Taken out of context and separately from the story and setting, Spec Ops: The Line would actually be pretty tough to recommend at all. While the shooting, cover snapping and grenade tossing is perfectly functional, the poor enemy AI and reliance on heavy scripting leaves it lagging well behind Gears of War and Uncharted. That setting, though, is brilliant. Dubai has been destroyed by raging sand storms, and when Walker and his two banter buddies, Adams and Lugo, arrive, it has already begun to tear itself apart.
The 33rd Battalion has taken over the city, and is fighting a war with a civilian, CIA-led rebellion. More immediate, though, is the devastation itself. Giant hotels are caked in hundreds of feet of sand, which can be used in battle, and the weather can change in an instant, creating some visually arresting shootouts where you're battling orangey silhouettes in the swirling sand.
Just as Dubai is fractured and collapsing, so is Walker. Through a series of increasingly difficult and thoroughly unpleasant situations, his grip on reality and the battlefield loosens, turning Spec Ops: The Line into an almost surreal, hazy trip. There's some seriously strong stuff in here, stuff that makes Modern Warfare 2's nefarious No Russian look pretty tame. At times, Spec Ops is a dazzling ride.
There are moments, too, where the action does fly; violent shootouts that play out in breathtaking surroundings while classic 70's hard rock crackles out of a distant PA system - when Spec Ops is on the money, it really kills it. A shame, then, that it suffers from the same narrative dissonance problems as North's other famous role; Uncharted.
The same criticism could be levelled at Gears, but that succeeds because the whole thing is preposterous - from the ludicrous physiques of your team to the relentless bombast of the story. Spec Ops is fractured and disconnected, and I don't think that's a deliberate reflection of your protagonist's mental state. The main reason to push on, then, is that story. You're always moving, always seeing somewhere new and often stunning, and the character arc makes sense. It may be a lift of Heart Of Darkness, but it's one that's done solidly and admirably. And as much as I hate saying it, that's a pretty good achievement for a video game. Especially a shooter.
Sadly, where the game could take chances with how it plays (and it does in a couple of very small instances) it seems far keener on seeing how many turret sections can be forced into a level before your pad rumbles itself into a thousand pieces, interspersed with overly long shootouts against laboriously stupid enemies.
In the multiplayer you get to enjoy the game's perfunctory mechanics against others, but divorced of the gravity of the single-player's story it's difficult to recommend. Standard deathmatch and team deathmatch are joined by a mode that sees you taking out enemy structures to reveal a high value target. It's good stuff, helped by the perk system that lets you buff nearby squad mates, but not something that's going to have Battlefield, Call of Duty or indeed Gears quaking in their jackboots.
Yager should be admired for its bravery and effort in building something different - this could so easily have been an entirely generic shooter - but it just doesn't have the fundamentals to back up its grand ideas or the confidence to go completely off the wall and truly stand out from the crowd.
Virgin Media verdict:
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