Now, 18 months later, I've played more than an hour of a Spec Ops that feels solid and functional -- current, even. But now that The Line seems well on its way to relevancy as a game, developer Yager faces what might be an even bigger obstacle. In a quest for a literary sort of statement and message, Spec Ops: The Line has the baggage of the entire medium to overcome. That isn't to say Spec Ops is in a bad position as it stands now. The delay has done The Line good. In that time, Yager has retooled the engine to support the enhancements seen in Unreal Engine 3 in the last year, particularly obvious in the new lighting system. Spec Ops is striking in ways it wasn't before, its desert landscape full of vibrant blues and reds and purples in addition to the expected oranges and yellows.
More importantly, Spec Ops: The Line has solid design chops. It's uncommon for a developer to let a member of the press play for as uninterrupted a stretch as Yager allowed me last week. Even more unusual is the breadth of what I played, which included significant portions selected from the first half of the game. There was a clear confidence on display. I can understand why. I played through one well designed combat scenario after another, each with an interesting layout that offered numerous tactical options.
From what I've played, Yager is doing a good job of keeping Spec Ops: The Line interesting to play moment-to-moment. Shooting is also nailing the difficult-to-quantify feel quotient. The guns are fun to use, and enemies go down how you'd expect based on the weapons present.
Yager has already gone on record citing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as the literary inspiration for Spec Ops: The Line -- the mad general antagonist of The Line, John Konrad, is named for the novel's author, and the story loosely mirrors the premise of Conrad's book. Heart of Darkness explored the atrocities of men removed from the influence of civilization, and Spec Ops seems poised to cover similar ground. While Spec Ops is a shooter, there's a marked lack of the sort of gung-ho machismo that marks the genre elsewhere. Firefights in The Line are bloody, messy, and often desperate (which currently carries over to The Line's difficulty, which allowed for little margin for error in my time with it). There's also a lingering focus on the human cost of violence.
Thus far it doesn't feel exploitative. It's not "No Russian," or a contrived American vacation in the UK a la Modern Warfare 3. But there is one moment in particular indicative of the struggles that Yager is facing to make a game that deals not just with "mature" subject matter, but serious, literary messages. The moment in question sees Walker and his team stumble into what looks like a high-rise upper floor lobby, full of shot, burned, and mutilated corpses. The characters' reaction to that horror is tonally consistent, to be sure, and there's no pounding metal or techno to disrupt the moment. But there is a flashing clipboard collectible on a table in the room's midpoint, which serves to break immersion in that moment completely.
A representative from Yager was quick to explain why that clipboard was there, as it went into some detail as to what precisely had happened in that lobby. But the damage had already been done, as a now common convention of modern shooters, the collectible, had served to undermine the otherwise impeccably presented moment of solemn horror.
The problem is the baggage Spec Ops: The Line carries as a game, and as a shooter in particular. Unfortunately, the onus is on Yager to develop a relationship with the player that suggests that decisions go beyond binary choices, countermanding years of forced "moral" decisions in other games. I'm not saying the necessary work isn't there to foster that kind of player understanding. I just didn't see any in my time with The Line.
At this late stage, Yager has got the game part down. But I can't tell yet if their message will come through. Spec Ops' very nature as a game might serve as its own worst enemy in Yager's efforts to achieve something meaningful with its narrative. It's not the worst situation to be in. But Yager's success in walking that tightrope could determine where Spec Ops: The Line falls in the spectrum between "good" and "memorable."