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Call of Duty is the sales king of military shooters. As such, there’s a natural tendency to want to copy its formula. Spec Ops: The Line does things its own way, stepping out of Call of Duty’s shadow in many ways.

Recently, I played a few hours of Spec Ops’ single-player missions and have seen about a third of what the campaign has to offer. It’s a refreshing change from most military shooters. Here are five things that set Spec Ops: The Line apart from Call of Duty.

Location, location, location

Most shooters are globetrotting adventures with an expected mix of urban and wilderness settings. Spec Ops: The Line stays focused in one area. You start in Dubai and you stick in that city throughout.

Of course, sticking to one spot is pretty pointless if that’s place isn’t interesting. Dubai is full of architectural porn. It’s extravagant, elegant, and breathtaking. The city has largely been destroyed due to a massive sandstorm (and all these soldiers blowing things up in the aftermath). The unforgiving desert crashing into the man-made marvels of Dubai creates a sense of hopelessness far beyond any war-torn areas in other shooters.

One hero, no confusion

There’s nothing wrong with telling a story from different perspectives, but it can lead to a disconnected narrative. In Spec Ops, you stick with Captain Martin Walker. Rather than pushing you around to see the war from different angles, instead, you see how Walker’s perception of the conflict changes as he learns more information. Things done in earlier chapters that seemed heroic can suddenly look malicious with just one line of dialogue from a dying soldier.

Video:Spec_Ops_The_Line_story_montage

Sand is a weapon

The desert can be brutal. In Spec Ops, it can be an asset as well. Dubai has been bombarded with sand. In fact, many buildings are half buried by the desert. You can always shoot at enemies and get by, but you can also shoot windows or vents to pummel your oppoenents with sand. You won’t need smoke grenades either. Toss a normal boom-boom grenade and it kicks up a cloud of dust that obscures your enemy’s line of sight.

Moral ambiguity

Spec Ops isn’t making a play at being Mass Effect – there are no dialogue options during cut scenes and no meter measuring if you’re good or evil. Spec Ops is trying to be more realistic. Sometimes you have to make hard choices in the line of duty and there really isn’t a right or a wrong – just a choice.

Do you save a key witness who could give you information to save hundreds of lives or do you rescue a half-dozen civilians from immediate execution? After witnessing the horrors of white phosphorous burning innocents, I used some to clear out an otherwise insurmountable enemy encampment. I didn’t feel good about it, but I didn't have much choice.

It’s not an action movie

Call of Duty has become more and more like a James Bond film over the past few years. Call of Duty is massive set pieces and indulgent moments full of silly melodrama. Spec Ops – at least the third of the game I’ve played – is far more grounded. It’s visceral and engaging, but at times heartbreaking. That’s not to say it isn’t still a video game. You will kill lots and lots and lots of people and find loads of ammo laying around. The tone is different than most shooters and that allows some of the cut scenes to hit home a little harder.

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