Originally published on GameInformer.com May 9, 2012, at 9:00 AM.
Selected for Game Informer Newsletter, 5/17/12.
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Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
I've been waiting for Spec Ops: The Line ever since the first reveal, but now the wait is nearly over and its demo has snuck up on us. Does its unique setting offer intriguing gameplay or cloud otherwise standard elements?
The story is certainly a compelling one. Comparisons to Joseph Conrad's classic novel Heart of Darkness appear apt, as troops on a rescue mission in Dubai end up pursuing a possible renegade soldier amidst a struggle for power in the destroyed Persian Gulf emirate.
One narrative tool is intel scattered throughout the areas you visit. A more popular device following BioShock's method of relying on tape recordings to tell its tale, these materials allow you to listen to and/or read the observations of those who preceded you.
They serve to fill in the details of the main story as revealed through cut scenes, which are well staged and interesting, helping set the stage for the action that follows.
Yager Development takes a cinematic approach overall in its presentation, as titles, new objectives and completed tasks are all revealed in real time during the action. Interestingly, your first objective gives the impression of open world exploration but in fact funnels you carefully through a very linear path.
Movement, in fact, is pretty fluid and offers some variety though its often context sensitive and along your predetermined path. You can sprint, slide into cover, swap cover, vault over obstacles, vault while running and crouch underneath barriers. The controls for these are fairly intuitive and the animations are realistic, making navigation fun.
Other welcome alternatives include rappelling and using zip lines, necessary in a modern metropolis left crumbling after a natural disaster. All movements help vary gameplay but, again, it all takes place along a strictly predetermined path, helping to blunt their influence. Hopefully the final build offers multiple paths for some true variation.
The shooting mechanic is fairly standard and is well implemented if not spectacular. You can shoot from behind cover, switch weapons with one button, reload, etc. Aiming works fine, including targeting foes before emerging from cover for some relatively easy pop and shoot gameplay.
Enemy and ally AI is a mixed bag. Both take cover on occasion but at times leave themselves perilously exposed. In fact allies had a penchant for charging into firefights, often taking cover near foes instead of at a distance. Still, they proved effective at dispatching foes. I did also appreciate enemies who charged us from different positions even if only to club us!
Squadmates sometimes require healing, especially if they hunker down on the wrong side of cover. In this case, my comrade had to wait for help. Interestingly, I did die a few times, without benefit of a squad heal.
Squad controls are fairly basic but in my book are always welcome. Typically pointing at a target and pressing a button initiated a squad command. This works both for engaging foes as well as healing teammates.
Hit detection appears to be pretty good, including context sensitive injuries to foes, who will swing around, buckle or drop depending on where they've been shot. A headshot means whiplash and a spray of blood, shot limbs mean related animations, and neck shots result in intermittent fountains of blood and a slow death.
You can melee foes as well, adding to your player's combat repertoire, and even execute those who've been knocked down. In the demo I saw two variations in executions.
Dead foes do leave behind a variety of weapons if not other items so your character has more options for which kinds of guns to carry though they are of the standard variety. There are also grenades to be found and crates for resupplying ammo.
The real showcase in terms of combat is how your environment will help dictate your engagements. On one occasion in the demo, the sand fell from beneath our feet as my character grabs onto a beam to fire at enemies in the exposed room below. On another, shooting bus windows allows the sand inside to bury enemies.
Reportedly, sand will play a common and important role throughout the game, influencing combat as well as exploration. I hope it's a regular feature that helps create a more dynamic environment and enemy encounters, as this can help alleviate the routine of a linear campaign.
The presentation in general is good but not exceptional, which could be a function of the demo's earlier build. Average character models and environments do benefit from the unique setting of a modern desert metropolis in collapse.
More games like I Am Alive are depicting the solemn consequences of natural or manmade disasters by littering environments not only with debris but the bodies of victims as well. Spec Ops doesn't skimp in this department, creating a grisly world strewn with carrion.
Some morbid scenes are surreal.
Dubai, especially in the midst of a sandstorm catastrophe, is an inspired choice for Spec Ops' setting. The demo suggests Yager makes good use of the gameplay possibilities such an environment allows and even demands.
Spec Ops: The Line shows promise in its varied gameplay, compelling story and unique setting. Provided Yager Development can take advantage of the elements to alter exploration and gameplay as promised, as well as perhaps allow multiple paths with which to approach each area and scenario, Spec Ops could be an engaging shooter when it releases in June.
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