse Now, with a rogue colonel by the name of John Konrad (a reference to Joseph Conrad) and his missing battalion of American troops, known to those outside of Dubai as the “Damned” 33rd. Konrad – a hero in the war in Afghanistan – volunteered to lead the rescue-and-recovery effort with the 33rd and was sent in in the aftermath of the storms. Konrad eventually defied orders to desert the city and stayed, along with his men, to weather the deteriorating conditions in an ongoing effort to maintain order and complete their mission. After the disappearance of the 33rd, the United Arab Emirates and surrounding Islamic nations declared Dubai a no-man’s-land in order to quell any looting or anarchy in the region.
The very first cutscenes are full of action, and the story itself begins In Medias Res. After the title flashes across the screen, we are introduced to the main characters of the game: Captain Martin Walker, Staff Seargent John Lugo, and First Lieutenant Alphonso Adams. Due to the instability of the region, only these three men have been sent in to locate the 33rd and any survivors, with immediate extraction being the primary objective. The U.S. government believes that any further loss of life could plunge the U.S. into a war with all of the Middle East, a war which they claim they would lose.
Nolan North (the voice of Nathan Drake, Deadpool, and countless others) provides the voice of the main character, Walker. Fans of the Uncharted series will recognize his voice immediately, and there is not much of a difference between the two in the earliest segments of the game. There is noticeable gruffness in Walker’s voice, which sets him apart from Drake, and as the game evolves towards the final chapters, both his voice and appearance become much more weathered. Christopher Reid and Omid Abtahni also do a great job at complimenting North’s talent in their roles as Adams and Lugo, respectively.
Since this is a third-person shooter, it came as no surprise that there is a cover system that largely dictates how the overall gameplay functions. Much like other games in the genre, it felt like it was designed to discourage any type of run-and-gun tactics, and most enemy encounters are decided by how well and how fast a player can stick and move through cover throughout the various maps. The cover system is pretty consistent for the most part, though there are noticeable issues. The most frustrating of which is the inability to heal wounded squad-mates while in cover. The game forces you to expose yourself to whatever amount of enemy fire, your squad-mate’s life be damned.