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Spec Ops: The Line review

£29 (PC), £39 (Xbox 360/PS3)

Manufacturer: 2K Games

Our Rating: We rate this 4 out of 5

A total downer - and also the best thing to happen to shooters this year

It seems profoundly wrong to be recommending a game which will leave its players feeling depressed and guilty, but that's exactly why Dubai-set third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line is both a surprise and an essential reflection upon what action gaming is.

Documenting three US Delta Force soldiers' search for a missing Colonel in a near-future Dubai which has collapsed into drought, anarchy and environmental disaster, it draws heavily from Apocalypse Now's examination of right, wrong and military might. Even aside from this introspection and a sharp, twisting narrative, the setting alone makes it unusual.

Rather than the swathes of brown and grey which characterise so many modern shooters, Spec Ops juxtaposes its Middle Eastern desert with the grand opulence of Dubai. Sand-locked speedboats, huge sculptures, swathes of gaudy signage for casinos, aquariums and seven-star hotel provide vibrant colour amidst the eternal sand that has broken into this ruined city. That this is a metaphor for the folly and brutality of high capitalism is a given, but it's also an unusual, mesmerising and unsettling backdrop for the action.

As for the action itself, it's a cover shooter in the Gears of War vein, requiring you to shelter and take shots carefully rather than wade invincibly into the fray like a Call of Duty-style Arnie. Twitchy controls, unforgiving enemies and high headcounts mean it can be punishing to the point of frustration. Your character, grim jarhead Captain Martin Walker, has an infuriating tendency to flick out of cover, while checkpoints are so far apart that long, difficult fights require repeated do-overs.

Fortunately, the tone and dialogue make up for a multitude of design sins. This isn't a game about feeling like a hero, but about feeling the human cost of warfare. While the plot itself drops a few balls, Walker and his two (AI-controlled) squadmates' reaction to the horror they witness and sometimes cause is far more powerful.

Why they're there at all is in increasing doubt, and the trail of destruction they leave behind them may be making the situation for Dubai's thirsty, sandstorm-battered survivors far worse than it already was. The inter-squad chatter sows doubt and remorse, while hard decisions - both scripted and chosen - have terrible consequences.

Spec Ops: The Line

It doesn't shy away from showing these consequences in gruesome, haunting detail, but with the intent of eliciting an emotional response rather than being the sneery gore-porn that so many action games seem to be currently embracing.

As such, Spec Ops tunnels into the mind and lodges there, spreading discomfort and despair. It becomes a game that isn't played for fun, but to incite self-reflection and to feel yourself in the shoes of its troubled characters - forever striving to do the right thing but spreading disaster as a result.

It is going to dissatisfy players in search of a stop-gap until the next Call of Duty, or who object to having their emotions toyed with when they're only there to shoot pretend men. Multiple endings and a few lynchpin decisions do allow the more brutally-minded player to avoid moralising, while the taxing nature of the later conflicts offer a rare-for-the-mainstream challenge - but don't expect to be praised for your actions come the dark resolution. Spec Ops wants you to think before you shoot, even though shooting is invariably your only option.

Bold, ambitious, very different and disturbingly memorable, then - Spec Ops is a rare and brave achievement in action game storytelling, even if it's only a so-so action game underneath the dialogue and characters.

Spec Ops: The Line Expert Verdict »
Available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. PC system requirements: OS: Windows XP SP3 Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo @ 2Ghz / AMD Athlon 64 X2 equivalent Memory: 2 GB RAM Hard Disk Space: 6 GB free Video Card: NVIDIA GeForce 8600 / ATI Radeon HD 2600XT (256 MB memory) DirectX®: 9.0 Sound: DirectX Compatible
  • Overall: We give this item 8 of 10 overall

Superficially, Spec Ops: The Line might not be the gold-standard of action games, but it's the bold, thoughtful tone and disconcerting setting that makes it such a welcome relief from all the meatheaded heroics which flood the shelves.

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