Prior to my appointment to see 2K's Spec Ops revival, I had to go look up what sort of game it was. Yes, Spec Ops really is that memorable. Once the demo began, however, my vague notions that this would be yet another generic military shooter were swiftly dispelled.
Spec Ops: The Line surprised me for its sand.
I was surprised because I never thought I'd really care about sand in a videogame. Yet the guys at Yager have designed and coded sand in such a way that it contributes enormously to the game's mood and aesthetic and becomes a meaningful gameplay concern.
I saw a squad of soldiers exploring an opulent, almost BioShock-esque art gallery that was submerged in sand. Upon hearing gunfire from outside, the soldiers shot out a huge glass window and watch sand pour inside. Once it stopped they were able to clamber outside and survey the battlefield.
Later, during a tense shootout taking place amid a maze of trenches, one soldier was able to blow a hole in a retaining wall and bury an enemy in the resulting avalanche of sand.
Spec Ops: The Line is set in Dubai in the midst of a catastrophic sandstorm where huge swathes of the city are buried. Like Fallout, the parched tones bring an air of bleakness and desperation, reinforcing that this harsh place where the normal rules of society no longer apply.
Your Delta Force squad is on a rescue mission to find a US Army Colonel trapped in the city. Dubai has mostly been evacuated, but bands of local guerrillas and other enemies roam the streets, looting and killing. Is the Colonel still alive? What was his squad doing? Is there more of a US military presence in the city? Who is really tracking down who?
I saw a scene where you find another squad of US soldiers, each of them strung up and left to die hanging from streetlights. Another scene saw the player stumbling across a hostage situation where another group of US soldiers were seemingly terrorising civilians. One of your squad mates wanted to open fire and defuse the situation; the other advised caution.
This wasn't a "Press X to be Good; Press Y to be Evil" type of choice. The scene was unfolding before your eyes; it wasn't pausing to let you choose. You had to act fast: you could open fire on the soldiers or you could wait and let it play out. The implicit choice here is that there are no right ways to operate. Every decision you make has a cost and bad things will happen.
It was an incredibly tense moment that was distressing enough just to watch, let alone being the one charged with deciding a course of action.
Another high profile military shooter at E3 had you merrily piloting a helicopter through the jungles of Laos and blowing the indiscriminate crap out of anything that could've been a military target, as if such a war was all about who could cause the biggest, most colourful explosion.
Spec Ops: The Line stood in stark contrast, demonstrating a moral ambiguity and serious approach that I found refreshing. Well, as refreshing as all that sand could be, anyway.