The action begins after a devastating sandstorm nearly wipes Dubai, United Arab Emirates, off the map. A U.S. military battalion, the “Dammed” 33rd, is sent in to help evacuate the city and lead survivors away from the windswept city.
The storm cuts off communications, and you, as Captain Martin Walker, now lead a small Delta Force into the remnants of the city, find anyone you can, and ultimately discover the fate of the 33rd‘s leader, Colonel John Konrad.
The game plays as a third-person shooter, with a wide variety of weapons and tactics typical to this genre. There is some squad-based action allowing the player to direct the other two members of Delta Force into position, fire on enemies, or heal an injured squadmate. Some weapons do have secondary modes, which come in handy for silent action (silencer) or taking out groups of enemies (grenade launcher).
But it is the story that drives this title. Walker (you) is presented with a series of choices throughout the game, some more obvious than others. The action twists and turns as your choices reveal new paths.
What makes this choice system unique is there is not necessarily a paragon/renegade decision to be made. Lead writer Walt Williams told CNN.com, “Sometimes there isn’t a right choice to be made, but you have to make one.”
Indeed, the options are less clear cut than in other games. Williams wanted players to experience the true feelings of helplessness that war presents soldiers in the field. Do you save the civilians from the firing squad or do you save the CIA agent who can possibly lead you to safety?
The tale is dark, foreboding and full of internal conflict. There were situations where I made a choice, saved the game, then reloaded before the choice to make a different selection because I didn’t know which one was “the right one.” But that’s what this is all about – it is the choice between lesser evils.
However, it was a situation where I wasn’t given a choice that affected me the most. While that speaks to the deep immersion of the game, it also flies in the face of what the game designers hoped players would feel by being in control.
Trying not to give away spoilers here, the ending left me frustrated and betrayed at the climax of the game. Many of the choices I made seemed to be irrelevant and the entire premise lead me to the story’s pinnacle whether I wanted to go there or not.
Also, the story also seemed to “rub my nose” in the choices I made, outright mocking them or showing me what could have been. I get this was done in an effort to break Walker’s will for story purposes, but as a player, this could have been handled differently without making me (the player) feel like an idiot.
The only choice that made any difference to me as a player was the last one – even though it was a very big one.
“Spec Ops: The Line” is a Hitchcock-like story, with twist, turns and double takes leaving your head spinning and questioning your own value system. Williams and his team should rightfully be praised for putting together a tale that does show the horrors and futility of war.
“Some people might not get it,” he said. “Even we might not get it right, but at least people will be thinking about making games this way. Someone might even do it better than we do in the future.”
The bar is high. While the action is solid, if unspectacular, the storyline will drive the player forward and keep them engaged throughout. How the game ultimately feels at the end will certainly vary from player to player.
It does succeed in showing the futility and helplessness soldiers are forced to deal with in combat situations. For that, it deserves high marks.
“Spec Ops: The Line” is available now in North America and Europe for Windows PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It is rated M for Mature due to blood and gore, intense violence, and strong language. This review was done with a provided copy for the Xbox 360. No multiplayer action was available at the time of writing.
Lightbox Interactive and founder Dylan Jobe wanted to take one of their old titles, “Warhawk,” and make it into something more enjoyable and more complete. “Warhawk,” released in 2007, was widely praised for its multiplayer action, but had no single player campaign.
Jobe and his team took the best ideas from “Warhawk,” combined them with a new setting and single-player campaign, then added his “Build and Battle” mechanic to offer a new way to think about shooters.
“Build and Battle” allows players to call down hardware from a dropship circling high above the planet. When I say hardware, I don’t mean a weapons cache full of ammo and guns. I mean large, physical structures and buildings that allow players to defend, attack and punish the enemy.
Walls with turrets on top, garages with access to jetcycles, buggies and tanks, and very tall sniper towers complete with rifles are at the players’ command. These and many more can be called down and placed on the battlefield for maximum damage or protection.
Ground and air vehicles can also be called down and used. Jetbikes and Razorbacks (three-player combat buggies) handle a lot of the ground transportation. Ox Tanks bring the heavy pain with artillery shells and cannon. It can take a lot of punishment, but is slow to move.
If you are looking for more speed and maneuverability, the Hawk is a transformer-like vehicle that switches from armored robot to nimble aircraft quickly. On the ground, a mech stomp wipes out scores of troops, while in the air, the jet has a range of specialized missiles and bombs at its disposal.
Each one of these vehicles can be spawned from a garage summoned with the “Battle and Build” mechanic. As with the other buildings, planning must be utilized to determine prime placement as well as how each garage can be defended.
The “Build and Battle” concept works well and adds a strategic element to each battle. The mechanic works seamlessly within combat and doesn’t slow down or break up the action. Plus, players not only have to think about conserving their personal ammunition, but need to figure out how they want to confront the enemy waves with buildings.
Do you use walls to block routes into your area? Or do you form them along the sides and funnel the enemy into a gauntlet of beam turrets? It is this flexibility of gameplay that makes “Starhawk” enjoyable and interesting.
Plus, if a particularly large group of scabs (the enemy grunts) is headed your way, just drop a building on them. Each structure costs rift energy, a universal source of power harvested from different planets, much like oil on Earth.
Indeed, the single-player campaign has the Wild West feel and motif that could remind gamers of the great Oil Rush in the United States. Rifters want to capture the rift energy for sale, while Outcasts believe the rift energy to be their lifeblood and want to destroy all who would take it. Emmitt Graves, the main character in the campaign, goes into the disputed areas to reclaim the rift from the Outcasts.
