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Spec Ops: The Line preview

by Andrew Yoon, Feb 07, 2012 7:00am PST

Working in the games industry makes it easy to become cynical and jaded. Jager Development hands me the controller of their upcoming game, Spec Ops: The Line, and I can't help but think "oh great, another generic cover shooter."

"From the way you play, I see you've played these kinds of games before," the Yager producer notes. In my mind, I think: "who hasn't?" Ever since the introduction of Gears of War in 2006, this generation has been filled with copycat clones--some good, mostly awful.

I was ready to write off the game. Nay, that's what I was expecting. But after two hours of hands-on time on The Line, I walked away impressed, eager to play more.

The third person shooter has been so well explored over the years, that it's difficult to expect innovation from every new entry. Spec Ops seems to know that well enough, and doesn't really stray outside of the established blueprint. The game's focus is to deliver "narrative depth and rich atmosphere to the military shooter genre"--the gameplay is merely a means of delivery a story.

That's not to say that the gameplay isn't impressive. Games like the original Kane & Lynch also strove to offer the same "narrative depth" 2K is seeking in The Line, but technical shortcomings muddled that effort. Spec Ops may not feel especially new, but it controls great. It only takes a second before you're moving around cover, switching weapons, and snagging headshots. There are a few impressive environmental effects--like breaking a sand barge above enemies--but for the most part, this is a tired-and-true affair. Context-sensitive squad commands offer the illusion of tactics, but this is no Tom Clancy game.

In many ways, not much has really changed in the two years since we've seen it. However, with my hands on the controller, it seems 2K and Jager have made good on the promise of the game.

While the gameplay treads familiar territory, I was especially impressed by everything new the game brought to the table. The art style, in particular, needs to be commended. While many games are straying away from the "gritty" brown-and-gray look that plagued the first half of this generation, Spec Ops delivers a truly varied visual palette. There's even a "vibrant" visual option you can select in the menu, if you want to make the game look like it was directed by J.J. Abrams. The Dubai setting is still fresh, and affords the developer the chance to create a number of seemingly sci-fi environments to play in. One level takes place in a museum, where the walls and floor are made out of an aquarium. It's lavishly over-the-top, and yet it feels expected in a city as extremely opulent as this.

The narrative is undoubtedly the game's biggest hook. Thanks to Call of Duty and its ilk, the military genre has made us quite familiar with the booyah machismo that soldiers can exhibit. The promotional materials for this game had me expecting exactly the same. While Spec Ops begins in the same vein, it's not long before you realize the game is treading some unusual territory. At one pivotal moment halfway through the game, you're faced with a crucial decision: do you do something horrible for the greater good? And what happens to a soldier's psyche when he's proven wrong? (A scene involving white phosphorus is particularly devastating.)

Spec Ops isn't littered with choices--this isn't Mass Effect, after all. However, the few choices that you do make will be organic, the developer promises. You won't see a "Press X to be evil" option that's so common in decision-making games. And in a medium where players are focused on maxing out their Paragon or Renegade status, it's refreshing to see a game that offers no right answer. This could be one of the biggest-budget games that revels in moral gray--and that alone has me excited.

The preview session was focused entirely on the single-player offering, but Spec Ops will (obviously) provide a multiplayer option. Yager wouldn't go into what they had planned, and wouldn't tell me about any PC-specific tweaks that are in the works other than the usual "it will be pretty."

Spec Ops: The Line will be available on PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 in Spring.





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