"Spec Ops: The Line," the new third-person shooter from Yager Development and 2K Games, places a heavy emphasis on story. More than any other shooter has ever attempted to do, in fact. The narrative that unfolds as protagonist Captain Martin Walker leads his three-man Delta squad into a storm-ravaged Dubai in search of a group of U.S. soldiers begins in much the same fashion as countless other military-themed shooters, but it soon takes a much darker tone.
As you begin to unravel the mystery surrounding your rescue mission and why exactly it has gone horribly wrong, you are placed in situations and faced with decisions that leave you with no clear-cut easy answers. There is no morality system in place in "The Line" or meter that shows whether you're leaning toward the dark side - your decisions are guided only by your own moral compass. Given that the choices you're forced to make never include those with a happy ending, I often found myself second-guessing each decision and agonizing over their outcomes.
Player choice is nothing new in video games, but "The Line" elicits an entirely fresh emotional response - regret. Plenty of games give players the option to be a little (or a lot) evil, but rarely is there emotional baggage that comes along with choosing to play that way. In "The Line," I genuinely felt bad for some of the things I was forced to do. Terrible even. You're constantly reminded that those in your sights are U.S. soldiers just like you, and eavesdropping on their conversations reveal that their motivations aren't all that different from Walker's. I've killed thousands of pixelated soldiers over the years, but there were times in "The Line" that I simply didn't want to pull the trigger. But as the game never lets you forget, pulling the trigger is sometimes the only way to survive and you have no choice but to live with the consequences of those actions.
Adding to my feelings of guilt and remorse was the change in attitude of my AI squadmates, who reacted to my decisions according to their own beliefs. I was often forced to side with one or the other, and couldn't help but feel like I was betraying the guy I sided against. An excellent script and stellar voice acting helped make this dynamic feel entirely believable and kept me fully immersed in the frightening world I was stuck in. Too often games attempting to tell a mature story are undone by a boneheaded script, but that's not the case here.
It's a good thing the story that drives "Spec Ops: The Line" is such a success because the actual gameplay itself isn't anything spectacular. Most troublesome is the cover mechanic, which is extremely finicky. Snapping into cover works well most of the time, but seemingly every time I would get into a rhythm of bouncing from behind one object to the next, the game would mysteriously fail to allow me to take cover and I would quickly die in a hail of bullets. Considering the length of some levels and how infrequently the game auto-saves, this caused me to repeat some sections of the game multiple times.
Your squad does an admirable job of holding its own during combat situations, which is great because you'll need all the help you can get as you're always outnumbered by the opposition and ammo can be hard to find. You have only a few squad commands at your disposal, such as firing on a specific target or healing an injured ally, but your mates never require your constant attention. Sand also plays an intriguing part in shaping how firefights play out as you'll sometimes be able to shoot out windows to drown your enemies or use a blinding sandstorm to get the drop on them.
All in all, the core gameplay is fun and challenging, but be prepared for a few moments of frustration when the cover system leaves you exposed. The single-player campaign clocks in at around 10 hours or so, but multiple endings leave the game open for multiple run-throughs. In addition, "Spec Ops: The Line" offers a handful of multiplayer modes ranging from standard deathmatch to the intriguing Buried objective-based game. Unlockables like weapons and perks keep the action fresh, but without the story elements that elevate the campaign, the gameplay quirks become more visible.
There may be no simple choices in the world of "Spec Ops: The Line," but the decision to recommend this game is an easy one. Just be prepared to live with the consequences of your actions.
"Spec Ops: The Line"
Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games
Available for: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 ($59.99)
Rating: M for mature