I saw a lot of games at E3. Hundreds, in fact. But only a few of them linger in my thoughts long enough to warrant a second look. 2K's Spec Ops: The Line was one of those games; a surprising fact given that, on paper, the game is frighteningly generic. Third person shooter set in a war-torn Eastern country? It's the kind of game that's been done countless times before, and with games like Gears of War 3 and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier to look forward to, there will be no room for another generic action game. Good job then that Spec Ops looks awesome.
The Line is the ninth game in the Spec Ops series, the first after a staggering eight year hiatus. While the first eight games were developed by Zombie Studios, and later Runecraft, The Line is a next-gen reboot by Berlin-based Yager Development. The live demonstration, lead by the game's producer Greg Kasavin, starts in an expansive hall. We are introduced to Martin Walker (voiced by Nolan North, not surprisingly), protagonist, squad leader, and hero about town rolled into one muscular package. As he slowly meanders around the dank environment, he discusses the mission in hand with his team. The plan is to find and secure one Colonel Konrad, the elusive man at the centre of the campaign's rescue mission.
Not a lot happens for quite some time. There is a lot of walking, a lot of talking, and a lot of army-related buzz words dropped into conversation. So far, so dull, but things quickly ramp up. After Walker and his team leave the haven of the musty indoors, shit goes down. The once luxurious city of Dubai is a sight of utter destruction. The game is set after a sandstorm of biblical proportions ravaged the country, destroying everything but the sturdiest of buildings. A once busy highway is the sight of hundreds of dead bodies, all hung from street lights that pepper the side of the road. Although a disturbing sight, the golden hue of the sand and impressive draw distance makes for quite the spectacle. It's in this sandy post apocalyptic warzone that our Delta Force heroes find themselves engaging in bloody skirmishes with looters and enemy soldiers.
The main bulk of the gameplay is exactly what you'd expect from a third person shooter of this ilk. You run from cover to cover, firing off a few rounds here there and ordering your troops about with commands mapped to the d-pad. In this respect, the game offers little new to the genre, but it appears refined. The game is graphically impressive too, and the combat has a nice and sturdy look to it. Although at this stage there is little to distinguish the game from the army of third person shooters out there, Spec Ops attempts to innovate in other areas.
At one point in the demo, a group of looters are taking cover at the bottom of a near vertical sand bank. Rather than attempting to engage the enemies in a drawn out gunfight, the chap playing the game chooses a far more interesting method of execution. Shooting the concrete wall that supports the bank, an avalanche of sand is brought crashing down on top of the enemy. Indeed, sand plays a far more important role than merely setting the scene, and is actually integral to the action. As well as triggering avalanches as seen in the demo, players can expect to take on enemies in the midst of a sandstorm, where visibility is drastically reduced.
Spurred along by an adrenaline-soaked soundtrack (which I pray remains in the finished game), Walker and his team arrive at the demo's dramatic finale. Peering over the edge of a sandy ledge, a squad of soldiers can be seen interrogating an unarmed man. The hostage, we're told, is innocent, and the player is given full jurisdiction over the outcome of the situation. The way a player chooses to handle this situation will directly affect the subsequent story. "It's all about excruciating situations like these," says Kasavin, aware of the importance of choice is in this generation of games.
Although choice and consequence is far from a revolutionary mechanic, its implementation in Spec Ops is much more interesting than in the majority of games. Most games treat choice-based gameplay in a linear way: you press A for one outcome, B for another. It's often scripted and structured. In Spec Ops, your decisions are made in the heat of battle. In the example outlined above, with the hostage, how you tackle the situation in game will affect the outcome. You could shoot the enemy in question and save the day. You could fail to stop the murder in time and lose a key character. Or you could roll a grenade into the fray and blow everybody to kingdom come.
The choice and consequence mechanics certainly interested me, and while the one situation we saw was well crafted, I'm interested to see how similar situations pan out. Kasavin stressed the importance of narrative, which for me is an important element for a shooter. All too often the genre descends into a clichéd mess of testosterone-fuelled nonsense and poor character development. Based on Kasavin's comments, I hope that Spec Ops will be an exception to this rule, but as always, only time will tell.
While the game might be dressed in generic garments, the overall costume is actually quite interesting. The section of the game we saw was obviously well controlled and polished to perfection, but if the game as whole can maintain a similar level of quality, then Ghost Recon and Gears 3 could have bit of competition on their hands. Kasavin refused to comment on multiplayer, but did reveal that the game would be treated to a multiplayer beta at some point soon. Expect to hear more of Spec Ops around that time.
Spec Ops: The Line is due out on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC in 2011.