Hands On With Spec Ops: The Line

We received an invitation to get some hands on time with Spec Ops: The Line this past Thursday in a swanky hotel in mid-town Manhattan. Yup, that Spec Ops: The Line. The game we saw at E3 2010 behind closed doors then hadn’t really heard from since. I was excited by what I had seen a year and a half ago and really curious to see what the developers, Yager had done with the game over that time.

I was brought to a room to meet with Tarl Raney, a Producer at Yager. He gave me a quick overview of the game, much of which hadn’t changed since we saw it at E3. It’s set in near present day Dubai. A massive sandstorm has ravaged the city forcing the evacuation of much of the population. A U.S. Army squad, under the command of Colonel John Konrad was diverted from Afghanistan to Dubai to help with the evacuation under protest from the UAE Government. While in the middle of the evac an even larger series of storms hit, all contact was lost and all were presumed dead. About six months later,, a weak distress signal is picked up and the US Government decides to send in a three man Delta Force team to find out what happened and rescue any survivors if possible.

Spec Ops: The Line is a third person shooter and the action kicks right in with an intense helicopter battle over Dubai which ends in your team getting shot down. As you emerge from the wreckage and get your bearings, you’re introduced to the team through some really funny banter. What I really noticed over the hour plus of play time I had is that the humor went away as the situation got more tense and confused and the characters were reacting to and dealing with some really disturbing situations. It really gave the game a much more emotional impact as I played it.

I played through a number of levels spread across roughly the first third of the game. As I jumped from say, level 1 to level 4, a short video with voice over gave me the basics of what happened between the levels. I’m glad it was done this way, because I was able to get a pretty good sense of gameplay without too many spoilers.

The gameplay itself will feel familiar to veterans of shooters but there are some nice additions here. With the push of a button, you can give simple commands to your teammates. The commands are context sensitive and will appear onscreen as an option where appropriate. For instance, I was able to target a few enemies to be taken out which allowed me to focus on other enemies. I also had someone throw a flash grenade so I could quickly follow up with rifle fire to take everyone out.

The other big thing is the use of the environment which we saw briefly at E3. In the wake of these massive storms, sand is piled up all over the place. Early on, I was being attacked from higher ground, but my enemies had a bus filled with sand right behind them. Taking out the windows quickly buried them, ending the threat. I also got caught in a massive sand storm while being overrun and I was barely able to survive. It was pretty intense.

The combat itself felt good. There’s a pretty good cover mechanic which will allow you to make use of your environment but much of it is destructible so you usually won’t be able to stay in any one place for too long. Negotiating the area and flanking your enemies can be critical in battles but you really have to keep and eye out when moving up and around corners. I found that out the hard way and barely escaped twice. The context sensitive moves are still in place as well. For example, if you run up to and jump over a barrier that an enemy is hiding behind, your character will automatically drop kick them on the way over. As you move deeper into the game, your characters will also start to show the wear and tear of the mission. They’ll get bloodied and bruised and they’ll stay that way. Combined with the combat, it’s all very fluid and adds to the realism of the game.

The sense of foreboding is almost palpable as you make your way across the hazy landscape. You’ll make your way through the wreckage of cars and buses, over piles of dead bodies and into some truly horrible situations. I don’t want to give too much away, but you’ll quickly come to realize that there are several groups fighting for control of the city including armed locals, the CIA and more with quite a few civilians caught up in the middle of it all. When you come into the picture, you’ll initially get mistaken for one side or the other and you’ll have to fight some people you won’t want to and it all goes downhill for your squad from there. The choices you’ll be making in the game are entirely up to you. There’s no right or wrong answer and they’re not always obvious, much like on a real battlefield. There are also multiple endings to the game which you can arrive at in a number of ways.

Co-op, which was briefly mentioned at the E3 2010 session is now gone and it makes sense. In most co-op sessions I’ve played, I miss a lot of dialogue and I’m not paying too much attention to the story. This is the type of game where story and dialogue are critical. The darkness and intensity of it all really demands your full attention and talking to a co-op partner would take you out of the game. There will be multiplayer, but it’s being kept under wraps until a later date.

The initial promise of the game in 2010 was that you’d be dealing with a mature storyline which we saw briefly with the decomposing bodies hung from light posts. Raney said that after E3, they went back in and focused much more on the narrative , keeping the general story arc the same but really working hard to make the moment to moment elements more cohesive and dark. From what I saw, which was roughly 20-30% of the game, they really nailed it. Several times during the session I could see that things were going to get really bad, really quick and it made me very uncomfortable. I had choices to make that I wasn’t ready to deal with and even though I felt sick to my stomach, I loved it. It made me feel like I was in a real situation, dealing with the fog of war, having to make a choice based on what limited information I had and then having to live with the consequences of my actions.

If you’ve listened to the podcast for a while, you’ll know that this is exactly the type of game I’ve been looking for. I’ve been waiting for a developer to take that next step with realistic and uncomfortable situations, forcing the player to make choices that aren’t always black and white. Yager was able to keep me on the edge of my seat with action and discomfort and a gripping storyline throughout my entire session. if they can keep it up for the entire game, and all indications are that they can, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll have an early Game of the Year candidate when Spec Ops: The Line is released.

Listen to Episode 254 of the podcast releasing this Wednesday for more coverage along with an audio interview.

Video Interview With Tarl Raney, Producer at Yager.

Screen Shots

Concept Art

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  • Rey Barrera

    This game looks better and better every time I see it.  Has that epic Killzone feel.

  • Looks like fun. I really like the concept art.

  • Anonymous

    I just recently watched Born on the fourth of July for the first time, and I would love to see a game take on some serious situations like that!  It sounds like this game is going to attempt this and I hope they dont hold back.  Movies like Saving Private Ryan, and Full Metal Jacket can get very disturbing at times and thats a feeling I have never gotten in a game.  Like the video content!!!!!!!!!!!!  

    • That’s why I liked it so much.  It gave me an experience I’d never had before in a game and I want more of that.

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