Spec-Ops: The Line is not your ordinary military shooter. Sure, it plays like the bastard child of Call of Duty and Gears of War, but the style and story could not be any more different. It’s not as if the genre hasn’t flirted with darker subject matter - Call of Duty: Black Ops was a fairly twisted conspiracy myth, while Homefront had its concentration camps and mass burials. However, there was always something cartoony about the morality of those games, with their cackling villains and crazy premises - it wasn’t something you could relate in any way to the real world.
It’s not that Spec Ops: The Line is in any way a realistic depiction of the horrors of war, but it has an edge to it and a desire to look behind the normal Call of Duty stuff. It’s a game that wants you to think about what your enemies are doing and what you are doing, and maybe feel a little bad about it all.
It also helps that it has a more imaginative premise and a more spectacular setting than your average action game. The Line is the tale of three US Delta Force operatives, sent to find an army regiment lost during the evacuation of a Dubai hit by an apocalyptic sandstorm. The setting is surreal, with vast dunes piled against the side of epic skyscrapers, and the most ostentatious signs of wealth and luxury buried by the invading dust. In terms of gameplay the effects are limited, with the occasional sandstorm forcing you to run for cover, or clearly marked points where you can blast out a window to bury a group of hostiles in several tonnes of sand. It does, however, give the game a coherence and a style that sets it apart from your straight Call of Duty clones.
Spec Ops in Action
But then The Line doesn’t play like a straight Call of Duty clone. For a start, it’s played from a third-person viewpoint, and cover is a major issue. On the normal difficulty level you can be killed by only a few shots, and while the standard wait until your health recharges approach still works, smart or heavily armed enemies make aggressive play a risky business. As with Ghost Recon: Future Soldier or Gears of War, its two closest points of comparison, you need to be fully aware of your surroundings, of where you can find cover and where you’ll be vulnerable to incoming fire. What’s more, ammo is in painfully short supply, so there’s not a lot of room for just hunkering down until all your enemies are killed off, either.
To help balance your odds against overwhelming numbers of foes you have your two comrades-in-arms, and the game has a simple system of left and right-bumper clicks and holds to get them to target specific foes, throw grenades to stun the hostiles, or heal each other should one go down. Allied AI is, for the most part, really good. Your guys can hold their own in the firefight, but there’s none of the Modern Warfare 3 experience where you sometimes feel you’re just mopping up after the real heroes have done their job.
Now, we should say that Spec Ops: The Line has its share of gameplay issues. Sometimes the cover system doesn’t quite click, leaving you vulnerable when you don’t expect to be. Sometimes your mates go down in an open area, forcing you to make a suicide mission to bring them back to life. At times the game throws out silly numbers of enemy troops in wave after wave of protracted battle, forcing you to grin and bear it and just hope and pray that you hit the next checkpoint. The pacing isn’t as slick as a Call of Duty’s, sometimes losing momentum midway through a level.