Sand is full of surprises.
Pack it together tightly in a bucket and children can turn it into sandcastles with moats and towers. Pack tonnes of it up against a floor-to-ceiling window in a luxurious Dubai hotel, though, as Yager Developments has done in 2K’s Spec Ops: The Line, and it’s a means of escape: an escape plan consisting of millions of tiny golden particles.
In Spec Ops: The Line sand is the unknown quantity.
Players take the role of Captain Martin Walker, a special forces soldier sent to investigate the disappearance of soldiers from the 33rd Division after a devastating sand storm hits Dubai, dumping thousands of tonnes of sand on the futuristic city of glass and steel on the edge of the Arabian desert.
Walker is voiced by veteran voice actor Nolan North (who brought life to Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series) but this is North as you’ve never heard him before: gruff, uncompromising, swearing …
After two uninterrupted hours with the Xbox 360 build of The Line four chapters I’m impressed with the mostly third-person action game.
My experience opened with Walker on an army helicopter swooping between the glass and steel buildings of Dubai. Several smaller attack helicopters buzz about, attacking Walker and his crew, who fend them off with a mounted mini-gun.
Glass and steel shatters as rounds rip through the buildings. An enemy chopper splutters flame from its tail rotor before spiralling out of control and hitting a building, engulfing the structure in an orange fireball. Walker’s helicopter is hit and goes down.
Along for the ride with Walker are two other Delta Squad soldiers: Adams and Lugo. “What happens in Dubai, stays in Dubai,” one of them mutters as they wander among abandoned vehicles. The trio pass a passenger bus, its luggage doors wide open, suitcases spilling out onto the golden sands. A crumpled shirt lies next to an open suitcase.
Walker, Adams and Lugo are searching for the distress beacon activated by the presumed missing American soldiers but on finding the beacon they also find bodies of American soldiers and a tattered American flag, flapping in the breeze. The body of a dead soldier falls from an abandoned Hummer.
Suddenly three Arabs appear on the deck of a truck and a firefight ensues. By holding the right bumper Walker can order squad mates to take out the enemy. Lugo snipes a foe hiding on a sign overhanging the road.
Pressing B again performs an execution, either smashing the enemy in the face with the butt of a rifle, punching him or shooting them. If you don’t execute a wounded enemy he gets back up and rejoins the battle. No-one said war wasn’t brutal.
Wikipedia informs me that The Line has already been banned from sale in the United Arab Emirates as it apparently paints Dubai in a bad light.
Approaching a downed plane, Walker quietly takes out two enemies, using his pistol’s silencer, but there’s a hostage situation at the front of the plane: Alpha Squad members are being held captive. The action goes slo-mo as Walker takes out four terrorists.
In the next chapter (not necessarily chronological) Walker and his colleagues approach what looks like an abandoned TV station. “You guys hear music?” one of them asks.
Deep Purple’s Hush, Hush is blasting from loudspeakers. It seems strangely appropriate as they assault the building. The glass frontage of a building shatters as Walker peppers it with shells.
The next chapter takes place in an underground camp: thousands of small candles illuminate the gloom. Boards, corrugated iron and flapping cloth form makeshift homes. A handwritten sign proclaims: “No weapons in this camp”.
Walker uncovers what appears to be a CIA safe room after they locate one of the soldiers they are tasked with finding. Flak jackets with “Press” emblazoned across the front hang in a side room of the safe room. There’s a firefight with what appear to be American soldiers as Walker, Lugo and Adams wind their way down stairs. Walker clings on to life the screen draining of colour after he is ambushed.
Suddenly, there’s nowhere to go. There’s a huge window and conveniently placed caches of dynamite. Instinctively, I shoot the dynamite using a mounted turret, causing the glass to implode on itself, pouring thousands of tonnes of golden sand into the room, engulfing the enemy soldiers. See?
There’s that escape route I was talking about earlier.
There’s a moral choice when Walker has to decide whether to take out the general they suspect has gone rogue or rescue civilian hostages. True to character, I decide to save the hostages and the rogue officer escapes. Heavily armoured soldiers wielding shotguns appear. Later, Walker sees civilians on fire, writhing on the ground.
The final chapter of the hands-on is called The Battle, which starts with Walker and his squad mates trapped inside the lobby of a hotel, all pastel-shades and luxury. “There’s eight miles of open desert between us and safety,” he says before shooting out another huge window. Sand cascades in. There’s that escape route again.
The bodies of American soldiers hang gruesomely from lamp-posts as Walker and his friends wander the streets. They reach a balcony overlooking a detachment of soldiers: the rogue 33rd? There’s a mortar with phosphorous rounds nearby.
The game view switches to top-down and Walker rains phosphorous hell on the troops and vehicles below.
Surveying the carnage burned and charred bodies, injured and dying soldiers crawling on badly mauled limbs Walker stops. “We were helping,” a badly burned soldier whispers before dying.
All is not what it seems in Spec Ops: The Line.
Spec Ops: The Line will be released this year on Windows PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3