GamesCom: Spec Ops: The Line Impressions

By Lee on September 1, 2010, 3:28PM EDT

A big-budget, cover-based, military squad shooter set in a destroyed middle-eastern city? With Nolan North on the voice cast? Well that ain't gonna win any awards for originality, is it?

Actually, it might.

Rather than stick to Spec Ops' anti-terrorist origins, developers Yagar have opted to take the series in an entirely different direction. Set in the modern day, The Line follows Captain Martin Walker as he and his team enter an unrecognisable Dubai on a rescue mission.

But here's the thing, a series of devastating sandstorms have turned the city from a billionaire's playground into a giant sandpit. As streets and buildings sit buried beneath the swirling sand, the only people remaining in the city are savage looters and bandits.

As Walker you have to make your way past these waring factions to reach your target, a missing Colonel and his team. But as you progress, it appears that perhaps everything isn't as it seems.

The core mechanics shown in our GamesCom demo were slick, if uninspired. Viewed in third-perspective, the cover-based shooting looked as tight and responsive as you would expect. But that's just the foundations, it's the shifting sand that's really novel.

Throughout the demo we were shown moments where the player can manipulate the environment to his advantage. At one point Walker shoots away a giant concrete barricade, allowing a avalanche of sand to bury a gang of bandits. At another point he shoots the windows away from the inside of a buried building, the sand pouring in to allow his escape.

However, such is the perilous nature of the stuff that you are not always in control of it. Sandstorms whip up unexpectedly, dunes shifting to offer major tactical advantages, or disadvantages. You're at the mercy of the winds.

The potential of this feature to offer new gameplay experiences is genuinely exciting. We've all played third-person shooters before, but never on a constantly moving battlefield. It's a massive opportunity.

Spec Ops: The Line isn't all shoot first ask questions later, however. Or at least it tries not to be. One section of the demo results in a hostage situation where the player has to choose whether or not to let an innocent civilian die in order to kill a bandit leader. Yagar promise that the game will offer plenty of moments like this, where "the line" between right and wrong is bought into question.

Visually, the game may sound like a washed out, sand-coloured bore, but much of it is arresting. At one point you move through an opulent skyscraper, enormous fish-tanks beneath your feet, life-sized giraffe statues towering over you. Outside are not burnt out cars, but Ferraris and Lamborghinis. It's an entirely novel environment.

Oddly, the environments we saw - both in and outside - reminded us of Bioshock's Rapture, though more in their feel and atmosphere than their architecture. Yagar's Post-catastrophic Dubai has a genuine sense of place.

The story could prove interesting too. The demo featured a section recognisable from the trailers, hanged bodies swinging from lamposts as far as the eye can see. That and the increasingly deranged graffiti daubed about the place hint at narrative revelations to come.

You see, the disappeared Colonel's name is Konrad. And, as your mission continues, your journey takes on heavy Heart of Darkness overtones. It would seem Konrad is The Line's Kurtz.

At a glance Spec Ops: The Line could easily be written off as just another shooter. And who knows, it may turn out to be just that. But the potential is there for something special. If the finished game can build on the gameplay possibilities of the environmental mechanics, the creepy setting and the intriguing narrative, it could be good. No. It could be great.

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