Preview

Spec Ops: The Line

If you will build your castles out of sand...

The billionaire's playground of Dubai has been blanketed by a series of devastating sandstorms. Opulent skyscrapers lay buried beneath tonnes of sand. Ferraris and Lamborghinis litter the highways. Only looters, bandits and madmen remain. Anarchy reigns.

Entering into this fearsome world is Captain Martin Walker. Ostensibly Walker and his Delta Force teammates are here to rescue Colonel Konrad, an officer who stayed amidst the chaos to assist disaster-struck locals. However, the truth is a little more complicated. Konrad has now gone rogue, setting up a fiefdom amongst the swirling sands. It's Walker's job to bring him home.

But even reaching Konrad could prove difficult. Dubai is now a savage wasteland, its sumptuously appointed, aquarium-floored hotels just as dangerous as the sand-whipped, bandit-filled streets. Spec Ops: The Line

More than just a neat twist on the dull, dusty Middle Eastern setting, The Line's vision of a post-catastrophic Dubai offers some intriguing gameplay possibilities. At one point in our GamesCom demo, while navigating a narrow makeshift tunnel carved in the sand, Walker took out a gang of bandits by shooting the tall concrete slabs acting barricades against the elements, sand flooding in to drown his aggressors.

At another point, the windows of an ostentatious penthouse are shot out, vast drifts of sand pouring in to provide an escape route from the partially buried building.

Developers Yagar promise that this mechanic will be elaborated upon in the finished game, with random sandstorms providing a dynamic battlefield. Tactical advantages will be won or lost in seconds, the player at the mercy of the winds. It's an enticing prospect.

As Walker's journey continues, he'll encounter further signs of the madness and savagery of the harsh environment's survivors. Our demo was full of memorably horrific imagery. Bodies swinging limply from lamposts as far as the eye can see, disturbing graphitti daubed on makeshift walls, rotting corpses in the street. As you move nearer to your target, signs that perhaps Colonel Konrad has lost his grip on sanity will only increase. Spec Ops: The Line

If some of Spec Ops: The Line's story and themes sound familiar, it's unsurprising. The Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now overtones are pronounced. But their influence isn't limited to a few narrative nods. Just like those texts, The Line explores - or at least attempts to explore - the nature of evil, morality and madness.

This is achieved by presenting the player with a series of morally questionable chioces. None are simply good or evil. Indeed, they could all be seen as evil. So when faced with decisions that are lost in a dark moral murk, which do you choose? And among the murder and chaos of this nightmarish setting, does it really matter?

So in one scene from the demo, Walker stumbles across a group of bandits tormenting their civilian prisoners. Watching from a safe distance, he looks on, ignoring the pleas of his team as the bandit's leader pushes a hostage to the ground before mercilessly shooting him in the head.

Finally taking this as his cue, Walker engages and a close-quarters firefight erupts. The skirmish climaxes as one of the bandits grabs a hostage as a human shield, jamming a pistol against his temple. Spec Ops: The Line

So here are your choices. If you don't act, the bandit will escape and both you and the hostage will die. The same could happen if attempt to pick off the bandit, such is the minuscule margin for error. Or you could just take them both out, a single well-placed bullet penetrating their skulls.

Our demoer chose the latter, spraying bone and brain matter across the sand. Job done. But at what price?

It's an intriguing concept, but developers Yagar are staying tight-lipped about the consequences of your actions. We still don't know if the narrative branches according to your choices, or whether it will affect the game in a more insular way. Beyond talk of intense and important implications, little has been revealed.

Another concern comes in the form of the dialogue, which is so bad it has the potential to derail the entire experience. "You want morphine?" Walker says to an injured teammate at one point. "Nah" he replies, full of gruff-voiced bravado, "I don't need that shit". It's all very well to pay lip-service to narrative and mechanical maturity, but when your characters are dumb macho jocks, you risk undermining the message. Spec Ops: The Line

Regardless, Spec Ops: The Line is full of potential, largely because it has so many ideas swirling around. If Yagar can make good on their promise of a truly dynamic environment, blurred moral choices with real consequences and a weighty, engaging narrative, The Line may well rise above the pack to provide 2011's definitive third-person shooter experience. Let's just hope they sort out that dialogue first.