Spec Ops: Drake of darkness
The Line is a videogame with something to say, but without the right language to say it. By Lance Harris.
Willed into existence in one of the world’s most barren places, the gleaming towers of Dubai are a monument to the triumphs of the age and perhaps to its hubris. Fast-forwarded from the “18th century to the 21st in a single generation”, it is a city that stands defiant against the arid wasteland that surrounds it.
It’s a visionary setting for Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line, a dark cinematic shooter that takes its inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Other obvious cinematic touch points are Iraq conflict flicks Three Kings and Jarhead.
Spec Ops unfolds in a Dubai swallowed by the surrounding desert following a series of cataclysmic dust storms. The catastrophe has turned Dubai into a vortex of sand and madness. A few thousand remaining survivors that are left in the evacuated city hang onto life by a thin thread.
Player character Captain Walker and his elite US Delta Force team are sent to find Colonel Konrad and his rogue soldiers in the city. But once their boots are on the ground, the small military unit must do unspeakable things to survive as they hunt for Konrad and his lost 33rd squadron.
The vivid backdrop of a Dubai that has become one of the world’s dark places is the biggest thing that Spec Ops has going for it. Under the bold presentation, the game is a competent but ordinary third-person military shooter. Though it gets the job done, the gunplay isn’t particularly tight or visceral.
But the nightmare journey through a shattered Dubai is memorable and disturbing. Even the obligatory on-rails helicopter sequence that opens the game uses the setting to powerful effect. It steers you through a sandstorm as soaring skyscrapers groan, heave and dramatically collapse around you.
At the outset of the game, the glinting glass buildings of Dubai loom on the horizon like the spires of a science fiction city. Oryx run through the dunes as you make your way towards to the eerily empty metropolis. The scenes you find once you get to the city are alternately shocking, haunting and hallucinatory.
Opulent hotels and kitsch nightclubs choke on sand; insurgents fashion bullets from silver; bodies of civilians scorched by phosphorous are scattered in the streets; and sleek sports cars lie abandoned on highways in a city where fuel is cheaper than water. Along the way, Walker (you) needs to make more unpalatable moral choices than the good/evil options that games usually offer.
Whatever you do, the outcome is seldom pleasant. As a pair of achievements for the game puts it, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. As the squad limps deeper into the game they — and you — become less certain of the righteousness of their mission.
Tearing a page from Bioshock’s self-reflexive book, the game mocks the bloodthirsty jingoism of military shooters and you for playing them. “Do you feel like a hero yet?” it taunts on a loading screen as things are starting to get particularly screwed up.
Whether by design or accident, the casting of the talented but overexposed Nolan North as Walker turns out to be a masterstroke. Hearing the familiar voice of Uncharted’s flip, wisecracking Nathan Drake hoarse with horror and thick with tension reminds you that the last time you killed so many people in an exotic location, it was actually meant to be fun.
Fun is the crux of the game’s dilemma, of course. Cinephiles accept they might be enriched by a film they don’t really enjoy watching, but gamers want games to be entertaining. Spec Ops urges you to shoot people in the head because it’s a blast yet points out that you should perhaps not enjoy killing virtual people so much.
HOW IT SCORES
The lighting and the art design are spectacular enough to make up for the low-res textures.
Great voice acting, some memorable use of licensed rock music, and the sounds of a warzone.
The shooting is functional, but it’s disappointing that Spec Ops isn’t as daring in its gameplay as it is in its narrative.
At around five hours on normal difficulty, the campaign is brief. The dull multiplayer feels like a bit of an afterthought and doesn’t add much to the package.
Spec Ops: The Line isn’t a particularly good videogame, but it is an unforgettable journey into madness.
The irony would be thicker, perhaps, if Spec Ops itself was more fun or if its mechanics were as bold as the story it tells. But it’s a game that already starts to get repetitive at around the halfway mark, despite the fact that it is so brief. And some ropey dialogue — barely better than the usual military shooter patter — detracts from the power of the story.
Like Willard or Marlow, you keep looking for Kurtz, not because you’re enjoying the ride, but because you want to uncover the horrible truth. The game’s ambition and its loyalty to the nightmare of its choice are commendable, but it never reconciles its anti-war message with the way it voices it. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media
- Reviewed on Xbox 360. Also available on Windows PC and PS3