Remember the bit in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness when Marlow picked off 500 people from behind cover? Er, us neither. But, despite its almost ceaseless violence, this German-made third-person shooter is less 'inspired' by Conrad's novel as full-on remaking it. (Or, at least remaking it via Apocalypse Now.)
The similarities between the two stories, barring Spec Ops' change of location and time (oh, and its continuous stream of punches to the jaw, gut and beltline - with a couple of ass-boots thrown in for good measure), are many. Here, after a series of catastrophic sandstorms half bury Dubai, unhinged Colonel John Konrad (along with his Damned 33rd) stays to help. After weeks of no contact and a bunch of horror stories, some fear Konrad's crossed the line. Your three-man Delta Force is sent to track him down and find out the truth.
In fairness, it's well-constructed, if brutal, retelling, unbalanced by Captain Martin Walker's (Nolan North) prominence at head-shotting people. Bloodying up platoons with skull-halving sniper rounds, or erupting innards with shotguns grows tiresome by the end of a seven-hour campaign, even if there's undeniable pleasure in hearing Nathan Drake shout "Fucking take him out!"
For developers Yager it's an evocative, well-realised backdrop against which they explore moral quandaries - What is justice? Should one die to save another? - even if disrupting the narrative to blow up a dozen soldiers isn't much of answer. But, arguably, action and not story is what you're here for, and it's here that Spec Ops benefits from collective design knowledge built up through six years of current-gen shooters. Simply, Yager knows what works.
Controls are spot-on. Sprinting, for instance, doesn't require you to hold A. This not only allows control of Walker, but the camera too. Cover is similarly functional: you lock to squarish things with A, vault them with B, and swap between bits with satisfying snaps. It's not as good as Future Soldier's 'look-to-lock' system, which is a high-water mark, and it suffers the age-old problem of needing a perfect right angle approach, but it enables the nimble and responsive shooting which forms the bulk of the game.
Aware of combat's prevalence, Yager varies scenarios nicely. Dubai is just a brilliant setting for a shooter, with Banksy-like political graffiti scrawled on billion-dollar buildings, black-eyed bodies hanging on multi-lane motorways like Christmas decorations, and a real sense of scale, from deep chasms to neck-cranking views from the world's tallest building.
It doesn't stop there: there are night aquarium raids with silenced snipers, shootouts in wider dustbowls under a burning sun, and even psychedelic sections as Walker starts to lose his mind. It begins with insubordination (teammates occasionally respond to your RB-issued squad commands, which you use to designate targets, with "Do it yourself"), and ends with a full-on reality-questioning mind-melt. And never underestimate the power of a score. The Good Morning, Vietnam-esque Radioman pipes digetic music through speakers wired throughout the city, and layering progressive rock over gritty gun fights is a masterstroke.