Despite variations in scenery and missions, the shooting itself would threaten to become stale but for the fierce impact of a fresh set-piece. A middle section sees you riding shotgun on a water tanker, firing inexhaustible grenades at inexhaustible waves of humvees. Nothing new, granted, but a blast nonetheless. Once you've had your fun the story rears its head: finding your feet you pass the leaking lorry, watching as citizens desperately try to fill bottles. "Get out of here, American!" they shout. You are an awful person.
Another highlight - though perhaps that's the wrong word - gives you white phosphorous with which to rain down hot hell on civilians. In most shooters this would have been a gung-ho backslap - but not here. When the flames die down you're made to walk through the devastation - all the terrible carnage you've caused - and bear witness to one particularly horrifying scene. In fact, Spec Ops is one long guilt trip - there are several big moral choices (albeit binary) and Yager even find time to introduce their own 'No Russian' moment.
The yellow sands present an emotional grey area and your actions have consequences. Throughout, the monstrous Burj Khalifa skyscraper is an ever-present feature on the horizon, practicably inescapable. It's implied from early on that that's where Konrad is, and the game slowly but surely draws you there, leading to a revelatory twist at the game's climax. It's the very definition of a sucker punch, comparable to Bioshock's 'Would you kindly?' in impact, if not necessarily in message. The game's live-or-die choices, however, are somewhat tarnished by the sheer amount of people you kill elsewhere. Simply, the game can't decide whether death is meaningless or meaningful.
You'll kill several thousand more people in the 'me too' multiplayer, and there's no narrative to get in the way. Rather, what does is the nagging feeling this is yet another publisher buckling under economic strain and desperate for an extra back-of-the-box bullet point, threading in multiplayer where there's absolutely no need. It's solid enough, mixing tight Gears of War-like cover-shooting, roadie-running and executions with Uncharted's more lithe cover-leaping and zip-lining (and chucking in Call of Duty's non-stop stream of player-congratulating gratification for good measure) but it feels strangely uncomfortable next to the single-player.
It's The Damned vs. The Exiles, class-based warfare veering between intimate all-against-all encounters and four-on-four team battles. Characters are ranked up, customised and rewarded. Some rewards are visual, like a skull mask or fetching head tat, and some have more important applications. One, for instance, disables the kill cam. Others make your bullets slow enemies, or allow you to sprint through sandstorms, or even vanish from the map.
Spot cascading steams of sand spilling from ceilings and window cracks and you can utilize Yager's half-baked environmental destruction. Shoot windows to send a billion grains avalanching onto opponents, or if you're too close, yourself. It's fun the first time but, honestly, the destruction's artificial and the sand looks terrible. Talked-up pre-release, all it really amounts to is a canned moment and a cloud of beige. Ultimately, the multiplayer works, just not outstandingly, and a military cover-shooter with an identity problem is hardly going to make Battlefield 3 and MW3 squirm. Plus, if it diverts funds away from singleplayer, it's a bad investment.
But while Spec Ops is tonally confused across the board, it's not brainless - snatches of well-paced story and snippets of existential battle-chatter show hearts and minds at work. The higher aspirations don't always pay off, but underneath is an always-entertaining shooter.
The thoughtful philosophy can go AWOL when the guns come out, but at least when they do, the fun doesn't follow.
- Slick, varied, intelligent shooter
- A great setting, brilliantly realised
- Intriguing Heart of Darkness retelling
- Relentlessly, perhaps excessively, brutal
- The story can't decide whether death is meaningful or meaningless
- Multiplayer is solid but unspectacular