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Previews

How Spec Ops walks the Line

Making a friend of horror

It's amazing what a bit of perspective can do. Rebooting a respected but not especially mainstream-friendly tactical action franchise? Knock the camera off its eyrie and down into the trenches, where it can appreciate how nicely you've updated the environments and honed the story. Getting slammed for your day-one, pass-restricted DLC strategy? Invite critics to consider the idea from the point of view of an MMO developer - an MMO developer that's rather out of pocket, having just got shot of a massive single player RPG.

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Worried that people who enjoy shooters are by and large a desensitised, complacent bunch? Afraid that years of exposure to games like The Darkness 2 or Gears of War 3 have left your audience's morality glands all dusty and shrivelled? Give perspective a kick. Midway through Yager's Spec Ops: The Line, there's a cinematic switchback so hideous it'll leave you unwilling to meet your own eyes in a mirror. It's a reversal that hinges not simply on your deadness to depictions of bloodshed, but on the ubiquity of certain gameplay scenarios - scenarios so commonplace we risk forgetting that their purpose is to render unpalatable things palatable, for entertainment's sake. The underlying shooter mechanics have their inadequacies, but this feat alone makes The Line worth your consideration.

I've been asked not to spoil the sequence's punch-line, though the fact that this is a game modelled on Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now (and thereby, Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness) should give you some inkling. As you may recall from earlier Spec Ops previews, The Line puts you in charge of a three-man Delta squad led by one Martin Walker, sent to a storm-ruined Dubai to investigate the fate of the US Army's 33rd Battalion.

Shortly after you arrive, it becomes clear that the 33rd's disappearance owes less to the mountains of sand pressing down on the city's opulent glass furnishings, and more to the ego of its decorated commander, Colonel Konrad. Defying orders to pull out, Konrad has crowned himself king of the wasteland, seizing scarce resources and imposing a spectacularly brutal breed of justice on the civilian survivors. The news comes as a particular shock to the bleached, grizzled Walker - he and Konrad go 'way back', and as with Conrad's Kurtz and Marlowe, their relationship will surely underwrite the events that follow.

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The Line doesn't always stand comparison with the film and book that inspire it. Much as Coppola sought to figure the psyche's collapse in a haze of fern and Agent Orange, so Yager's Dubai is madness made concrete, but it's a spasmodic vision which feels a tad attention-seeky. Banksy-esque wall murals look stylish, but are for that reason incongruous - they don't, at present, collapse into the urban backstory as seamlessly as those of (for instance) Bioshock.

A candle-lit lair evokes Kurtz's hideaway a little too clunkily, and your squadmates' shock at coming under fire from compatriots is somewhat laboured - or feels that way, at least, because in itself fighting friendlies is hardly breaking new ground for an action premise. Konrad's deranged radio pronouncements aren't quite as resoundingly insane as Marlon Brando's monologues, or for that matter Andrew Ryan's fireside chats.

You could argue that the rusty, dusty art style is the greatest sin of all, but it's actually a devastating ruse. Much as the hellish Silent Hill resembles a quiet resort town, so The Line's Dubai wears the skin of a conventional military wargame. It's all dunes, broken barricades and barbequed car hulks for a while, but then a sand-fall tumbles you into a regular chamber of Mammon - floored with a tropical marina, its domed ceiling held aloft by jewelled giraffes. Materialism run riot in a spew of clashing colours, these locales are also unpleasantly redolent of 33rd's victims, their bodies mutilated into strange, abstract effigies. You feel less like you're salvaging the city's riches as peeling back the lips of a wound, finding gangrene beneath.

The alternation between blinding luxury and sapping drabness speaks to the wider, riskier interplay at work in the game mechanics. Here again, The Line plays at being dull in order to shock. Its firefights are cut from familiar cloth: enemies appear in waves, seize cover and are gradually beaten back by a combination of peek-shooting and flanking. The implementation isn't particularly clean - the shotguns, rifles and pistols lack heft and sound flat, bullets spatter against bodies rather than drilling through them, and movement around cover is fiddlier than it needs to be. At times you can use the treacherous terrain to advantage, shooting out architecture to drown opponents in sand, but the examples we encountered felt forced and gimmicky. We hope later stages find a better use for them.

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Nevertheless, it's serviceable enough that you're quickly absorbed, and thus altogether unseated whenever the game hits you with something a little less comfortable - like a trench littered with flyblown corpses, or a sudden, rushing shape you identify, milliseconds too late, as a refugee woman. Or the effects of a phosphor bombardment on human skin. You're given two opportunities to get acquainted with the latter. First, you see Konrad's men use it on a refugee mob. Then, charged with vengeance, you're obliged to use the terrible weapon yourself, in the wake of a harsh but not especially original moral decision (whose predictability, again, softens you up for ensuing horrors).

"Sometimes there is no choice," barks Walker, and with dozens of men between you and the objective, and the memory of your adversary's atrocities fresh in your mind, it's hard not to agree. But every action has its consequences, and Yager doesn't tidy them under the carpet.

How many times have we directed artillery fire in videogames? More times than I can remember. But how often are we allowed to descend from that ethereal bombardier's remove - with its targeting cursor and bloodless infrared flicker - walk through the killzone and savour the results up-close? The bodies don't fade away to save processor memory, nor are they all entirely dead - blackened, chopped men crawl from charred vehicles, pleading for a merciful bullet. It's genuinely horrifying. And that's without mentioning the thing I can't tell you about.

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Big budget games rarely jolt us from our comfort zones, and with good reason: it's hard to deliver a best-in-class action game when you're working to destabilise action gaming's favourite tropes and devices. Both for this and for the fact that its gunplay fails to compel, Spec Ops: The Line is a risky prospect. But if it fails, it'll fail because it's grappling with demons other shooters paper over. And in that regard, Yager is a developer the brightest and best could learn from.

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