Some people would dismiss Yager Development’s latest game as yet another tired, rehashed third-person shooter where American soldiers go trigger-happy in the Middle East. Those people (including myself) should not be too quick to judge. I wasn’t expecting much at all but what I got was a thoughtful, disconcerting game about the cost of war.

My tour of duty with Spec Ops: The Line continues after the jump.

In Spec Ops: The Line, the obscenely opulent emirate of Dubai lays in ruin, having been battered by the worst sandstorms in recent history. While the wealthy were evacuated early enough, Colonel John Konrad and “The Damned” 33rd battalion under his command defied orders to abandon the city and its refugees. Even though they were disavowed for treason, The Damned attempted to lead a caravan out of the city. That was the last transmission out of Dubai six months ago. Now, a three-man Delta Force team has been dispatched in search of Konrad, his unit, and any survivors.

From initial glances, it looks like a typical squad — you play by-the-numbers soldier Captain Martin Walker (voiced by the ubiquitous “I-must-voice-every-game-character” Nolan North). Providing support are the gruff Lieutenant Adams and the joker marksman Sergeant Lugo. At first, targets are neutralized with military precision; the team has its orders and they’re duty-bound to follow them. But the deeper they dig into the sands of Dubai, the more they begin to break from their trappings, question the motives, and weigh up the cost of their actions. This sounds all too vague, but as the story unfolds, seeing its dramatic effects on the emotional and physical well-being of the characters is one of the true highlights of Spec Ops: The Line and I’d hate to ruin any of that for you.

The desert setting in Spec Ops: The Line is as much of a challenge to the player as the jungle would have been in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, or Cambodia would have been in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. In Dubai, the once grandiose structures built in praise of capitalism now lay derelict and in disrepair. Gaudy hotel night clubs are full of sand, and luxury yachts are marooned high and dry. It’s a rather unique backdrop for the game. Aside from some screen tearing and minor texture pop-ins, the Unreal Engine does a wonderful job of rendering these scenes. Light streams into ruined atriums, facades glisten in the blinding day light, and reflections shine up from the marble floors below your feet.

The shifting sands come into play at certain times where fierce, scripted sandstorms separate you from your teammates, forcing you to go on a solitary path until the eventual re-group. When it’s not all up in your face, the sand can be a useful weapon. Shooting out huge shopping mall windows or riddling concrete walls will send a tidal wave of sand crashing down upon enemies. These little moments while gratifying at first, aren’t really all that memorable.

One thing I’d like to forget about is the clunky cover system. Going in and out of cover or rolling from one wall to the next isn’t as fluid as it could be, and there were far too many times where I would beat the crap out of a wall instead of vaulting over it.  The checkpoint system is a trite irritating towards the latter stages of the game, where high numbers of enemies and far-flung checkpoints lead to frustrating repeats. Just to add insult to injury, after too many restarts of the same skirmish, you are asked if you’d like the difficulty dropped down. [Ed: So you accepted the offer?]

Like other shooters, Spec Ops: The Line places the standard assortment of guns in your hands. While there may be a glut of rifles, SMGs, shotguns, and RPGs to play with, often times ammo is scarce. Scavenging weapons from fallen enemies helps, and if you’re really stuck, you can issue basic commands to your squad mates to flank, provide covering fire, or take out entrenched snipers. Sometimes this barking of orders breaks the flow in the action, but for the most part the commands function well. In fact, for A.I. companions, Lugo and Adams do a sterling job of handling the situation without much interaction on your part.

After the final bullets have been fired in the single player campaign, you can take the fight online. The multiplayer is typified by the standard array of deathmatch, team deatchmatch, and objective modes, the usual XP ranking system, and all the perks that come along. The six multi-leveled maps include a cluttered rooftop, a luxury resort, a festival plaza, and a museum in various states of ruin. Sandstorms come in now and then during matches, reducing visibility and leaving you disorientated. The maps are quite large and sometimes it’s terribly difficult to find enemies, especially the ones with a penchant for camping. One particularly infuriating issue occurs when the randomly-chosen host decides to leave. More often than not, you’re dumped into the multiplayer menu, and you lose any of the XP that you might have earned had the match ended properly.

In the end, when the dust has settled, Spec Ops: The Line is a game doesn’t shy away from the barbarity of the situation or the gruesome consequences of the player’s actions. It doesn’t praise you for being the gun-toting hero, but tries to make you think about the line people are willing to cross in the face of war. And it should get a medal of valour for that.

Final score: 9 dark-hearted prawns out of 10

Detailed information:
Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games
Distributor: Megarom Games
Platforms: PlayStation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
Age Rating: 18 (violence and many, many f-bombs)
Websitehttp://www.specopstheline.com