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Spec Ops: The Line Review
Nothing screams "This is a video game!" quite like a rail shooting sequence. Spec Ops: The Line begins with one of these on-rails experiences, tasking you with shooting down a seemingly limitless supply of enemy helicopters from the gunner's seat of your own bird. And while The Line eventually gets its footing and takes on slightly more ambitious fare, this drab and generic opening is sadly indicative of the game's biggest failing; despite its challenging themes of moral ambiguity, The Line staunchly refuses to tackle the cliches and shortcomings of modern gaming's most well-worn genre. As a result, the end product feels like it's playing it oddly safe for an entertainment product that challenges you to look the horrors of war straight in the face.
That's not to say that the game is boring. After a slightly slow opening, The Line keeps things going at a breakneck clip. You'll tour warped versions of some of Dubai's most famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) landmarks and wipe them clean of the occupying insurgents, all while trying to survive yourself. This is a tougher task in The Line than in most games, as you will be more succeptable to bullets. This will force you to take cover and give orders more efficiently than you might in other games, or face the harsh consequences.
The orders that you'll be shouting out to your squad aren't the most in-depth out there. You can tag individual enemies for death at the hands of your squad, but on a moment-to-moment basis that's about all you can do. At times, you will be able to hit a button to order your squad to suppress a group of enemies with a flashbang, but these scenarios are contextual so you can't have your team toss outflashbangs whenever you want. In the face of the recent Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter or even the older Rainbow Six games, the skeleton of a command system present in The Line feels sparse at best, but it's still preferable to nothing. It's just too bad that your allies can be so lax in executing your orders. All too often I found myself having to clean up after my allies as they failed time and time again to take out the marked targets in a reasonable timeframe.
Doing the shooting yourself is always satisfying, but the gunplay in The Line is overly stiff and may take some getting used to. Other third-person shooters have done a far better job of implementing character momentum into the aiming system, making for more natural-feeling action. The shooting in this game feels mechanical by comparison. Once you take some time to get used to it, you'll find it to be entirely functional but little else.
Luckily, there are often far more fun and creative ways to dispatch your foes than through simple firepower. Flooded as it is with sand, Dubai itself can in many situations be used as a weapon against your enemies. An early example of this sees you burying a group of ambushers in sand by shooting out a few windows above them. This mechanic will come into play during several battles over the course of the game. Sometimes it will be mandatory, while in other situations it exists purely to reward the more observant players with a few quick kills.
A variety of grenades will also allow you to take the fight to the enemies in pretty interesting ways. The standard frag grenades are of course present and will allow you to reduce oncoming waves of enemies to giblets. Flashbangs are also a key staple of your arsenal, and will naturally let you blind oncoming enemies. The most satisfying of the grenades is the sticky grenade, which you can latch onto parts of the environment or even the enemies themselves to make for an explosive surprise. Again, it's nothing you haven't seen in other games, but the grenade-tossing in The Line is one of the more satisfying ways to tear your enemies up.
I suppose this is the part where I should mention how The Line's excessive violence, as well as its tendency to linger on the results of said violence, disturbed me and made me meditate deeply on the harsh realities of war. That has after all been a driving force in the game's marketing campaign. Thing is, the gruesome scenes in the game didn't often have much effect on me. Maybe I'm just a high-functioning sociopath (okay, so there's no maybe about it) but I found much of the violence in The Line to be, well, just more video game violence. After all, I've gleefully chopped many a dude in half and blown many a head off to progress through games in the past, and although the violence can be uncomfortable in The Line, it rarely gets any gorier than many games that don't even attempt to take their subject matter seriously.
But hey, at least this game actually attempts to take a serious look at violence, and to its credit it did work on a few occasions. At one point towards the middle of the game, my squad happened upon a stockpile of white phosphorus and a launcher through which to shoot it. As it so happened, an entire squad of enemies laid in wait for me in the couryard below. I could have taken the tough way out and battled through the enemies with just my guns and grenades, but would it not be far more efficient to simply toast the bad guys from my elevated position? Despite my squad's hesitations, I readily hpped behind the launcher and proceeded to char everyone below me to a toasty crisp in a scene that felt straight out of Modern Warfare's famous AC-130 level.
But unlike that revered scene, The Line was intent on making a point, and proceeded to force me to trudge through the wreckage I had just created to this end. I waded through the burning wreckage of the enemy camp while the survivors, many of whom were missing entire limbs, died slowly and noisily beneath my feet. The real kicker came when I reached the edge of the camp, though. I won't spoil the shocking conclusion of the level here as it's something that players should experience for themselves, but suffice it to say that a little more precision in my strike probably would have saved a lot of people a very graphic and painful death.
This is one of the scenarios in which The Line's combination of gravitas and violence really works, and it's simply a beautiful thing. As I said earlier, much of the violent content comes off as just another game. After all, how many times have we blown off heads, severed limbs, and even murdered innocents in games and not given it a second thought? It's a tricky subject to tackle in a serious and ponderous way in the context of a shooter, and while The Line doesn't always pack the introspective and emotional punch that it aims for, when it does it's much better for it.
But what I keep coming back to, even after hard-hitting scenes such as the one described above, is just how generic the action in the game can be. From a gameplay perspective, there is absolutely nothing here to differentiate this game from the dozens of other shooters flooding the market, save maybe for the baffling fact that it lacks a dodge roll function. That certainly doesn't make the prospect of jumping into a bunch of online matches sound appealing. After all, while the story has enough character and action to entertain heavily despite the generic gameplay, the multiplayer is lacking in all but the most basic of frameworks.
A standard leveling system will guide you through the game's various firearms and grenades, while a handful of maps will make for decent enough arenas for the fast-paced combat. These arenas are often home to devious sand-based traps that can be dropped onto unsuspecting enemies for efficient kills. They can be really tough to notice in the heat of battle, though, so map memorization may be a more viable tactic in some scenarios than simple skill alone. That said, it's a welcome change of pace to the otherwise perfectly standard multiplayer. Just as with the single-player gameplay, it's not that the multiplayer is by any means bad; it's just occupying some very well-worn territory, and it doesn't have the unique moral quandries of the campaign to bolster it.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game guilty of great ambitions, and when it succeeds at reaching the lofty heights for which it aims it's all the better for it. The problem is that the emotional stuff doesn't always hit the target, and when it does miss, the all-too-familiar gameplay can't support the game's great weight. This is still an experience worth having for shooter buffs and fans of interesting moral qunadries, but know that with great ambition comes the possibility for great failure, and at times The Line skirts dangerously close to this worst-case scenario.