As far as ‘realistic’ military shooters go, the last few years have been dominated by a certain first person franchise with third person entries taking a back seat, the Spec Ops series itself having remained dormant for over a decade. With the release of The Line, Yager Development is seeking to once again bring the Spec Ops brand to the forefront of action gamers’ minds and it succeeds – up to a point.
As Captain Martin Walker (voiced convincingly by the inimitable Nolan North), the leader of a Delta Recon Team, you and your teammates are tasked with discovering what went wrong during an attempted evacuation of Dubai. Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that The Line has one of the most compelling stories you’re likely to experience in a game, one which makes you question not only the reasoning and motivations of the characters on screen, but also your own actions throughout the title. It is the American military viewed through a Francis Ford Copolla lens, as opposed to that of Michael Bay, rewarding those willing to dig a little deeper.
The single player campaign doesn’t overstay its welcome, clocking in at 5-10 hours depending on the difficulty level you select. The sensible running time encourages multiple playthroughs in order to re-examine the choices you did or didn’t make the first time through.
Powered by Epic’s Unreal Engine, The Line tips its hat to the Gears of War series in a number of ways, from its use of the run, cover and vault mechanic to the unmistakeable bloom and stiff facial animations inherent to the engine. The level design is very well done, with some of the game’s hotel set pieces bringing to mind BioShock. The aquarium theme and general obsession with water present in Yager Development’s vision of Dubai is probably no surprise given the harsh desert environment surrounding it.
The environment is incorporated into the gameplay as sandstorms bring lower visibility and accuracy for both you and the AI. It’s also possible to destroy barricades and windows in order to rain an avalanche of sand down upon your enemies, burying them completely. While interesting, this is a mechanic that could have been exploited more often. The deft use of lens flare and the contrast of light and dark is another area in which The Line excels. These tricks are often used to great effect when you emerge from an interior into an exterior location and the sun blinds you before your eyes can refocus.
The main problem when comparing The Line’s gameplay to that of its contemporaries however is it’s unreliability when it comes to actually running, taking cover and then vaulting over said cover. With every action being context sensitive, the game sometimes has trouble distinguishing what it is exactly that you’re trying to do. You find yourself sweeping up and down a wall, having to manoeuvre into just the right position in order to be allowed to take cover or leap over it. These control issues heavily impact upon the combat in the game. You may find yourself suddenly standing bolt upright in the middle of a fire fight, when you’re actually just trying to move along the cover to get a better shot. The cover itself can sometimes be confusing. Imagine running headlong into a storm of bullets only to find that a chest high structure that is seemingly designed to provide vital cover instead provides none at all. There you stand, frantically pressing buttons as your screen becomes awash with blood.
One area of gameplay that definitely warrants mention is the AI. Unlike some other games, on higher difficulty levels your enemies will employ effective tactics when trying to destroy your squad. Fortunately, the same level of intelligence in your teammates prevents them from becoming bullet sponges intent on soaking up as much of your opponent’s ammo as possible. The ability to direct your teammates with a single command each is also very helpful, despite its apparent simplicity. When you’re pinned down by either a sniper or a group of enemies, it’s great to be able to direct one of your team members to save your bacon.
The control issues that hobble the campaign carry over into The Line’s lacklustre multiplayer component, becoming even more offensive when coupled with the increased level of pressure that comes with human opposition. Using the perk and weapon unlock levelling system mandatory in online shooters nowadays, the game does little to innovate. It offers a maximum of four on four player matches. Many of the maps are either small or surprisingly large and not particularly exciting in terms of design. Whilst the inclusion of sandstorms in multiplayer can help increase the tension of a match, it is a mechanic which feels as underused and underdeveloped here as it does in the single player. The nail in the multiplayer mode’s coffin is that it comes complete with a lower level of graphical fidelity and noticeable bouts of lag.
Perhaps the decision to refrain from including multiplayer achievements/trophies in the title is a symptom of these problems, although personally I find this a welcome change given the difficulty in obtaining such things in games with generally low online player counts. In a bold move, The Line also ships without any sort of online pass which is great for gamers on a budget, but a questionable decision given that it only truly shines in its single player component.
Despite what might seem to be some harsh criticism of the title, Spec Ops: The Line is a must for anybody looking for compelling stories in their shooters, something that the genre is not well known for.