December 2018
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Review: Spec Ops: The Line

I was standing in line at Best Buy the other day when someone out of the blue asked me if I played Call of Duty.  “No, I do not” I replied, a hint of disgust in my voice.  A military shooter?  Me?  I don’t think so.  So you can imagine when I first started hearing the buzz about Spec Ops: The Line – how it’s different, a thinking man’s military shooter – how I was skeptical to say the least.  I am skeptical no more.

Spec Ops The Line - 1On paper, Spec Ops: The Line seems pretty typical of the genre.  You control Col. Walker, a seemingly typical military grunt who’s leading a 3-man team into the remains of Dubai to assess the situation and then return with a report.  However Col. Walker makes an on-the-fly decision to search for survivors instead of returning with their report when they stumble across some deceased soldiers.  From there, things quickly spiral out of control as the game shows you just how brutal and ugly war can actually be, and what toll it takes on the soldiers who fight it.  Since the majority of the enemies you will fight are other American soldiers, every encounter leaves you feeling uneasy and questioning what is truly right or wrong.  The story is definitely the highlight of the experience, but that also means that it’s the part I can talk about the least because to spoil any of it would be doing you a disservice.  Suffice to say that the further you go into the game, the weirder and more out of control things get.  It all culminates with an ending that simply has to be experienced.

Spec Ops The Line - 2The gameplay is solid but nothing out of the ordinary.  It’s a more than competent 3rd person cover based shooter.  Typically you’ll enter an area, clear it out and then move forward.  In this case, it works, because the narrative actually uses these common tropes to make you think about what we accept as gamers in a military game.  There are a few things that mix the action up a bit, mainly the occasional sandstorms which will leave you near blind and struggling just to advance.  The physics are all top notch and add a further bit of immersion to the game – for example, tossing a grenade typically results in a cloud of dust being stirred up which obscures your view for a few seconds.  You also have some basic commands that you can give your two squad mates, such as assigning them a specific target or telling them to silently take someone out.  These work very well but are only required in a few places so they can also largely be ignored if you wish.

I had one minor control related complaint, on the PC inverting the Y axis doesn’t affect the controller at all, only the mouse.  So I was unable to play the game using the controller unless I wanted to rewire the part of my brain that understands up & down in a game.  I’m aware many people would think it crazy talk to want to use a controller on a PC FPS anyway, and many others simply never invert the Y axis, so this is a very minor quibble in the end.

Spec Ops The Line - 3All of this looks phenomenal, especially running on a decent PC.  Lighting and particle effects are downright amazing at times, with the only slight knock against the graphics being the bit of stiffness present in the character models during cutscenes.  But there were quite a few occasions where I would be forced to stop and admire the view, and overall I’d say it had some of the best graphics going today.  Another high point of the visuals is the way the main characters subtly show more and more wear over the course of the game.  It’s done perfectly so that by the end the weariness you hear in their voices shows throw in the way they look.  Speaking of which, sound was also top-notch, with the standout point being Nolan North’s outstanding job of voice acting the main character.  He manages to subtly shift from cocky soldier to weary, broken madman so convincingly you’ll want to give him an Oscar.  The game also has a great use of licensed music, which is played my a mysterious DJ over loudspeakers scattered throughout the city.  Consisting mostly of classic rock, it always seemed to inject just the right amount of uneasiness at just the right time.

This is a very hard game for me to review.  I started writing this on Monday, and now 3 days later I’m forcing myself to just finish it because I’ve concluded that I’ll never be able to put into words exactly what makes this game so great.  It invokes a feeling of uneasiness and tension in a very real, human way.  It never flinches from showing you the ugly side of war, and of humanity itself.  It constantly keeps you thinking.  And the whole time it provides some very solid, fun gameplay to keep everything flowing smoothly.  This is a very short game, clocking in at probably 5-6 hours, but it is absolutely worth experiencing that time.  If I’ve failed to say the right things to convince you how good this game is, let me sum it up:  this game carries my highest recommendation.

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