I love it when a game blindsides me. I knew of Spec Ops although I had not paid much attention to it, I didn’t even know it was a third person shooter until I fired it up. That was when I got very pleasantly surprised, for once we are looking at a war based shooter with some sense of magnitude, a game that makes you think about your actions and delivers more than its fair share of sombre moments. It is also not often I feel the need to fully complete a game before committing to a review, but this time – I just had to know.
The setting is brave, unique and inspired. Taking Dubai the playground of the rich as the stage, but then burying the city in a world of destructive sandstorms. This offers the designers freedom to create some spectacular vistas, while reigning the player into apparently unconfined arenas. The mission plays out as a recon and rescue effort into this ghost of a city, however it does not take long for you to scratch the surface and find a once proud oasis that has spiralled into chaos. Spending your time between destroyed luxury buildings and stranded yachts in the middle of the desert vista.
The narrative is certainly adult and quite dark, the environment lends to this leading you through creepy areas populated with fly riddled corpses. The characters you meet along the way are not overly typical stereotypes and more often than not their longevity may surprise you. It will also seem familiar if you are a fan of Apocalypse Now. There are some elements that appear to be in tandem with the classic tale of a soldier taking a mental turn for the worse while seeking out a rogue senior officer in an inhospitable environment.
This may be an action game, but the message is quite clear that war and the actions a soldier has to perform often have terrible consequence. Walker, (your character) gets progressively beaten up and scarred (mentally and physically) as the game progresses, so do your squad members and this is nice to see. All too often an in-game hero can survive the impossible in a crisp, white t-shirt. There are also some interesting choices and options open to the player that often hinge on key events, but do have some effect on the story being played out. In fact I have deliberated over moral decisions in this game much more than others with their lauded game changing decision trees. Of course canny achievement hunters will dive straight for the checkpoint reload regardless of story impact.
On the battlefield the game delivers well, weapons feel good and varied, although the grenade mechanic could be better and while slipping and sliding into cover is a surefire way to survive it has often been my downfall. Some scenery is more or less sticky than others and Walker will sometimes pop his head up just when I don’t want him to, of course do this too much and death will become you. One nice feature that makes use of the setting is areas that offer changing environments, sometimes shooting a window or glass roof may dislodge a deluge of sand that can quite nicely bury a stubborn enemy or three. While not overused it sometimes takes a little quick thinking and creativity to spot an opening to use the environment as a weapon.
There is a multiplayer component with some character progression, but in comparison to the single player campaign it feels somewhat tacked on and is nowhere near the likes of Gears of War or Ghost Recon Future Soldier for spills and thrills. Where combat in the single player game is often a tightly fought bout with scarce ammunition, the online game feels cumbersome and disjointed. If there is another Spec Ops game in the future I believe shipping without an online component would be the way to go.
There are also some nice touches throughout, loading screens with some moving aspects to keep you attentive and the main menu screen often changes, which I suspect is gameplay and choice related. A lot of the cutscenes keep true to your current inventory too rather than sticking a default weapon to your back, something of an oversight that normally upsets me in other games, I noted with glee that my Desert Eagle was no longer in my holster after swapping it out for for a rifle.
In comparison to the very recent Ghost Recon, Spec Ops delivers something extra for me in the rawness of its approach. It feels like in your face war and playing on the harder levels I felt great satisfaction with my progress, as a gamer it offers the kind of experience that I will go back to even if I have clocked the achievements. Where Ghost Recon had the gadgets and production values, Spec Ops has the beating heart of a dogged protagonist obsessed with his mission.
Colour me impressed.
Come for the campaign, stay for the credits and play out the epilogue more than once.