The storyline is told through cinematic videos rather than any gameplay and merely acts as rather weak glue between the combat set pieces. Despite trying to inject some connection between Emmitt and the leader of the Outcasts, the characters come across as emotionless and uncaring about anything other than getting the job done.
Rather, it is the multiplayer mode where the game really shines. Up to 32 players can battle in four different scenarios and five different environments across two maps. More maps are planned as downloadable content (DLC), which Jobe says will be free to all.
The “Build and Battle” mechanic is utilized to its best in the Capture The Flag and Zones modes. Teammates work together to build walls, turrets and repair arms to defend their areas while others take vehicles out to seek and destroy the opposing side.
Coordination is key and many battles have been won due to the combined efforts of teammates defending or attacking en masse. The more players per side, the more action and organized chaos across the battlefield. It truly is some of the best and most enjoyable gameplay I’ve experienced on the PlayStation 3.
Overall, the combat in “Starhawk” is refreshing, thoughtful and very well done. The beautiful environments are utilized as structures are dropped from the sky in a game mechanic that is unique to the shooter arena. The breadth of weapons, vehicles and buildings make each playthrough different, and the multiplayer highlights the best of all that is available.
While the campaign story is disappointing, “Starhawk” ends up being a game that shines in spite of its weak characters. In some ways, the “Build and Battle” system is the true star of the action, and that’s just fine for gamers who want to think their way through combat as well as shoot their way out.
“Starhawk” is available now worldwide and exclusively for the PlayStation 3. It is rated T for Teens due to blood, language, and violence. This review was done with a provided copy for the PlayStation 3 and multiplayer action done on public servers.
However, “Starhawk” (LightBox Interactive, Santa Monica Studios) uses a unique “Build and Battle” system in a new third-person shooter that will make every level different for different players.
The game is based on a lawless, frontier in space setting where the search for rift energy has split the populous into two factions. There are the rift miners who want to gather the energy to use and sell while the outcasts, miners who have been overcome by the mutating power of rift, consider it holy and want to preserve it at all costs.
Into this chasm steps Emmitt Graves, a miner who was exposed to rift, but did not mutate. With the help of a regulator in his back, he is able to survive and use the rift energy to power his abilities.
Graves defends the locations across the system from the roving outcast war bands that seek to destroy all who would desecrate the rift energy. He has a partner who helps act as a spy in the sky for enemy movements as well as outline the upcoming missions, but does not take an active role in the fighting.
At a hands-on demo, I tried the “Build and Battle” system in the single player mode. The gameplay mechanics seemed straightforward at first for a shooter, but the introduction of the ability to build equipment offered a unique change.
“Starhawk” is an area-based shooter, with multiple objectives confined in a specific space. The artificial intelligence (AI) is more freeform and dynamic, and takes its cues from whatever the player is trying to do.
A looser AI is needed because players can build different offensive and defense additions that will change the flow of the play. Turrets, vehicles, and bunkers provide offensive firepower while walls and gates form defensive barriers that funnel the action to where you want it to go.
The items are dropped in from the sky from an unseen location, but that offers some really fun options. During one heavy firefight involving some pretty powerful enemies, I had a wall drop in and smashed them into a fine powder – effectively turning my defense into a potent offensive weapon.
Soldiers, laser turrets, and flying mechs called Hawks were at my disposal to vanquish wave after wave of Outcasts who tried to take over a valley. Some good old-fashioned rifle work was also needed to defeat my enemies.
Players can collect game rewards that are given out at the end of each scene depending on how you played the game. I got big bonuses for the wall maneuver.
In the multiplayer demo, teams with eight members on each side played in a capture-the-flag mode that was entertaining to play and fun to watch. The action was intense and loud as each side built walls, used jeeps, or sometimes just found a unique path to capture the flag and return it to the base.
LightBox Interactive president Dylan Jobe said his team wanted to build a game that was different and awarded creativity in players.
“It is all about strategy,” Jobe told CNN.com. “Each mission can be done differently depending on the player’s choice of tactics.”
Jobe, who was the game director of “Warhawk” (Incognito, Santa Monica Studio), helped create LightBox with the idea of putting together “Starhawk.”
“We really wanted to know what the universe could be like, but remain driven by the idea of unique gameplay. We want gamers to have bigger dogfights, bigger landscapes, and a sense of progression throughout the game.”
With that in mind, Jobe said “Starhawk” was built to have a fast paced, fun and visceral multiplayer game that has a single player mode to teach the gamer about tactics. He said you ‘d never get a “game over” screen because you can always go back to the last checkpoint in single player to learn try a new way to succeed.
“There is no optimal path. We playtest every single day to find new ways to complete the missions. Even when I know something won’t work, there is someone who will find a way to make it happen. That’s why our gameplay mechanic needs to be so flexible and adaptive.”
“There are still some holes in the balance, but we are closing those up. For every power, there is or will be a defense.”
Jobe likened the action to “Starcraft,” but on a much more personal level. He said the building of equipment on the fly is very similar; however, the action takes you down to a micro level that can’t be felt in the real-time strategy game (RTS).
“It has elements of an RTS. It is more personal than that. You get to build what you want, but you are going to have to blast away. It really is more of a shooter than a RTS.”
Jobe said many of the game elements are still being finished up and playtesting goes on every day. He said they would be bringing the game to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles in June.
More than two years in the making, Jobe said “Starhawk” would be ready to go sometime in 2012 and exclusively for the PlayStation 3.