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Hands-On:
Spec Ops: The Line

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Posted on December 28, 2011 AT 09:05am

Dangerous sand and dark secrets

If you’ve heard just one thing about 2K Games’ upcoming third-person shooter, Spec Ops: The Line, it’s probably that it’s leveraging some pretty impressive tech to deliver the best sand-based effects the medium’s ever seen. In fact, following a promising E3 2010 demo, many in attendance—including myself—suggested it could potentially do for the grainy stuff what BioShock did for water. After recently catching up with the title, this still appears to be the case—the effects are indeed stunning. But allowing gamers to play in the sand is far from the only reason Spec Ops is shaping up to be one of next year’s more promising titles.

Unlike most modern military shooters, the first thing that hits you in Spec Ops isn’t a hollow point or an explosive set piece, but a disturbing depiction of Dubai. The once-opulent city has been ravaged by sandstorms and transformed into an uninhabitable ghost town. Its impressive skyline, once defined by cloud-parting skyscrapers and architectural wonders, now struggles to peek above the mountainous dunes. While a number of me-too shooters have numbed our senses to the point where seeing familiar places destroyed by war or natural disaster is no longer effective—I lost count of how many times I battled through a war-torn New York City this year—Spec Ops’ sobering sights stuck with me long after my demo concluded.

Once you get past the initial shock of seeing this beautiful city in the sand now buried in it, the game settles into more comfortably familiar third-person-shooter territory. A bit like Gears of War with squad commands, Spec Ops utilizes a cover system that allows for quick maneuvering between points and the ability to vault over them; simple commands, such as instructing one of your two squadmates to snipe a roof-squatting evildoer, nicely complement the duck-and-cover action. If you’ve peered down the iron sights or lobbed grenades in any number of other games, it won’t be long before you feel right at home behind Spec Ops’ intuitive combat mechanics.

Of course, that pesky sand also comes into play during the firefights. Early on in my demo, I shot out an abandoned bus’ windows and witnessed its grainy contents envelop my enemies. Later, I was able to toss grenades to kick up mini-sandstorms, a great strategy for temporarily blinding baddies. Just as I started relying on Mother Nature as an ally, though, I discovered I could also land on the receiving end of her wrath. More than once, when I’d assumed I was treading solid ground, a glass ceiling or window would give way beneath my weight, revealing that my footing wasn’t as stable as I suspected. Similarly distressing was a blurring sandstorm that stirred up during one of my demo’s more intense firefights; adding severe disorientation to the obvious dangers inherent to a bullet-whizzing exchange made for some of the most thrilling—and terrifying—action I’d experienced in a shooter in recent memory.

More than the adrenaline-spiking action, though, it’s the promise of an absorbing narrative that’s placed Spec Ops smack-dab on my radar. Rather than crafting a story that sits in the background, barely visible under all the Hollywood-inspired action, developer Yager is putting its immersive tale front and center. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops wants to tell a mature story, one that would work even if it weren’t accompanied by the cool ability to bury enemies in the sand. The complex narrative sees players tracking Colonel John Konrad (a nod to the aforementioned author), a former military mentor who disobeyed an order to evacuate Dubai following an attempted rescue effort. The Colonel, it seems, has gone way off the deep end—and may even be playing god to the people he was sent to help.

A number of unsettling narrative twists—supported by equally disturbing imagery—aim to engage players’ fragile psyches as much as their itchy trigger fingers. About halfway through my hands-on time, for example, I happened upon a group of expired American soldiers who’d apparently been bound and burned at the hands of the former Colonel. That mind-f***ing moment, though, paled in comparison to what came later; upon approaching a pair of prisoners hanging by their tied hands, a voice—presumably that of my mentor-turned-murderer—crackled over the radio and instructed me to execute one of the men. I refused, instead engaging the armed enemies surrounding the scene—letting both prisoners die in the process.

Yager later let me know that things could’ve played out differently had I chosen to kill one of the prisoners or even attempted to sever the ropes they were hanging from. That said, the developer stresses that these moral dilemmas are presented more as a means to get the player thinking rather than as a story-shaping mechanic. Instead of simply forging a path to an alternate ending, they want players’ actions to carry real weight and consequence within their minds. Again, the story, which seems to have more in common with psychologically driven dramas such as Showtime’s Homeland rather than Michael Bay–like blockbusters, is dark, mature, and much more than a supporting player to the lock-and-load action. Based on my time in Spec Ops’ emotionally taxing world, I can’t wait to uncover all its dark secrets—and, yes, bury dudes in the sand—when it arrives next year.

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