Walking around Yager's home city of Berlin, it's easy to understand why the developer is making a city-based third-person-shooter. Berlin may be a modern centre of financial security and a model of civic, dare I say it, efficiency, but it has a long history of grand conflict, from the turmoil of ancient history right up to the front lines of the Cold War. Anything older than 60 years is covered in bullet-holes and shrapnel scars, a chilling reminder of the intense street-to-street fighting at the end of World War II. Statues and memorials commemorate the myriad fallen of all nationalities, as well as victories and conquests of the past. Everywhere among the charming Christmas markets is scattered evidence of the human capacity to destroy.
Perhaps even more apparent, especially from the vantage point of the huge tower which dominates the skyline, is the ragged legacy of the Berlin Wall, which only 20 years ago cast a grim concrete shadow over the social, political and financial divide between East and West. Viewed from above, the line of the wall still delineates the ideologies of Capitalism and Communism in many parts of the city, with modern or well-preserved older buildings on one side and a host of functional Soviet Bloc apartments on the other. These contrasting themes of order and ruin, of opulence and poverty, have permeated to the core of Spec Ops' design.
The game is set in near-future Dubai, a glittering gem of ostentatious prosperity in one of the world's poorest and most desolate areas. In the game this manmade fortress of luxury has succumbed to nature's sustained assault, buried under a sudden and hitherto unprecedented sandstorm of Roland Emmerich proportions. The tops of buried skyscrapers peek through ever-shifting dunes, whilst the city's chattels of excess lie forgotten and useless in its streets. What was once a spotless landscape of gleaming glass and burnished marble is now a ruin, its carefully planned urban topography now at the mercy of unrelenting sand.
The contrast is at its most apparent once the action leaves the streets and goes indoors, as the interiors of the city's fabulous buildings remain relatively untouched. Brass and polished stone bedeck the cool lobbies of hotels, offices and residential buildings - starkly incongruous to the destruction wrought on the buildings' exteriors. The tempting parallel is BioShock with sand, but there's not quite so much of the crushing, claustrophobic oppression of 2K Boston's undersea epic here, nor its fantasy; what we see is very firmly rooted in literally gritty realism.
Heading into this city of contrasts is player-character Captain Walker, along with two Delta Force squad-mates. They're here to rescue and repatriate Colonel Conrad, a rogue officer who stayed behind to help the disaster-struck locals rather than following orders to return to the US. The military view is that he's turned, going local and refusing to contact or acknowledge his erstwhile masters. It's Walker's job to get in there, locate the Colonel and get him back out alive.
If the story sounds a little familiar, give yourself a pat on the brain. Yager openly embraces the primary influence: Joseph Conrad's brief masterpiece Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, the film it inadvertently spawned. These tales of the fragility of humanity's thin fašade, and how easily it's corrupted by arduous and adverse conditions, provide much of the inspiration for Spec Ops' pithy storytelling. In the brief demo we see, it quickly becomes clear that Conrad is not the man he once was, and that the fate of the previous squad sent to extract him wasn't pretty.
Basing a third-person cover shooter on a late 19th-century literary classic might sound a little pretentious, but Yager's confident that its set-piece heavy, structured narrative approach will result in an involving and impactful story, complete with "morally grey areas" and some big decisions. In one area a young woman races around the corner directly into the player's line of fire just as an assault begins on the refugee camp you're exploring. Presumably itchy trigger fingers would see her having a pretty bad time of it, but what effect this might have on your squad or the refugees around you is kept under wraps.
It's unclear whether these decisions will actively branch the story, or whether they affect the character himself in a more encapsulated way - sending him down paths towards light or darkness of the soul. What we're assured is that these choices, and the situations which frame them, will affect both the character and player in intense and important ways. In the words of lead designer Corey Davis, "A game can look great, a game can even play great, but if you don't feel anything about the environments, characters and events in the game, then it's all just popcorn bulls***."
The demo we see opens amongst a few stunted ruins, as Walker picks his way carefully towards a man hung upside down in front of an inverted US flag. Reaching behind him to turn off the trooper's radio, Walker realises this is a member of the first squad sent to rescue Conrad, a message which brooks no misinterpretation. As the realisation dawns, the trap is sprung - several enemy troops appear on the shattered floors and roof of the adjoining building, peppering Walker and his squad with small-arms fire.
