Military shooters have a tendency of being technically competent but ultimately vacuous affairs. Initially, The Line, despite its intriguing setting, appears to be going down that same route. With Nolan North offering his heroically likeable voice work to typically handsome lead, Captain Martin Walker, you get the sinking feeling that The Line’s tone and storytelling isn’t going to be nearly as interesting as Yaher and 2K Games had led us to believe. Then there is the familiar Gears style third-person cover shooting; yeah, it’s all very slick, but again, initial impressions suggest yet another hollow shooter awaits.
While Spec Ops: The Line does remain little more than a competent shooter from a purely technical standpoint (albeit one with some rather cool set-pieces), it does, however, slowly reveal itself to be a compelling, subversive and, at times, harrowing tale of mental anguish within the confines of a fantastical but always inhumane battlefield. It’s hardly Oscar material, but in terms of videogame storytelling, The Line certainly stands as a step in the right direction for the genre. By taking liberally from Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, while throwing in an array of less than subtle movie references, The Line rarely feels artistically unique, but in a genre (and dare I say, a medium) in which worlds are often painted in broad stokes of black and white, The Line stands out as a brave attempt to push this stagnating genre forward.
Set in a bizarrely beautiful Dubai that has been overrun by sandstorms, it’s down to Walker and his squad of two to track down Colonel John Konrad (sent in to head up the initial evacuation of Dubai). With a story and tone that call to mind the increasingly disturbing search for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Walker and his squad slowly unravel as they make their way deeper into Dubai and subsequently further from their own humanity. Pushing through the sand covered, danger ridden locales of a now largely deserted Dubai, Walker and his squad’s actions and verbal responses become more and more erratic. What starts as standard military chatter and friendly banter slowly disintegrates into wilder, more animalistic behaviour as rules and morals begin to blur in the hot Dubai sun.
With beatuiful, if somewhat heavy handed juxtaposition throughout, Dubai all but steals the show with its sand covered opulence standing in stark contrast to the signs of brutality and violence that now scar the environment. Even when the core mechanics begin to feel a little tiresome and the story in danger of becoming a tad muddled, the skilfully realised and artistically sublime surroundings will always pull you through. It may not be the most technically impressive shooter on the market, but in terms of artistry, there are few that can match it. With so many shooters eager to jump you from one location to the next, it’s refreshing to blast your way through what feels like a genuinely cohesive game world with a startling sense of place.
In terms of the actual gameplay, well, as I said before, the term ‘competent’ springs to mind. Well, I say competent, but perhaps that is an unfair assessment of what is an extremely slick third-person shooter. Despite lacking anything particularly new to call its own and remaining an extremely linear ‘adventure’ throughout, The Line is nonetheless home to some very enjoyable gunplay, a technically solid cover system and a simplistic but effective selection of squad commands. Dubai itself is also subtly, but smartly integrated into the gameplay itself – environmental hazards are handled with relative care and the scripted use of sandstorms combined with the sand cover provided by grenade explosions does add a small tactical twist to proceedings. Turret sections are thrown into the mix every so often for a bit of variation, but despite the bombast that inevitable comes with them, it’s hard to get excited about yet another turret level.
In fact, despite some relatively grand set-pieces, The Line is often at its best when the volume has been turned down. From eerie moments of calm through to the moral decisions that have to be made throughout the game’s 6-or-so-hour running time, The Line is at its best when it moves in the opposite direction of the genre norms (namely large explosions and excessive gunfire).
Although the decisions that you make do not affect the story in a Mass Effect-style branching narrative, the ones here are best described as morally ambiguous. Often left with the choice of evil vs. evil, The Line won’t leave you necessarily happy with your actions, but it will certainly make you think about the consequences.
And that’s what The Line is really about – consequences. The consequences of a society and city lost to an extreme act of nature and more importantly, the consequences that killing can have on the human psyche. As I said before, this isn’t literary genius by any stretch, but after years of Michael Bay-style direction, its genuinely pleasing to come across a shooter with just a little bit of brain. We’re not in Terrance Malick territory just yet, but at least the industry is at least aiming for Coppola.
With such an interesting story, it’s easy to forget that The Line actually has a pretty decent selection of online modes to get through. While clearly not the main selling point of the package, I was surprisingly impressed by the perk system, level design, and more importantly, how well the core gameplay worked within a competitive multiplayer environment. With stages rife with environmental dangers and plenty of unlockables to serve as bait, The Line’s multiplayer deathmatches proved a more than welcome surprise. The real icing on the cake, however, is the objective based Buried mode. This sees two teams of four struggling to balance offensive manoeuvres with the need to defend their own bases. While similar game modes have popped up in numerous other shooters, with the right crowd, these games can feel incredibly tense with solid teamwork required if you hope to come out on top.
Rather than delivering yet another attractive shooting gallery to plough through, The Line attempts to deal with the consequences of taking a human life and the subsequent effects such an action can have on the mind. The need for a constant source of threat might jar against the larger themes being explored, but The Line stands as a brave and much welcomed step out of Call of Duty’s all encompassing shadow. It might not be the most technically proficient shooter on the market, but it’s certainly the most interesting one.
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