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Spec Ops: The Line review

by Paul Semel, Jun 29, 2012 10:00am PDT

There's a cliché about real estate that says it's all about "location, location, location." As it turns out, it's true for games as well. Take Spec Ops: The Line, a modern military third-person shooter set in Dubai after that Middle Eastern city has been devastated by a massive (and still recurring) sandstorm. While its gameplay is solid, it's also nothing we haven't seen before. But it's where the game is set, and how that changes the vibe of the gun battles, that make this more engaging than similar shootouts.

Set six months after the initial storm, you lead a three-man squad into the city to find some fellow soldiers who may or may not have survived the storm. But after being ambushed by some refugees who think you're the bad guys, you quickly realize something is amiss.

It is here, during the first encounter, that you'll notice how the game's mechanics feel familiar. You can duck for cover, have regenerating health, and can even command members of your squad to shoot specific enemies. Even the way the buttons are configured will feel familiar to anyone who plays shooters on a regular basis.

What makes this first battle, and some that follow, feel unique is the setting. The ambush happens on a highway riddled with broken cars and dead bodies. But it's also full of sand dunes and a bright sun that almost gives this a look of a day at the beach, and the contrast between the violent and harrowing gun battles and the summer-style setting makes this feel like it's not just another shootout at the oh-this-again corral.

Something similar happens when you get into an encounter on the top of a skyscraper. Again, mechanically, it's nothing we haven't played before, but being that high up on a clearly damaged building gives these moments a rather precarious feel. Similarly, when you're shooting it out during a vicious sandstorm, and visibility is cut for both you and your enemies, it improves what could've been a rote moment by giving it an unnerving sense of uncertainty.

It's just too bad that these moments don't happen more often. For a lot of the game, you're battling it out inside damaged buildings, some of which have make-shift shelters. In these moments, Spec Ops feels like just another post-apocalyptic shooter. Sure, a good post-apocalyptic shooter -- since the gun battles are frantically fun -- but another post-apocalyptic shooter all the same.

It's not just the locations that set Spec Ops apart, however. There are times in the game when you'll have to decide how far you're willing to go to complete your mission. At one point, for instance, you have the option to use a weapon that will eliminate your enemies rather quickly, but also rather inhumanely. However, the game doesn't gloss over the consequences of your actions. Instead, it shows you, in vivid detail, exactly what you've done. It even has one of your squad, who disagrees with your decision, bring it up again later in the game.

It's a move that some will feel is bold, others will feel is manipulative, while those who don't like being reminded of the human cost of war will feel like they don't want to play this game anymore. But as someone who knows that it's just a game, that I didn't just kill real people in a really gruesome way, it's just part of the mission.

Along with the campaign, Spec Ops also boasts online multiplayer, complete with the usual modes (Deathmatch, some objective-based ones) and leveling up additions (perks, loadouts). Though, again, it's where these modes are played that gives this its edge. Not only are there occasional sandstorms, but the outside maps have the same sunny vibe as the campaign's best levels. There's even ziplines and rappel cords.

But the best thing about playing online is that you don't start off as an easily-killed wimp. Instead, even those who don't play online much will be able to hold their own, maybe rack up a couple kills, before being taken out, which will make you feel more like a skillful soldier than an overweight, middle-aged dude sitting on a couch.

In fact, the only truly disappointing thing about Spec Ops is that the campaign was rather short. But, for me at least, its short story is of little consequence since -- thanks to its solid controls, harrowing gun battles, and interesting locations -- I found this so effortless and engaging that, long before it was over, I'd already decided that I wanted to play it again. Though where I'll do that remains to be seen.


This Spec Ops: The Line review is based on a retail Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.





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