The tactical nature of the shattered environment is immediately apparent as troops appear at broken windows and slide down slopes of sand, and enemies also rappel from their elevated positions, picking their way across the intervening ground and the sparse cover it provides. After pulverising a few of them, Walker's squad seems to be getting the upper hand. There's a shout from a team-mate, however - an RPG team has appeared on the roof, loosing a round before the Delta operators get a chance to eradicate him.
All that sand, it turns out, is more than just fancy visual juxtaposition. The rocket streaks toward your position and hits a piece of cover just in front of one of your compatriots, knocking him to the ground. In true videogame fashion, he's pretty much unhurt, but as he struggles to his feet something unusual happens: the sand around him begins to swirl, like water in an emptying bathtub, dragging him downwards. This is no minor landslip either, as more and more is sucked into the sinkhole. Soon your buddy is dragged completely out of sight, as tons of sand drain from the environment. The ground beneath Walker's feet quickly follows suit, and your character is left dangling from the scenery by one arm, blindfiring at the last few tangos before he eventually drops from the remnant of wall into the darkness below.
A few seconds later, when the dust settles and your eyes peel open, it transpires that what was once a floor is now a roof, a glass atrium for the lobby of a luxury hotel shattered by the rocket fire. Not only does this shift in perspective offer the opportunity for an interesting set-piece and change of pace, it also adds a new tactical element - your enemies are now above you and dropping C4 charges into the lobby. Time to find an exit.
This glass ceiling mechanic looks like it will play a relatively significant part in the game, as we're later shown how both squad and enemy AI adapts to the tactical options it affords - shooting out floors beneath unsuspecting troops, for example, or creating new routes through buildings. We're shown another aspect of it towards the end of the demo, as the team moves into another lobby with a high glass wall barely holding back a 20-metre sand dune. Several captives are lined up below for execution, surrounded by guards, with an enemy taking up a position at a turret gun as you enter. The traditional, ethically correct approach, is to shoot the grunt on the gun, sniping him before he opens up on the innocents below. But what about that window? A well-placed grenade would shatter the glass and drop a gritty wave of death over everyone in the lobby, prisoners and guards alike.
Yager's demo-player follows accepted social mores and plugs the would-be executioner before cleaning up the guards, but shortly afterwards the game triggers the event itself as rocket-wielding troopers assault your position, breaking the glass and allowing the impressive physics alterations the team has made to Unreal Engine 3 to do their work. We're promised, however, that this sort of decision is very much in your hands.
Walker's squad-mates are more than just tools to accomplish the mission, too; their development and the group dynamic are a significant narrative device. Davis goes on to say that the two soldiers accompanying you are "equally as important as the main character". The Delta Force framework means hierarchy is dealt with very loosely, so these brothers in arms are friends rather than colleagues, and the interplay will allow a much great depth to their interaction.
Commands which deal with their movement - a semi-contextual system accessed from the cursor rather than a radial - are still in need of work but already in promising shape, allowing the player to pick out individual enemies for sniper fire or suppression, while your team-mates use cover intelligently when instructed to move. It all implies depth without the need to micromanage. Your squad-mates don't have complete invulnerability to enemy fire, but Davis is coy at to whether they ever fully expire and end the game. He's willing to say they're indispensable to the story though, and that there's a healing mechanic for reviving fallen allies, but details will come later.
There are even fewer details on multiplayer, although Davis does confirm that a separate team is working on both co-operative and competitive experiences. Whether these take place within the campaign story isn't clear, but hints are certainly dropped that we'll get a narrative-driven co-op.
Strolling away from the sand-clogged and sun-bleached expanses of videogame Dubai into the cosy Yuletide kitsch of Christmasy Berlin again afterwards, another of Davis' comments springs to mind. Asked about sources and influence, Davis mentions Heart of Darkness again, but also brings up Generation Kill - particularly David Simon and Ed Burns' HBO adaptation of the Evan Wright book - as a key influence on Yager's approach to the combat experience: the eye of a political maelstrom that governs their existence despite offering no recourse for input. I don't know about you, but that's enough to keep me interested until the studio opens its doors again.
Spec Ops: The Line is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 next year.