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E3 2010: SpecOps: The Line Preview

Developer: Yager | Publisher: 2K Games
Players: 1+ Player Game | Genre: Shooter

Release Date: TBA 2012

SpecOps: The Line has one of the more interesting settings we’ve seen in video games lately. The game takes place in the city of Dubai, only it’s not the city you know. Sandstorms of biblical proportions have ravaged the once opulent playground for billionaires.

The designers of SpecOps say they wanted to place the game somewhere awe inspiring, but still firmly planted in reality. In fact, the setting is so intriguing that the United Arab Emirate’s National Media Council took notice, stating they would have to consider the possibility of banning SpecOps if its already objectionable material went too far.

It’s a shame this creativity has already been met with controversy. As opposed to metropolises like New York City, Dubai is a relatively unknown destination for gamers. Never mind all the sand.

The demo for SpecOps begins in an elegant lobby, probably inside one of Dubai’s extravagant hotels which has now been buried with sand. Captain Martin Walker, the main protagonist, wanders through the dark interior with his fellow members of an elite Delta Squad. The team has been tasked with infiltrating the ravaged city in order to locate a U.S. Army Colonel named John Konrad, whose whereabouts and mental stability are unknown.

Walker eventually finds a means of escape. He raises his rifle and fires a few rounds into a tall window. It explodes, pouring out tons of sand. This granular material is what 2K plans on using to separate SpecOps from the pack, by applying it to gameplay mechanics ranging from environmental puzzles to combat. In certain areas, enemy soldiers will be conveniently placed near barricades where the sand dunes have grown too high and are ripe for a dry avalanche. However, the designers offer a reminder that Dubai’s new environment serves no one master, so enemies can make just as good use of it.

Wandering in the abandoned streets, with decadent skyscrapers towering on all sides, Walker’s men come across a series of telephone poles extending for miles. Hanging from nearly every one of them is a human corpse. While they look on in horror, the members of Delta Squad soon notice a gang of looters scraping over a rusted out vehicle for spare parts. The looters spot them, and the fight is on.

Walker is capable of issuing orders to his comrades, however these are special forces hombres, so they won’t need hand holding to stay alive. Combat is very reminiscent of Gears of War, thanks to a cover system and the game’s over-the-shoulder perspective on Walker. During the fight, he makes use of an M4 assault rifle, and pump action shotgun for close encounters with the enemy.

After dispatching the looters, Walker and his squad push forward. Then, one member screams out “white phosphorous!” A hail of unidentifiable precipitation hits the ground, burning helpless civilians alive. It’s not known what this hazard was, although we can assume the dangers in Dubai go beyond getting regular old sand caught in awkward places.

Heading through a tunnel lined with blood-soaked bodies, Walker’s team sneaks up on a group of soldiers in the middle of interrogating two civilians. Walker argues with his troops over what course of action is best: take their time and set up a well-planned ambush, or dive right in to save the hostages as quickly as possible. Both options present a set of pros and cons, and neither one is necessarily the right choice.

This is just one instance in SpecOps where players will have to swim through shades of grey. The creators don’t want players to feel pressured to make the “good” or “bad” choice. Instead, they intend to trap gamers in the hellish reality of warfare, where traditional lines of morality cease to exist.

In the end, the 2K rep playing the demo chose to rush into the fight, costing the two civvies their lives. There was no penalty or scolding from the game for what happened. SpecOps is not about right or wrong choices. How these decisions will affect the rest of the game is unknown, but hopefully the player’s actions will contain some weight within the storyline.

SpecOps’ world has a very tangible feel of primeval madness to it. Walkers’ journey deep into a decayed civilization in search of an insane army colonel is clearly influenced by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Even the colonel’s name, Konrad, hints at such influence. The hard choices players have to make could accentuate this theme, and we’d love to see the developers capitalize upon it.

It’s hard to say if SpecOps’ gameplay will receive the same amount of media attention as the touchy setting. Most of the visuals still need some work, except for Walker’s character model which already looks nicely detailed. The combat appears standard for a contemporary third person shooter, and the sand mechanics shown didn’t go far beyond triggering doors to new pathways. 2K is promising a lot in terms of gripping storytelling and inventive environmental gameplay, but for now we’ll have to take those promises with a small grain of sand.

SpecOps: The Line is set for release sometime in 2011.

By Mark Melnychuk - 07/14/10

Screenshots for E3 2010: SpecOps: The Line Preview

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