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PREVIEW

SPEC OPS: THE LINE

Squad-based shooter. At the moment, the phrase, the genre, is trending heavily in the industry.

We've written previews with those words numerous times since the start of the new year. Ghost Recon, Rainbow 6, Mass Effect, Raccoon City. Each with its own variation but very much part of the whole.

Spec Ops: The Line is another. It's got the appropriate mechanics for the genre classification, such as three-man team with controllable commands, cover system, the works. It plays out in near-future but still very much modern warfare by placing the battlefield in a sandstorm-ravaged Dubai, portrays its team as sweating, realistically proportioned soldiers and nudges cliche with roles: the joker, the calm realist, and you: a commander with a mouthful of patriotic pledges about loyalty and doing whatever's necessary to get the job done.

That job's broadly outlined to begin as an extensive recon and rescue of the 33rd, a regiment who disappeared, perhaps turned rogue during their time in Dubai - the exact situation only alluded to by newspaper clippings at the game's start, and to track down a man named Conrad; hero, veteran, idolised by Walker - you.

He's also likely massively fucked up. And so, it seems, are you.

Spec Ops: The Line
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We play several chapters from the campaign. The game skips generous portions to accommodate the short preview time and give us a better understanding at what Yeager Development is trying to achieve. What that is is something that Call of Duty, Battlefield or Medal of Honor have yet to do: a proper character study of effects of war on those at the frontline.

It's inspired by Heart of Darkness/ Apocalypse Now - the story arc, the sights, the names all resonate with the classic tale that's only partly to do with an army veteran gone rogue. Its as much to do with the atrocities of war - a lot of what we see makes us distinctly uncomfortable, in a way that sticks in the gut and mind far longer and more heavily than the shock tactics of No Russian.

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You start on the dunes outside the city and try unsuccessfully to stave off an execution of your own by militia forces. Soon enough you'll be walking knee deep in death pits, glaring up at bodies hanging from posts.

Spec Ops: The Line

Death doesn't come easy in Spec Ops. Low moans and pleas for a quick death constantly rattle in your ears. Shoot enemies straight on - far beyond faceless NPCs by weight of the narrative alone - and they'll crawl and clutch their stomachs, taking what seems an age to die. Head shots will be delivered with a splatter conservatively dramatic. You start to wince when using shotguns in defence.

Our time with Spec Ops delivers two scenes that stand out amongst all this. One we can talk about.

There's a number of US agencies and outfits operating within the destroyed city. CIA mix and clash with 33rd. At times its confusing as to who's who, and with whom. We're not sure if that deliberate or just a side-effect of our time skips through the story. But there's a scene that makes you realise the terrible reality behind the term "friendly fire".

Spec Ops: The LineSpec Ops: The LineSpec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The LineSpec Ops: The LineSpec Ops: The Line

You drop into a darkened underground encampment, obviously used by locals that have remained on after the storm. Points of light strobe through the rippling sheets used to divide communes, wooden boxes to differentiate market stalls. You engage a heavily armed enemy, that turn out to be US troops.

Cries of friendly fire come from both sides. Both continue shooting. At key points during our time we're given the clear option to hold off pulling the trigger. We've got guys charging us - we've no option, but the fact that we're grimacing as we do means Yeager is doing something right. Even as the dust clears we're not sure exactly who we've engaged with, uniform markings aside.

Throughout your wanderings radio towers and speakers lined through the city bark out the ramblings of a madman, playing out his torturing of those underneath him to an audience of hundreds. It works its way under your skin.

Spec Ops: The Line

The psychologic damage starts wearing on your comrades. A choice later on between saving civilians from death or saving a CIA agent with important intel leads to blows. Macho talk and snappy one-liners are washed away by blood and grime. We start seeing the real people underneath.

Even you are not unassailable. A montage that ends our time with the game, an assault of brutality and nightmarish apparitions suggests your man Walker tenure with his team isn't concrete, and he'll slowly drown by each and every decision he makes. A flash of red-tinged sand dunes vomiting out crawling blackened figures is still burned into our mind's eye.

Sure, the game's got cool moments, mostly hooked around the vast dunes of sand that have build up in buildings and become makeshift barriers. A barrage of bullets cracking windows or destroying supports, until a landslide descends onto your attackers, ending fights that'd overwhelm you and your low ammo counts swiftly. The swirling sands obscure your view, consume your foes. However your grin will will freeze when you realise you have to hear them choke to death under your feet.

Spec Ops: The Line

And it's got its problems too. This promising character study is wrapped around a fairly conventional squad shooter - the mechanics are perfunctory, the hot-step between stealth and clearing out areas repeated often and with little deviation. We don't know how that'll hold up under continual use.

But for now, we appreciate the execution of the story, the unsettling nature of the narrative and its telling. It's controversial, but for the right reasons. It's brave. This is a mature take on an accepted form of killing for entertainment. War's got its bite back.

Spec Ops: The LineSpec Ops: The LineSpec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The LineSpec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The LineSpec Ops: The LineSpec Ops: The Line
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