Video Game Review: Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops: The Line
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Yager Development / Darkside Game Studios
Release Date: June 26, 2012

Let’s get the inevitable comparisons out of the way. Spec Ops: The Line owes a lot to Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s war film, Apocalypse Now, and quite frankly it almost certainly would not exist without either of these.

At its core, Spec Ops is a third-person shooter with the standard cover-based gameplay found often in its genre. Levels generally consist of killing a bunch of enemies, moving to a new area, and then killing some more. However, it’s what happens between these moments of gunfire that separates this from the rest. Morality often comes into play, and the choices are never easy.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

You play as Captain Mike Walker (voiced by Nolan North, aka Nathan Drake from Uncharted), who is sent to Dubai on a reconnaissance mission along with two squadmates. Six months earlier, a cataclysmic sandstorm destroyed the wealthy UAE city, and the ensuing chaos has left the area a veritable no-man’s-land. After discovering a looped radio signal from a U.S. Army Colonel, Walker and his two partners are covertly sent to determine the status of Konrad and anyone else they may come across. Essentially, it’s a get in and get out mission. If only it were that simple.

It doesn’t take long for Walker to decide that they need to *rescue* Konrad, and not just learn his location. This decision leads his team into an onslaught of violence, as they run into a resistance far greater than they could have expected. Along the way, horrifiyng moments present themselves, leaving you as a player to make increasingly more difficult moral decisions. One early choice has you deciding whether to save a handful of innocent civilians or to gamble on saving the life of an agent with precious intel you could really use. There is no right answer here, only “wrong” and “less wrong.”

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

There are a number of unforgettable moments during the campaign, all of which tie in with the “war is hell” theme. Other games have showed the atrocities of war, but not like Spec Ops. It’s quite fascinating to watch Walker and his squadmates change over the course of the game. During the early stages, they are joking around and acting like stereotypical soldiers. By the end of the game, they are at each other’s throats, constantly bickering back and forth.

Their mental and physical deterioration becomes even more glaring in the form of the “execution” option. After damaging an enemy enough, they will sometimes fall to the ground and squirm, desperately trying to do something in the last seconds of their lives. Walker has the option of executing them and putting them out of their misery. As the game progresses, Walker’s executions become increasingly violent, as he continues to become more and more desensitized to the brutality of war.

On these terms, Spec Ops offers a lot of depth. This isn’t just some mindless shooter, as its awful TV commercial suggests. This is about a squad’s descent into madness, and it serves as a sort of deconstruction of the entire shooter genre. By the end of the game, you as a player will feel like you have been to hell and back, which is exactly what this is trying to do.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops relies heavily on its themes, and without its polished narrative, it could easily get lost in the shuffle as another third-person shooter. There are noticeable flaws — the controls could be tightened up, the AI is questionable at times, the campaign is relatively short and the multiplayer mode feels tacked-on and unnecessary — but I am more willing to forgive these issues since it felt like I was playing something meaningful. As gamers, we don’t get treated to narratives like this very often, and this is a game that people will be talking about for years. Hell, it has already inspired one game critic to write a lengthy critique of the campaign, something unheard of in the industry.

If you’re willing to overlook some gameplay limitations, Spec Ops: The Line comes with a very high recommendation. This is one of the most mentally challenging games I have played all year, and it is one with more layers than anyone could have expected.

9/10

Video Game Review: BioShock 2 [Xbox 360]

BioShock 2 [Xbox 360]

BioShock 2
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC and Mac)
Genre: First Person Shooter
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Marin
Release Date: February 9, 2010

I purchased an Xbox 360 late in 2008, and one of the very first games I played was BioShock. I was smitten right away. Crashing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and discovering the idealistic world of Rapture hidden underwater was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Critics and gamers alike had similar reactions, and its success meant a sequel was inevitable. Despite BioShock 2 (BS2) being released in 2010, I never got the chance to play it until recently (largely thanks to Microsoft putting this on sale for $10 last week).

As soon as I began my BS2 campaign, a flood of memories came rushing back. I didn’t realize how much I missed Rapture and its bizarre 1960s setting. Even though it had been years since I last entered this underwater dystopia, it felt like I never left. Everything was so familiar.

BioShock 2 [Xbox 360]

Set eight years after the end of BioShock, this time around you get to play as a Big Daddy, the large (and dangerous) protectors of Little Sisters. I was initially apprehensive about being able to play as one of the most-feared enemies from the first game, but my worries were quickly put to rest. The Big Daddy isn’t overpowered at all, and he has access to the same weaponry and plasmids as the previous protagonist.

Basically, everything you know and love from the first game is back again. The haunting atmosphere, the ability to harvest/rescue Little Sisters, the frenzied enemy “splicers”, the copious plasmids (including access to the Big Daddy’s drill) and gene tonic power-ups. Looting corpses and safes for ammo, cash and ADAM (the game’s version of XP) is still commonplace. It’s all there.

BioShock 2 [Xbox 360]

Being more of the same is a double-edged sword with BioShock 2. Part of what made the original so alluring was the sense of discovery — Rapture was a new and exciting place with so much to see. Now that we are familiar with the locale, it has lost a bit of its “wow” factor. More could have been done to expand upon the first game. At the same time, it’s great to return to such a unique world and play through the perspective of a different character.

Undoubtedly the biggest difference between the two games doesn’t come from the single player campaign, but rather the addition of a new multiplayer mode. Much like playing the role of a Big Daddy, I was skeptical of this inclusion. BioShock was a tremendous single player experience — was multiplayer really necessary?

