Spec Ops: The Line preview

Have there really been nine Spec Ops games?! Forgive me, but I haven't played any of them, so Spec Ops: The Line was barely on my radar. And while I doubt that many of you were hankering for another modern military shooter, and yes, the franchise is a rather bizarre pedigree for a big publisher like 2K to resurrect, the results pretty much set my brain on fire. That has nothing to do with low expectations, either—Spec Ops: The Line is easily the freshest, boldest approach to a military shooter since Call of Duty went annual. There were two giant takeaways from my lengthy demo worth highlighting, the heaviest of which I'll save for last.

Let's start with the more fun aspect, shall we?! I can't think of any other real-world location more perfectly suited for a game setting than Dubai. Have you seen pictures of this place? It's essentially Disneyland for billionaire oil magnates and vacationing tycoons. Just unapologetic opulence cranked all the way up to eleven. But thanks to the current state of the economy, it's already a ghost town, currently housing more construction workers completing the extravagant monoliths than actual tourists. There's a repulsive creepiness inherent in something so immaculate and ostentatious, and by gosh, it's high time it was used for something more than a set piece in Mission: Impossible 4.

Sky-high glass towers, indoor skiing, mutli-story aquariums, and the largest arcades known to man—with almost no one around. Already sounds like the perfect setting for a game to me. This is Spec Ops: The Line's battleground, albeit ravaged by sky-choking sandstorms. Plus, the fact that the environment throws off a vibe absurdly similar to that beloved atmosphere found in Andrew Ryan's failed utopia, and that it actually exists, should damn well make other developers just a little ashamed to continuously set their military games in the sad Arab nation of “GENERICSTAN.”

BioShock is a pretty apt comparison, come to think. The same way that 2K game turned seeping seawater into heart-poundingly creepy terror, Spec Ops: The Line is doing with sand. No, we didn't get to see any of those lauded, randomly generated sandstorms which can unexpectedly kick up heart rates (similar to those crescendo moments we witnessed in the “Return to Sender” portion of Modern Warfare 3's campaign), but rest assured this earthly element is absolutely everywhere, and bolsters the motif in interesting new ways you might not expect. To say nothing of your affected visibility, everywhere you look, otherwise immaculate building are encased in snowbanks of beige filth, and damn near everything outdoors in the bizarre metropolis has been blanketed by a fresh layer of barren desert.

Spec Ops' sand mechanic isn't just a tonal harbinger of disquiet and death—the ravages of the Dubai sandstorms factor heavily into the gameplay itself. Drifts of sand can cut off traditional on foot routes or open new areas, and even be manipulated in your favor. Firing at a window can empty a mound of dirt into a building to either help you escape the inside or provide a ramp to new height. In a much more lethal scenario, you can take out a barrier behind the bad guys and drown them in grainy death and save yourself a little ammo. So sand isn't simply a design choice, it's a unique gameplay feature. And more importantly to the story, it's the entire reason you're there in Dubai in the first place.

I also found Spec Ops: The Line to be the perfect (if not sobering) antidote to the rah-rah patriotism of your Battlefields and Call of Dutys. You'll find no plots involving world domination or MacGuffin intel devices here. Instead, you're called into Dubai on a smaller, much more personal mission of heartbreak and sacrifice based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. As many of you may know, this is also the basis of Apocalypse Now (which I was instantly reminded or during an early mission that takes place on a sand-drenched freeway, with cautionary corpses hanging from every light pole) and The Line spins in it into a similar tale of questionable duty, making it far more engrossing than any fictional arms race or impending nuclear cataclysm you've seen before.

You play as Captain Martin Walker, leader of a three-person squad dispatched to locate a rogue army colonel who disappeared six months prior on a well-manned mission to stabilize Dubai in the wake of sandstorms. So while the screenshots you may have seen might've led you to believe you're going to be mowing down wave after wave of indiscriminate insurgents, your primary adversary is a surprising one indeed: your fellow US servicemen.

Here's where Spec Ops boldly distinguished itself from its contemporaries. Whereas other military shooters embolden your murderous behavior by barking out orders to “Stay frosty!” and other such bromantic clichés, you basically get to watch your Delta Force trio mentally unravel over the acts they're committing. Spec Ops pulls zero punches here. Both sides of the battle cry out in fear and confusion; cutscenes linger unflinchingly on the atrocities you've committed, seemingly without choice.

I say “seemingly” because moral decisions unfolded so subtly, I had no idea they were even there until I spoke to a fellow previewer who played the game less linearly. Words can barely convey how gut-wrenching it was to oblige a surviving group of charred and dismembered soldiers begging to be put out of their misery after I'd just willfully obliterated their squad with a white phosphorus mortar. Had I been aware that there was another choice, I definitely would've taken it.

Honestly, I've never witnessed a game capture the pain and power of modern warfare quite like Spec Ops: The Line. We were informed that co-op was scrapped because that kind of light-hearted IRL camaraderie detracted from the weight of the narrative they were trying to achieve. Now let's see if any of those bold choices carry over into the multiplayer. Spec Ops: The Line is scheduled to release on Q2 2012 on Steam and beyond.