Preview: Spec Ops: The Line

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Last week, 2K graciously invited me to their offices in Pyrmont, NSW to preview Spec Ops: The Line. For those unfamiliar with the newest entry in the Spec Ops franchise, you play as Nathan Dra…oh, sorry, Captain Walker (voiced, of course, by Nolan North); one-third of an elite military unit assigned to a rescue mission in a catastrophically devastated Dubai. You begin the game simply trying to evacuate the 33rd Battalion, commanded by Colonel Konrad, until you realise there’s a lot more to the situation. Queue the game’s twisty-turny plot, full of political intrigue and hefty consequences.

In the latest build I was able to play through, the backdrop of Dubai – even through destroyed by sandstorms – provides the title with a rainbowesque palette of colours to blend into the narrative. Dubai’s incomparable opulence means we get some amazing visuals courtesy of the half-submerged, gold-encrusted spires of the city’s shimmering skyscrapers.

That isn’t to say the game is always colourful. Playing through Chapters 1, 2, 7 and 8, I was exposed to a variety of the game’s set-pieces, including an amazing opening helicopter sequence, gritty deserts, city squares, and a grandiose shopping centre that now functions as a refugee camp. Environmental damage factors into the gameplay quite a bit; if you can see a window pane holding back several tons of sand, shoot it. A broken window means you’re going to be flooding your environment – and hopefully eliminating your enemies – with mountains of sand.

The sound design of the game is top-notch too. I actually stopped dead in my tracks at times to appreciate the sounds of howling wind, bullets whizzing past my head and groaning superstructures that were beginning to buckle under the pressure of tonnes of sand. One of the game’s baddies I encountered, known only as the “Radioman,” interacts with your protagonists through a Dubai-wide broadcasting system; he sends some sounds through the network that are bound to send a chill up your spine. Add to that some amazing song choices during key moments of the plot (I won’t spoil it, but 80s rock fans are not going to be disappointed), and you’re going to want your headphones for this title.

Control-wise, the game is a fairly standard third-person shooter. You’re going to be using your left trigger to aim, the right to fire, and so on. There’s tons of cover around, and you’re encouraged to get behind it. Since you’re a team of three (and there’s no multiplayer co-op in the single player campaign), you’re also able to use your right bumper to direct your team to set priority targets, do sitreps of the area, and throw stun charges. In the desert, and using the squad-based controls, I almost felt like I was playing Resident Evil 5…except that I could run and fire, and my AI squad was actually useful and took out enemies. My favourite bit about the controls is that you have to hold the “A” button to begin running…but you don’t have to continue holding the button once you’re going. My thumbs thank you, the oh so very smart development team at Yager.

The chapters themselves are completely linear, but that is excusable thanks to the opportunities presented through hostage situations or action-packed sequences. Cases in point: at one stage in chapter 7, you get the choice to protect several hostages, or abandon them to save a high-priority target. Each action changes what happens in your game…so you’re really going to have to make some hard decisions quickly as you progress. Even better, you play through a thrilling mortar sequence in chapter 8, only to have to walk through the destruction you’ve just caused. Seeing the charred mess you’ve just created – or worse yet, half-decimated enemies barely clinging to life after being caught in your destructive wake — is very confronting.  This game definitely makes you deal with the jarring consequences of your actions.

Overall, Spec Ops: The Line is proving itself to be a very competent shooter that’s got more than enough to set itself apart from the pack. I’m definitely looking forward to its release in the third quarter of 2012.