BioShock 2 [Xbox 360]

The answer is still no, but the multiplayer is surprisingly well-executed. This mode is tied in wonderfully with the game’s universe, and it offers a fun diversion from the main content. It’s pretty basic stuff — the XP system gives access to new plasmids, weapons, etc. as you progress — but the addition of random Big Daddy suits during matches adds an interesting element to the gameplay. The online feature isn’t a particularly deep mode but it does complement the campaign quite nicely.

Between the two modes, I put in a good 15 hours into BioShock 2, and I quite enjoyed my time with the game overall. Sure, it’s more of the same, but there really isn’t anything like the world of Rapture. I will be happy to come back once again for next year’s BioShock Infinite.

8/10

Video Game Review: Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

Borderlands 2
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Action RPG, First-person shooter
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: September 18, 2012

It’s hard to believe that it has been three years since Gearbox Software’s Borderlands created a smash sensation just by merging two long-running gameplay tactics — shooting and looting. With the long-awaited Borderlands 2, Gearbox has upped the ante and delivered the goods just like any proper sequel should: by keeping what worked so well before while also refining the overall experience.

Using the same gorgeous cel-shaded visuals that impressed the first time around, Borderlands 2 begins five years after the ending of the first game. Four new Vault Hunters are introduced, and they are on a mission to find new villain, Handsome Jack, who has taken over Pandora and is ruling the land with an iron fist. Just like before, each hunter has their own traits. There’s Salvador, the Gunzerker, who is an absolute brute that becomes especially dangerous when holding two guns. There’s Maya, the Siren, who can suspend enemies in midair, making them easier to target. There’s Axton, the Commando, who has the unique ability of making turrets appear out of nowhere, mowing down anything in sight. Finally, there’s Zer0, the Assassin, probably the most used character this time around. He has the ability to go invisible for a short period of time, allowing for deadly sneak attacks or other stealthy actions.

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

Each character offers a different playthrough experience, and they can even be tweaked via skill points to allow for greater customization. For example, Zer0 can be built into an impeccable sniping marksman or a melee fiend, depending on your personal preference. With four unique characters (and a fifth now available via DLC), the amount of depth and replay value in the game is staggering.

While Borderlands 2 can be played on your own, it undeniably works best as a co-op adventure. With up to four players, the game becomes an absolute blast while working together, especially if each user has a different character. Tag-teaming enemies by suspending them in air via Maya’s “Phaselock” and then throwing down Axton’s turret is a thing of beauty. Playing with others also increases the difficulty and the chance of finding better loot, allowing characters to level up faster. When playing with friends, there is little to no monotony while traversing the expansive Pandora, and it’s fun to even go back and replay missions just for the communal experience. Again, this still works quite well in single player, but this is arguably the best co-op experience of the year.

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

Borderlands 2 offers well over 100 quests in total, and the rewards for completing them include cash, weapons or other forms of loot. It’s always a rush to finish a quest or two then turn them in to hear the familiar “cha-ching” sound. In fact, searching the environments for any and all types of loot can be an absolute addiction. Any box, locker, barrel or even port-a-potty that has a green light on it can be searched for new goods. Oftentimes these will only have a few dollars in cash or ammo, but every now and then it’s possible to come across a new, badass weapon. There’s no greater joy than discovering that an enemy dropped a rare, orange gun that is better than anything else you own.

Seriously, if you have any addiction to Diablo or other hack ‘n slash looters, Borderlands 2 will consume you.

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

I would be remiss if I did not mention the game’s improved writing and overall storytelling. The original lacked true narrative substance and didn’t have very many memorable characters. That’s not the case at all here, as new writer Anthony Burch has penned a more rewarding plot with even more humor than before. The new villain, Handsome Jack, is hilarious as he randomly appears over the in-game communication system just to verbally abuse the Vault Hunters. Old favorite, Claptrap, the peculiar little robot, is back and full of even wittier banter than before. Other new characters such as the English gentleman, Sir Hammerlock, and the 13-year-old ball of terror, Tara, are quite memorable.

Now, while the writing is improved overall, it occasionally dabbles into low-grade humor that appears to have been included with teenagers in mind. For example, there is one sidequest that involves hunting down a particular monster species in hopes of coming up with a new name for them. One name suggestion? “Bonerfarts.” Yeah.

Moments of immaturity aside, there are some rewards within the writing, particularly when you stumble across any of the countless hidden Easter Eggs. From references to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Breaking Bad, the Double Rainbow Guy and the Skyrim “arrow to the knee” meme, there are endless bits of pop culture references scattered throughout. It’s a real treat finding them all.

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]

Aesthetically, Borderlands 2 also offers a number of improvements. The cel-shaded visuals are even more beautiful than before, especially when it comes to viewing the landscapes far off in the distance. An early area takes place in a cold, icy environment with large icebergs in the background. Looking up at the star-filled sky is always fun, especially when observing the full moon with a space station nearby. The game owes a great deal of its charm to its graphical appearance, and it does not disappoint at all. The voice acting is also noticeably better this time, and the music hits all the right notes.

In short, Borderlands 2 has all the makings of a strong “game of the year” candidate. Right now, I would be hard pressed to find something better. Its flaws — such as the occasional juvenile humor, and a somewhat overlong tutorial — are incredibly minute in the grand scheme of things. If you have friends to play this with, purchasing Borderlands 2 is a no-brainer, and it comes highly recommended even when going solo. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to looting.

9/10