on July 5, 2012
At first glance, Spec Ops: The Line appears to be an incredibly generic game. The trailer shows a soldier standing in front of various war scenes while an ominous narrator talks about "dramatic" things. The name itself makes it sound like it is part of a series of cheap knock-off games you could find in Walmart for 10$. The boxart brings out the cliche black and white soldier with a fire (or brown and white in this case).
But do not let all that fool you. This game is amazing.
I was lured into reading more about it after I saw amazon had it on sale for 50% off. After hearing glowing reviews of the games story, I grew high expectations for the game.
They were exceeded in every way.
The games graphics are lovely, only marred by slightly off talking animations (they seem slightly rigid). The detail on the pc version outshines the ps3 and xbox versions by miles. The game is running the Unreal 3 engine, and it is the best use of the engine I have seen yet (to the point where I did not actually recognize the engine for the first half of the game). Your character looks excellent (which is good considering you will be staring at him for the entire game), full of small details you only notice if you look closely. As the game goes on, your character becomes more and more beat up, wounds covering him and sand caking onto his blood. It is very impressive visually.
Also helping the wonderful graphics along is the art style. Normally I would not expect a realistic modern shooter to have any kind of an art style at all, but this game does. It takes place in a sand-flooded almost vacant Dubai, letting the designers create beautiful landscapes with contrasting colors that give the entire area a surreal feeling. They purposefully mix up the environments both in design, light, and color, always giving you something fresh to look at. The entire game almost feels like a dream because the art direction is so well done.
Aiding the sense of immersion the graphics provide is the sound design. Whoever was in charge of this game completely nailed it, and needs to be hired elsewhere. Sound effects become appropriately deepened, echoed, cut short, etc based on the environment you are in, and I have never heard it done better. Guns are recognizable by their sounds, which should be expected in all games but seems to be a low priority for many developers these days. The voice acting is excellent, both by the main characters and the various other people you come across. Enemies shout out to each other amid the chaos of a firefight, even sometimes shouting to you. It did not once feel forced. If there was any issue at all to it, it would be that your own character does not display the varied emotion as well as the other characters, but I thought this was deliberate and part of the character development.
Another point of sound related excellence was the music - due to clever writing there is plenty of reason to have music playing in several sections. Not background music, like a score to a film, but actual songs like "Nowhere to Run" by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Not only are the songs good, classic tunes, but they also fit the situations they are played in perfectly and make the game more enjoyable.
Speaking of enjoying the game, we should talk about the absolute best feature of this epic: the story. The story for this game is gripping, thrilling, horrific, haunting, surreal, and in an odd way, beautiful. If this game were a movie, it would be the greatest movie of all time, and all other movies would be compared to it. It was too good to stop playing, I simply had to stay up and keep playing due to my thirst to know just what happened next. This is one of the rare games where your character develops over the course of events, becoming a different person by the end. As rare as it is to find that in a game, this game goes a step further by also making your squad mates and even some of the people you meet continue to change. The people in this game were interesting and compelling, almost like several character studies happening at once. The story wrapping them all together is equally impressive, painting a picture of every side in a terrible conflict twisting right up to a climax worthy of the events that preceded it. It was amazing.
Helping to deliver the story is the games directing (for lack of a better word). The game has a terrific pace to it, deliberately drawing emotions out of the player with carefully crafted scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat. The views from your character is almost cinematic, taking you through the game with what I would otherwise describe as careful camera work. The excellence of this aspect just adds to how unbelievably gripping the game is.
Unfortunately, even after all this praise, the game is not perfect. The unfortunate controls need to be addressed, as this game combines the "take cover" and "sprint" buttons to poor effect. This can occasionally cause problems, and though I did adapt to it, I was bothered that the buttons were not simply seperate. The same button is also context sensitive, changing to give medical aid when you are next to a downed squad mate. This did not ever cause a problem for me personally, but I can imagine situations where it would. On top of that, squad commands seem to be slightly off. Frequently the game would tell you to tap the squad command button to tell them to use a flashbang grenade, but it seems that when the game does not tell you to do it, it does not work. Otherwise you can hold down the squad command button to designate a target that one or the other of your squadmates should focus on, depending on the location of the enemy. Once again I thought these commands should be on two different buttons, and holding down the squad command button in the middle of a firefight is not really the easiest way to control the situation. Other than those gripes, I occasionally ran into situations where my character would come "unglued" from the wall he was taking cover behind. I would push in the direction I wanted him to move, but instead he would stop leaning against the wall and run in the direction I had indicated. This only happened in two places during the campaign, but those were two times that I died unfortunate deaths!
Also not perfect is the gameplay itself. It is not bad, in fact it was quite enjoyable for me, but it seriously lacks variety. There are only a few enemy types to deal with, and though they are aggressive and work together (when you let them live long enough to), it does detract from the game a bit. There are melee enemies, heavily armored enemies, snipers, RPG toting enemies, regular soldiers, and shotgun toting soldiers. Occasionally you have to deal with an enemy getting on an armored turret, and at various points you deal with helicopters. I believe that covers all the enemies in the game. Personally, I felt that I could put those enemies into "groups" that I dealt with the same way, making even less variety. I would handle RPG soldiers and snipers the same way, and shotgun enemies and melee experts the same way. With the constant variety in the setting, I definitely noticed the lack of different enemies more. With that said though, the game struck a great balance with foes it included, and I thoroughly enjoyed (and was thoroughly guilt tripped for) slaughtering them.
With all those details addressed, I want to again stress that this is a must play game. I am about to start my second play-through right now, already having my different choices planned out. I could only stall myself from the game long enough to write this review because I want to let everyone else know how excellent this game is, and to keep them from missing out.
PS: I ignored multiplayer and you should too.
Edit: The information below is no longer relevant.
[PPS: Nvidia beta drivers have a profile for the game, including FXAA and SLI support. You need to use nvidia inspector to add the games exe file to the profile, though.]