Sunday, September 14, 2014

Game Review - Spec Ops: The Line (Xbox 360, 2012)

I'm a sucker for a good story, but games have this annoying tendency to build up a wonderful plot only to collapse in the final act.  Spec Ops: The Line is unfortunately one of those games, with excellent storytelling heading towards a pretentious climax in the last chapter.  Oh, I guess it's also a decent shooter, but that's not why you'd play this game.

Spec Ops takes place in a world where the glamorous city of Dubai has been buried by unrelenting sandstorms.  After a failed attempt to evacuate the city, a trio of Special Forces operatives (that's you) enter the city to figure out what happened and look for survivors.

The setting is fantastic.  Dubai is an unusual location for a game, and it allows for a wonderful mixture of sandy exteriors, apparently war-torn slums, and opulent plazas.  It leans a little on the desert side of things (given the basic plot, that much is to be expected), but it's still pretty sweet to explore an underused real-world city.

The plot itself isn't too compelling, mostly because there's just not enough content to make sense of everything that's going on (perhaps by design), but the details are phenomenal.  I was particularly impressed by the characterization - the banter among the three protagonists is well-written with impressive voice acting, making them each unique and believable characters.

In fact, the best part of the story is the evolution of the characters' responses to events as the game progresses.  When you start the game, they're mostly professional and detached with a nice dose of playfulness; by the end, they are clearly exhausted and frustrated, and that professionalism is replaced by raw anger.

That slow change is fantastic, and it's supported by visuals along the way.  The protagonists' faces become increasingly caked with sand and blood, adding a surprising level of immersion.  It's all wonderfully presented.

On the other hand, the game's conclusion is a huge disappointment.  It goes completely off the rails, capping off that gradual psychological devolution with an over-the-top twist.  The last chapter is definitely the most memorable part of the game, but not in a good way.

The let down at the end is a problem because the story absolutely carries the game.  The gameplay is exactly what you'd expect from a third-person shooter in the post-Gears of War era: a cover system, long battles with waves of enemies, and a small array of available weapons fill out the majority of what you'll be doing throughout the 5-8 hour campaign.

A few features try to mix it up a bit, but at best they feel like underdeveloped gimmicks.  The biggest is the ability to issue orders to your squadmates.  You can have your allies focus on a particular target or, sometimes if you're lucky, you can get one to snipe a distant foe.  More often than not, though, they'll just run into the fray, becoming a liability instead of an asset (you'll hit a game over screen if a teammate is downed and not revived quickly enough).

It makes for a very repetitive gameplay experience.  You're just fighting waves of identical enemies in arenas with different arrangements of walls and debris.

In fact, the most damning part is that the game can get incredibly frustrating on higher difficulties.  There are segments that seem to require more luck than skill or strategy, as your allies get themselves killed constantly. The frustration really hampers the replay value of what is already a fairly short campaign.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the multiplayer mode.  I tried searching for a match every time I booted up the game and never found one.  So it's there, but the community is completely dead.

And that's all there is - fantastic storytelling bundled with acceptable gameplay, at least until the last fifteen minutes.  It's decently fun and excitingly immersive, but the disappointing conclusion and overall lack of replay value knock it down a few notches.

My Rating: 6/10 - decent.