Spec Ops: The Line demo

Yager Development showed off the latest version of the big-budget military shooter game Spec Ops: The Line at the PAX East 2012 show last weekend. But there’s still a lot of mystery about both the title and its story. I want to know more.

In the game, the apocalypse has arrived early in Dubai. Once a vibrant city populated by the super-rich, the desert metropolis is now entombed in a layer of sand after a series of devastating dust storms. As the player, I’m supposed to be looking for Colonel John Konrad, a founding member of Delta Force and the current commanding officer of the 33rd infantry. He stayed behind with his men during the evacuation of Dubai to help protect refugees who couldn’t escape. That’s my mission, but the reality on the ground is very different. Konrad and this story as a whole are both hiding something.

Six months had passed without a word from anyone inside the city, and Konrad — along with his men — were presumed dead. That’s when the military picked up a weak distress signal from Konrad and sent in protagonist Captain Martin Walker, accompanied by two squad-mates, to rescue him.

The style of the rescue should feel familiar to anyone who’s played a Gears of War game. The Line is a third-person cover-based shooter from Yager and the 2K Games label of publisher Take-Two Interactive. It resembles Gears of War because it uses graphically violent melee attacks, forced walking during plot development, and banter thick with exaggerated masculinity.

It shouldn’t be very interesting. But I was intrigued.

Spec Ops: The Line cover shootingFiring an AK47 assault rifle is at least as satisfying as the weapons in Epic Games’ Gears of War science-fiction thrill ride. Enemies require very little damage to kill, which keeps the frustration to a minimum. Hiding behind cover still works, and it’s as satisfying as ever to pop out from behind cover with perfectly aligned sites to snap off a headshot.

Still, saying a thing is about as good as something that’s been around for half of a decade doesn’t exactly make for a great box quote. Yager needs to find a way to set this game apart from the pack of Gears clones.

After a 45-minute hands-on demo, I see potential for Spec Ops to pry itself away from the game that inspired it in two distinct aspects.

The environment is one way. The imagery of a ruined Dubai is interesting to look at. Spec Ops isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a quasi-post-apocalyptic shooter running on Unreal Engine 3 (the same graphical engine that powers Gears of War). That is to say it has more going on than just brown and gray.

The undisputed high note of my experience was when the game introduced the rescue team. Walker and the rest of bravo squad are silhouettes walking across the summit of a dune as the sun rises behind them. Sand whips around in the wind, attacking their skin and the player’s sense of security. It’s a sight that is both beautiful and intense. Hopefully, the devs have more moments like this planned for the final release.

Spec Ops: The Line candles(Small spoiler) After guiding Walker a few klicks into the outskirts of Dubai, it’s become clear that someone set up Konrad’s distress signal as a trap. The audio is playing back on a tape recorder that’s been rigged together with duct tape and spare parts. It doesn’t exactly appear to be standard issue for the U.S. military. Oh yeah, and then there’s the angry-looking men with automatic weapons.

The men waiting to ambush the Delta Force bravo team are refugees. Before the shooting starts, they imply that men in Army fatigues have been fighting against them. Why would anyone fight over this territory? It’s beyond desolate. It’s uninhabitable. Something more is going on here.

As the Emiratees surround and outnumber the protagonist and his squad, they are left with little choice but to fight back with deadly force. One cover-based shooting section is followed by another.

When the game finally introduces some of Konrad’s 33rd infantry, it turns out that they too enjoy firing at the three-man rescue group.

Motivations for these actions are ambiguous. It’s pretty safe to assume that decorated war-hero Konrad is disguising his real reasons to remain in Dubai, and when I finished the demo, I wanted to know what those reasons were.

Spec Ops: The Line does an admirable job setting up a premise that has me curious to see it through. Its familiar mechanics center is coated in candy shell of potential. I know that the game has something. Right now, I don’t know what it is, but I want it. All I hope is that once I have it, it will have been worth getting.

Publisher 2K will ship the game on June 26 in North America.