In the space of a single console generation, online multiplayer has become an almost-mandatory feature for video games across a variety of genres. Once seen as an exclusive retreat for the PC gaming elite, online gaming has achieved mainstream status. Since the advent of Modern Warfare and its many competitors, as gamers, we’ve subconsciously re-evaluated what to expect from the final boxed product.
With a clearly militaristic, albeit morally-ambiguous veneer, Yager’s recently-released Spec Ops: The Line is perhaps a more fitting victim/benefactor of such change in the video game industry. Despite being in the pipeline for quite some time, there’s relatively little doubt that multiplayer was on the cards all along. However, given the fact that this portion of the game was developed by another 2K studio, Darkside, and its overall quality, there are questions about whether this was a creative design decision, or simply one needed to conform with genre conventions.
In a nutshell, Spec Ops’ brand of competitive multiplayer borrows heavily from a variety of its counterparts, yet still manages to retain a sense of originality. Game modes include your regular team/deathmatch variants with a handful of objective-based modes thrown in for good measure. The only stand-out here is a mode titled Buried. Sharing similarities with Battlefield favourite “Rush”, players are tasked with gunning down strategic enemy locations, before suppressing their HVT and securing victory.[drop]Unfortunately, player choice is inhibited on two fronts. Modes such as Rally Points are only accessible as part of a mixed playlist instead of having their own standalone matchmaking option. Level requirements are another barrier to entry, barring prospective recruits from certain playlists, including Hardcore and the aptly-named “Stormfront.”
As expected, gameplay makes a direct transition from the blistering singleplayer campaign. For the most part it holds up, but if there’s anywhere in which cracks and blemishes are easily exposed, it’s in a multiplayer environment. In truth there aren’t any major issues to worry about though there are plenty of niggling imperfections. These include rigid throwing mechanics, inaccurate melee attacks, a limited shoulder-switch function and the saturation of proximity mines.
Like the singleplayer campaign, environmental hazards are scattered here and there, though play a much less significant role in terms of gameplay. Occasionally you will spot a cloud of sand spewing from an air vent, cracked window or cargo container. Shooting such objects when an enemy is in the nearby vicinity can either stun or outright kill, depending on the hazard. It’s a nice touch though one many won’t pick up on.
Sandstorms, on the other hand, are completely unavoidable, reducing visibility, speed and accuracy for those players not in cover. Again, it’s some we don’t usually see in online shooters, but isn’t enough to prop up the entire multiplayer experience.
Map designs yield a surprising amount of variety, capable of both exacerbating the game’s hiccups and enhancing the intensity of gunfights. The term “variety” can only go so far however; map layouts don’t feel as symmetrical as other online shooters but aesthetically they’re all fairly similar.
With the game set entirely within Dubai’s sand-covered boundaries, it would be outlandish to expect jungles, arctic outposts or sprawling urban areas. With that said, Darkside could have made better use of some of the campaign’s more vibrant locales.
One aspect many will fail to get their head around (including myself) is the maximum player count. Eight players -especially when considering the size of some of the game’s maps – just isn’t enough to sustain the level of intensity needed for online play. Gunfights devolve into one-on-one skirmishes with too much downtime in between, made worse by the fact that all eight player slots don’t have to be occupied before a match can even begin.
In Spec Ops, character progression is a combination of tested conventions that stands well on its own two feet. Gaining XP will eventually unlock new ranks as well as weapons, perks, and even customisation options for your load-outs. Surprisingly, the game also presents players with the option to adopt one of four classes including medic, gunner, and sniper, with the officer class made available much later on.
Whilst it does a few interesting things with the ageing formula, the Spec Ops multiplayer experience will be unable to pry shooter addicts from their CoD/Battlefield infatuation, at least not right now. Though the multiplayer is fairly solid, it just doesn’t gel with the rest of the game and feels somewhat disjointed.
This is mainly due to the fact that, unlike so many big budget shooters, the narrative that underpins the game is dark and emotive; the further you pulled into the campaign, the more you begin to question your motives as the world around you begins to bleed and ignite. It’s possible that such a theme could have made the transition into multiplayer but Yager and Darksider played it safe, resulting in an experience that, whilst solid, ultimately lacks character.