Spec Ops: The Line Review (PC)

Usually when you describe something as 'multi-faceted' it's a compliment, indicating a depth of personality and intellect in a person or great artistic worth in an object. When we describe Spec Ops: The Line as 'multi-faceted' it's not a compliment. Or, at least, it's a multi-faceted one, in that the game has very interesting, intriguing sides to it, but also tediously dull and unoriginal ones too. And we also note this intro paragraph is rather long-winded.

Enough of that then. How about kicking things off with a turret section? Not the best of starts, but don't worry, it's a false start, being a flash forward in time to a section you'll discover after many hours of play. The real action starts with a trio of brave US Delta Force operatives - sadly not modelled after Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin - who are being sent into Dubai, which has been cut off from the outside world by a 'wall' of sand that prevents contact and is a formidable obstacle to bypass.

Lucky this bit of wreckage is just the perfect size for us to hide behind, eh??

You have two objectives, the first being merely to find out if anyone's still alive. You can guess the answer to that one, as it wouldn't be a very exciting action game if everyone was dead, would it? The second objective is a personal one for your generic slab of a character, who's interested in discovering whether a former commander of his is still alive. It was clear the inspiration for this part of the plot was 'Apocalypse Now' (or, rather, the novella 'Heart of Darkness' on which the film was based).

As you can imagine, things start going south pretty quickly and bullets start flying within seconds. The action takes place from the usual third person viewpoint, with your character squatting or kneeling behind all sorts of conveniently placed waist-high walls or tipped over pillars or whatever. It's as standard as combat in a third person game could possibly be, with the usual bellowing and grunting about reloading, tangos being downed and even the ally needing revival thing from Gears of War. (In this, you stab your friend in the shoulder with a hypo.)

If you've seen the TV adverts for this, you may have noticed other media outlets describing The Line as 'Unique', but it's patently not true in the case of the core action. Unless they count the bits where you can bury enemies with sand, which is a nice touch and a lot of fun when you first discover it, but original is not something this game's combat could be described as. Fun, perhaps, if you're not as numbed to the whole military third person genre as this reviewer, but original? No.

So why would they come up with the word 'unique'? Remember the whole 'multi-faceted' thing? Ah, yes, there was a point to that guff after all. You see, where The Line rises above the utterly mediocre and into potentially worth checking out territory is in its non-combat elements. The setting is, despite the contemptible familiarity we have with the Unreal engine, rather wonderful, mixing outlandish high-rise buildings speaking of an affluent past with the day-to-day grime and destruction necessitated by a brutal battle for survival against the elements and other humans.

In your face, electricity suppliers

It's genuinely quite interesting to be in the city of Dubai, even if there's (sadly) virtually no scope whatsoever for exploration. Picture the idea of an I Am Alive or even Fallout-style explore-'em-up RPG in this same locale and you might need a towel to clean up after yourself. We'll have to make do with strictly linear shoot-kill-move to next room-repeat gameplay, but oh what might have been.

Another of the 'good' facets is the plot and elements related thereto. Now, as it's clearly taken a lot from Joseph Conrad and the acting's not up to Brando standard, there's only a certain amount we can praise the premise, but what we can praise is how there's very little sugar coating of the grisly elements of war, going a lot further than you'd expect from a mainstream title. Some might label certain sections - one in particular - as gratuitous, but we would guess that if one were to use white phosphorus on people, they might well end up looking like six foot tall pork scratchings.

Complementing this is the psychological aspect of warfare, so rarely touched upon to any great degree in games. Again, it's not as if developers Yager have channelled the spirits of B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud or anything, but they do deal quite well with the cause and effect of your actions on the battlefield on the parties involved, namely you and your two gun buddies. The game is entirely linear, but there are occasional moments where choices can be made, and though they don?t make any real difference to the plot, you'll be pleased to hear that they do at least give you the impression you've at least... personalised it a little.

Gah, and I just got it back from the garage too. Sigh

A quick word on the multiplayer, if we must. There are six main modes, the usual deathmatch ones plus four others. Rally Point is just your general area hold mode with a shifting zone of control, while Uplink sees teams battling it out to hold a central area while also protecting their 'com stations' from being destroyed. Buried is an objective match, while the most interesting of the lot is Attrition, purely because it's a Counter-Strike 'one life only' round-based affair. Plus you've got the usual pointless drip feed of unlocks and levelling up to go through. So, multiplayer's alright, though the loading times between the end of a round and the time you get back into the lobby are suspiciously long (plus there didn't seem to be host migration - correct us if we're wrong here.) It could have been more original, but let's face it, anything at all is better than just some utterly tedious Horde mode. So well done to multiplayer developers Darkside Game Studios for avoiding that heinous mode like the plague.

Should you buy Spec Ops: The Line? Well, it's the usual yes and no. Yes if you enjoy the setting and like the idea of a descent into the madness of a buried city, but no if you're fed up of cover-based, Unreal 3 engine-powered shooters. If you get it, you can force your way through the carnage to get to the more interesting nuggets of non-shooting. You won't be disappointed if you do stump up the cash, but neither will you be fisting the air with glee at having made an inspired purchase. It's alright, basically.

Favourite Gaming Moment: The ending, as it was (though relatively predictable) better than expected and provided good closure. Plus, there's more than one of them, which is nice.

Platform Played: Xbox 360