Chances are, the only questions most players are going to be asking themselves during the average third-person cover-based shooter are: "can I use that for cover?", "should I shoot that guy in the face?" and "can I use that for cover, and then shoot that guy in the face?" That's what 2K and Yager Development want to challenge with Spec Ops: The Line. They want you to think about what you're doing, and to maybe not like what you see.
The game is set in a near-future Dubai that has been ravaged by a series of cataclysmic sandstorms, rendering it almost uninhabitable - a once-opulent paradise, now half-buried under an inescapable tide of choking red sand. You play as Captain Martin Walker, the videogamiest of all video game heroes. A shouty, bald man voiced by Nolan North, Walker is sent in with his squad to answer the distress call of a US army unit thoughtlost while trying to evacuate civilians. All pretty straightforward stuff, but it's where Spec Ops: The Line takes things from here that makes it interesting.
Sand and deliver
Dubai is a fascinating setting for the game. While the outdoor sections deal mostly in different flavours of sand dunes and wrecked vehicles interspersed with the occasional breathtaking panorama, once you venture inside you're confronted with stunning visions of Dubai's luxurious past. As you make your way through the game's hotels, fitness centres and malls, it becomes apparent that Spec Ops' Dubai is a city that doesn't know the meaning of the word 'restraint'. If you can perch a giant crystal giraffe on it, you'd better believe they have done, and the ruined extravagance of the surroundings brings to mind BioShock's Rapture if it had been founded by Michael Jackson instead of Andrew Ryan.
Of course, the surroundings don't stay pretty for very long, what with all the shooting you'll be doing. Walker can carry two different kinds of gun at once, can use three types of grenade, and is a dab hand at taking sticky cover behind a variety of waist-high objects. You also have access to a two-man squad that is actually pretty useful. Squad commands are all handled via the right bumper - hold it down and enemies glow red allowing you to choose a target for your team to focus on, letting you mark an enemy for your team to take down while you direct your attentions elsewhere.
There are also numerous opportunities for all the sand lying around everywhere to make itself useful. This is usually in the form of smashing windows to bury your hapless foes in giant drifts of the stuff, but there are a few other uses you discover along the way, including grenades kicking up a cloud of sand that blinds enemies for a crucial couple of seconds, and howling sandstorms that provide you with effective cover to move up the battlefield.
They're all mechanics that have their legs stretched in the otherwise generic multiplayer mode as well, with the Buried game-type taking things a step further by dousing losing teams' bases with an irreversible shower of silica. 2K would no doubt like to imagine the addition of a beach's worth of grit will change your tactics, but robbed of scripting it's an environmental hazard that's barely more sophisticated than a shiny red barrel.
While the combat is handled well, it's clear that the focus for the developers is the game's story. What starts off as a typical military shooter quickly descends into an unremittingly bleak examination of the horrors of war and the toll they take on Walker's squad. If you think this doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs, you'd be right. One sequence sees you using a white phosphorous mortar to take out a field full of enemies. So far, so Call of Duty. But the game then makes you walk slowly through the aftermath of the attack, listening to the agonised cries of the dying. Banjo Kazooie this ain't.