Oh, look... another third-person, cover-based shooter. And, yeah, wow, it’s another game in the Spec Ops series, a franchise best known for actually still existing, rather than being any good. And, yes, it’s another modern military game, set in the desert.
However, if you tuned out about there and ignored the rest of this preview, you’d be doing yourself, and the guys at Yager Development, who’ve been handed a below-average franchise and managed to turn it into something that, frankly, has us very intrigued.
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There is a lot that’s immediately familiar about The Line. We’ve only played it on console so far – and yes, it is coming on PC – but this familiarity is tinged with touches of setting and story-telling that already set it apart from the crowd. In fact, the game’s very name could well be a veiled reference to the line that the developers have had to walk to make the game what it is.
The shooter mechanics are pretty much tried and true. A key press lets you sprint, or places you in cover, which you can then vault over or manoeuvre around. You can carry no more than two weapons, which all come from a pool of modern, now intimately familiar firearms that range from pistols and shotguns, all the way up to RPGs and light machine guns. Thankfully, the combat itself is pretty brutal, so you’ll at least not be emptying entire clips just to put down one badguy, and there’s a certain special joy to be had in running out of ammunition and clubbing some poor guy to death to get some.
Even the main characters seem awfully familiar. You lead a team of three Delta operators during the game; there’s you, a sniper, and a support gunner, and they are your classically wise-cracking chorus to back up the grim attitude of the main character. They look as you’d expect, all molle gear, knives, and serious business, but, like the action itself, its protagonists somehow add up to more than the sum of their respective parts.
The reason The Line is looking like a surprisingly good game is the setting, and the very grim story that is taking place there. It elevates the mundane aspects of the game to something else entirely.
In the words of General William Tecumseh Sherman, war is all hell, only a lot of games tend to shy away from that. Rather, fans of modern shooters have gotten used to Boy’s Own Adventures, with broadly drawn villains and good guys, simple morality plays that are all about twitch and competitive action rather than mood or setting.
The Line, however, focuses on the hell part of the equation. It doesn’t take long for the game’s inspiration – John Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (better known to cineastes as Apocalypse Now) – to become obvious. At the game’s beginning, you’re inserted into a ruined Dubai, which has been struck by a freak sandstorm that’s pretty much ruined the city. Your mission: scout out the place, discover what happened the unit sent in to oversee the city’s evacuation, and find the man meant to be commanding the operation.
Here’s a hint: it’s not gone very well, and what starts as a scouting mission quickly becomes a rescue op, then a bloody battle to simply stay alive.
The man responsible for the whole mess is an old CO of the main character, one Colonel John Konrad, and while you start believing him to be beyond reproach, that confidence quickly fades. There are local militia attacking stranded US military units in the shattered shell of Dubai, whole US units that have seemingly gone rogue in the chaos, and all kinds of atrocities being committed. The rhythm of the game, of its quiet moments of travel and exposition, and the sharp firefights, are broken up some of the most alarming imagery we’ve seen in games – a whole highway with bodies strung from overhead lights, dim passages and trenches filled with burnt civilians, and all the signs that madness, not military law, now reigns in the ruined city.
If it sounds like I’m getting awfully flowery for ‘just’ another cover shooter, take it is an indicator on just how impactful the game can be at its best. There’s a sense of growing doom, that the deeper you get into Dubai, and the more you uncover of the horrors there, the worse it gets for you, personally. The game is constantly throwing up moral dilemmas, too; not game-changing ones – the ending is set, and you can’t really alter it – but ones that have an immediate impact. In one instance, you’re presented with a choice to save a CIA agent you’ve been tracking down, or some nearby civilians about to be executed. Similarly, how you deal with enemies is often made a focus. Ammunition can be pretty sparse, and it’s common to find that shot enemies are merely wounded, not dead – however, it’s only the dead that give up spare ammunition. The immersion you gain from executing the wounded, to expedite your own mission, cannot be overstated.
The Line’s excellent licensed music choices, great voice-work, and its wonderfully rendered and surprisingly colourful setting itself all work together to raise this game into something very interesting. The game’s slated to last a good ten or so hours in singleplayer, and we’re guessing that co-op will feature heavily in the game’s multiplayer offering.
We’re keen to head deeper into this new iteration of the heart of darkness – and it’s very dark indeed.