Spec Ops: The Line PS3 review – Imaginative take on combat is left parched by gruelling campaign
That I’ve just shot a Soap McTavish-lookalike in his probably-tartan knees says plenty about Spec Ops. It might be dressed in gun-game camouflage, but the story in The Line is intended to be a rejection of Call Of Duty’s wang-waving gunnery. Does it work? Don’t be such a tease: you’ve already had a stealthy peek at the score. Cheeky.
It’s not a total misfire. Captain Walker and his Delta Force team enter the sandblasted remnants of Dubai to locate one Colonel Konrad and the rogue 33rd Infantry. Walker, voiced by Nolan North, is all stubble and scowls, like a plate of angry set squares.
Sadly, North barely gets the chance to warm up his dramatic muscles – the intriguing moral choices and twisting plot are fatigued by the gruelling route The Line chooses to take. No military cliché is left un-barked; every mag change and downed tango is punctuated by hilarious, entirely unnecessary profanity.
It didn’t have to be such a chore. This is a meat-and-potatoes cover shooter, with gunplay seasoned by situational additives: sand can be explodified for cover or, in more limited circumstances, used aggressively to bury enemies.
More impressive are the destructible environments, ranging from glass ceilings that can be shot out pleasingly from under your opponents’ feet, to the bombastic destruction of entire towers. The shredding of the scenery, though, is an often exhilarating, unfortunately neglected rush.
Combat is tight, brutal stuff. Heads pop, necks snap and sticky grenades reduce enemies to an atomised red fog. When pushing forward against a concentrated force, it works well: solid, if never revolutionary.
Unfortunately the system chokes as things get more frantic. Manoeuvring often means accidentally popping off cover, and performing tasks like reviving downed teammates whips the camera around wildly – minor complaints, but ones that are frustratingly at odds with the fragility of your character. Later stages see you downed by two or three hits, and it’s impossible to keep a lock on foes or stay tucked safely away from bullety harm.
Even on medium difficulty, it’s a gritty challenge – and one that inadvertently punishes every death with a 30-second reload time. The length is about right, given the variety (or lack of it), clocking in at a flabless 7-8 hours, but too much of that is spent retrying the same tricky sections or, more frustratingly, waiting to retry them. Prepare for ZX Spectrum levels of acquaintance with the loading screens.
Before I get called a COD noob for suggesting The Line is too hard, let’s clarify: it’s the manner of the difficulty that’s at fault. There’s no dodge function, so avoiding grenades becomes an agonising shuffle to safety: some starfish have greater acrobatic acumen. Later stages pit you against ‘elite’ soldiers, whose training has miraculously enabled them to absorb more bullets to the face. Why don’t more armies think of that?
At no point do you feel like you’re pinned back by a tactically superior opponent – they’re just more numerate, and thicker-skinned. There are moments when combined problems in The Line make you feel like a pulsating vein of liquid fury, but some neat flashes of invention drag up the score.
The use of licensed music is perceptive and cinematic – making even Kula Shaker seem cool in this scorched setting. You’ll also want to push past the irritations to uncover the story buried under Dubai’s sands: no spoilers, but there’s far more going on here than merely strangling insurgents with the Stars And Stripes, and in any modern shooter that’s something to admire. But ultimately, just like in the game itself, the good intentions of The Line are buried beneath a sandstorm of technical frustrations.