The landscape of the gaming industry as it is today is one so overwrought with modern warfare that it becomes difficult to distinguish the titles. Most famously, there is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but beyond that there are hundreds upon hundreds of titles which deploy protagonists into the despairs of today’s most dire conflicts. Spec Ops: The Line is yet another game aiming to capitalize on this generation’s most prominent flavor. That said, the latest project from 2K Games and Yager Development will be turning the tables on Call of Duty, Battlefield, and countless others by pulling back the camera and allowing players to experience the brutality of war from a third-person perspective. With this one, simple shift of direction, I can affirm that Spec Ops: The Line will be a worthy entry into the genre when it arrives this summer.
At last month’s PAX East convention in Boston, Massachusetts, I was able to secure time with 2K Games and representatives from Yager Development to experience their shift in focus with Spec Ops: The Line. It is worth noting that this game, a title built entirely from the ground up in this current generation, is bearing the name of a franchise that came before it. Spec Ops is a series that thrived during the era of the original PlayStation and then ultimately faltered upon the transition to new hardware. That said, the games of this particular franchise were never known for their level of quality and, as such, it was a reasonable expectation that Spec Ops: The Line might fall into a similar dilemma. Moments into my time with the game’s demo, I was able to discern that this title had very little in common with its predecessors outside of branding, a fact that Lead Designer Corey Davis made clear when I sat down with him for an interview later on in the day.
…this one is not connected to those games at all. We are a third-person, military-themed shooter. We wanted to be as authentic as possible so we did a lot of research, so there are a lot of similarities there. This is a new team; our goal here is to tell this story of these soldiers that go on this rescue mission into Dubai that has been transformed in very interesting ways so there’s not like story connections to the old games or anything like that.”
Narrative is, as Davis said and as was made apparent in the lengthy show-floor demo, core to Spec Ops: The Line. The story is as gritty as it is dark with the player-controlled Captain Martin Walker exploring the war-torn city of Dubai in search of a United States Army Colonel. Clearly, the title takes some hints from the acclaimed novel Heart of Darkness in its nature as a rescue mission shrouded in mystery, but my experience seemed to take just as many hints from the modern crop of Hollywood films that celebrate the achievements of those soldiers that have been shipped overseas; I felt as if I was playing a virtual homage to Jarhead and even the Academy Award winning Hurt Locker; this more emotional, less heroic aim seems to be the intent, a point that Corey Davis elaborates when I asked him about their goal with the game’s plot.
So, if you look around the landscape of the military shooter genre, there are a lot of really great games that are telling very heroic stories: stories about soldiers completing their mission, about USA having success, and things like that. What we did is we did a lot of research and spoke to our military adviser about a lot of the more emotional side, the darker side of those conflicts that they [the soldiers] had experienced.
That’s not to say, though, that Spec Ops: The Line is on the same level of artistic merit as a major motion picture. While the tale woven in my time with the game was interesting, none of it left me with the inkling that I’d be pressed up against my screen this summer waiting to see what happens next. Whether or not the story lives up to 2K and Yager Development’s expectations and promotion is yet to be seen, but at this point I don’t think that the writing will be what will have me glued to Spec Ops: The Line.
In my eyes, it is the gameplay and visuals that will accomplish this feat. Spec Ops: The Line has a lot less in common with a Battlefield or Call of Duty than it does the Uncharted series of games; players will, as I mentioned previously, take on the opposition from a third-person perspective that gives them a better scope of the battlefield and a more emotional connection with the game’s lead protagonist gathered from being able to establish the character as a visual entity tossed into this tumultuous climate. Throughout the demo I was forced to duck behind cover and take out enemy forces as one would expect from a military shooter, but, at the same time, I was confronted with many cringe-inducing moments and situations in which I had to use my mental capacity to overcome the odds placed before me. Speaking to the former, it is clear that The Line wants to give death more of a meaning than it has been given in most titles. As Corey Davis pointed out, many members of the genre are content to emphasize what he calls a “clean death”; that is, to say, that they ascribe little importance to a character’s mortality. Spec Ops, on the other hand, features a moment in the demo in which one must, regardless of personal and emotional desires, execute an enemy that has been left to bleed out. Moments like this give the sense that the villains are more than just progress fodder; they, too, are characters whose death must be dealt with just as it would be for one of the title’s main characters.
Strategy, as well, is a factor that helps to make Spec Ops: The Line stand out. Captain Martin Walker is a character that must lead his squad to their destination and, as such, is placed in charge of commanding their movements; often times, in the heat of battle, you must dictate them to move to and fro in order to best prepare an assault on enemy forces. These inputs may not be the most well developed or intriguing, but, in the scope of things, they do help elevate the title above a genre that seems content to rinse and repeat the same formula year after year.
There is also something to be said for what Spec Ops: The Line is doing visually that helps to separate it from its peers: it is vibrant. Video games in this day and age commonly approach realism with a bucket of brown paint, but the world in The Line is one that pops off of the screen with a collection of stunning details and awe-inspiring vistas. The most prominent example of this visual expertise comes late in the demo when players stand on the precipice of a ruinous building overlooking the city of Dubai. Dubai, as it does in real life, provides such a unique level of photographic flare that it would be more than a little difficult not to get caught up in the impressive nature of the moment.
As I departed the Spec Ops booth and left behind the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, my main concern regarding the title dealt with what had yet to be announced as an included feature: cooperative play. Having spent 30 minutes with the game, I felt certain that The Line offered a unique setup ideal for two players to enjoy. Despite my best efforts, I was not able to goad an official answer out of Corey Davis. However, I was able to gather information that noted the presence of player-versus-player multiplayer in the retail product, a feature that, had it been missing, would have served to antiquate Spec Ops: The Line before it had even hit the market.
To this day, a month separated from the event, Spec Ops: The Line stands as one of the biggest surprised of PAX East and, by proxy, the entire year. When the game launches on June 26, I look forward to experiencing the unique title that was promised to me by my experience with it in Boston.
On behalf of myself and the entire Got Game staff, I would like to thank Corey Davis and the rest of 2K Games and Yager Development for their time on the show floor.