Spec Ops: the Line is a shooter that makes you feel bad about shooting – or, at least, that makes you think twice about pulling the trigger. This was a surprisingly hard lesson to learn, despite the blatant references to Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness in the plot and themes. I had expected a game about the horrors of war, about the illusory quality of heroes, about the inherent duality in the nature of every man. And I got all that. What I did not expect was that a game from a genre in which typically your only mode of interaction with the game world is through the killing of the people in it would call the meaning of those very mechanics into question.
Spec Ops: the Line is, at heart, a very generic third-person shooter – and that’s precisely the point. And if it doesn’t quite succeed in transcending the genre, it at least manages to do what very few shooters have accomplished – it has crafted a single player campaign that is more memorable by far than its multiplayer content. And I mean that in a very good way.
On paper, this 2K Games/Yager Development production reads like an artsy, if somewhat obvious, adaptation of Apocalypse Now set in a near-future disaster-torn Dubai, a place which even today stands as a kind of living homage to hubris. A violent sandstorm has destroyed the city (or perhaps just accelerated the natural process by which the desert is reclaiming it), and you, a Delta Force operative with a troubled past obligingly named Martin Walker (and voiced by Nolan North of Uncharted fame), must journey into the ruins in search of a missing war hero, helpfully named Colonel Konrad, who went AWOL when ordered to abandon relief efforts in the area and occupied the city instead. You and your squad will face murderous natives, murderous soldiers, murderous native soldiers, and the harsh environment itself as you battle your way to Konrad and the truth.
You would expect the city itself to be a major player in such a storyline, and it strives to be, although often it feels like the most interesting bits are whisked out from under you in the game’s eagerness to move the player along to the next major firefight. Indeed, the main complaint I had through the first part of the game was that I kept wanting to explore and wasn’t always able to because someone was always itching to stick a gun in my face. And even when I was able to, the place came across as somewhat wooden and one-dimensional. Oh, there were plenty of Prada purse shops and abandoned rooftop bars and crumbling opulent hotels with walls constructed out of aquariums and sheer folly, but there wasn’t much to do in them except gawk. Every once in a while you’d find a piece of “Intel” which fills you in on a bit of backstory, or a window you could shoot out to bury some enemies in sand, but for the most part the city keeps its secrets. It’s a shame, too, because the world design is far too good to be relegated to the status of cover to duck behind when a grenade comes your way.
Much of the atmosphere of the game is provided by the soundtrack, which evokes the ruins of a post-apocalyptic cityscape infused with a Vietnam-era moral ambiguity. As such, it borrows from both the 1960s and modern post-rock tendencies as also seen in other apocalypse movies such as 28 Days Later – a bit of airy electric guitar meanderings reminiscent of Godspeed! You Black Emperor, some Deep Purple, a Hendrix-esque electric guitar rendition of the national anthem, and a generous amount of Mogwai (because whose post-apocalyptic vision isn’t better with Glasgow Mega-Snake playing in the background?). It’s tastefully done and very effective. Also, thankfully, the song “Sandstorm” is nowhere to be found.
The core gameplay is familiar enough: sprint it, throw it, sight it, shoot it, mark it, heal it, load and reload it. Thankfully, your two teammates are surprisingly capable, and you can order them to focus their efforts on specific enemies if they’re not killing people fast enough for your tastes. The game features a decent selection of guns, but most of them felt like more or less the same thing. You can only carry two at a time, so if you’re aiming for the various weapons achievements, you’re going to be constantly shuffling your loadout, and some of them, like the Desert Eagle, are difficult to find ammo for.
Mostly, it’s your standard shooter fare, and it’s implemented competently, if a bit unimaginatively. The game hinges around not what you’re doing, but in why you’re doing it – something which becomes more and more apparent as you progress through the story and are confronted with the horrors (“The horror!”) your actions have caused. By the time you reach the later chapters you’re no longer in any mood to sightsee. There is a very palpable moment when your body count stops becoming mindless carnage and starts becoming people. With faces. And children. Charred flesh. Mouths frozen in silent screams.
And then you understand. I’d fallen into the same trap as my character. I’d become so immersed in the FPS mentality that every challenge could be overcome with a bullet that I hadn’t realized I had a choice in the matter. I don’t know if that was intentional or not – I sincerely hope so. Indeed, the game, like the fate of Dubai itself, is infused with a sense of doom, of inevitability – although that doesn’t make the slaughter any less your fault. In fact, it only intensifies your sense of complicity, and makes you wonder what other opportunities for free will you didn’t follow through on because you more or less expected the game to be on rails. I have a feeling I’ll be returning to Dubai again and again to find out what else I missed. It’s like Konrad said: “There is no going home for people like us.”
There’s also a multiplayer mode, which is pretty much like every other FPS multiplayer, except that there’s sandstorms and zip lines. Yager Development has stated that the multiplayer was meant to be an extension of the campaign mode, and it should be obvious by now that the multiplayer was never meant to be the meat of the game. And I’m more than okay with that, but others may be put off by the tacked-on feel of it.
Spec Ops: The Line can be seen as the latest installment in a storied tradition of showing the horrors of war through gritty realism and complex moral dilemmas. But the game’s descent into madness is mostly a psychological one. It looks good, but not amazingly so. Yet there are moments of sheer implausible beauty, as if the art design had taken a page out of Francis Ford Coppola’s book – the sun rising over the ruins of a gutted city, American flag waving upside down in the foreground, or the way flames bloom like flowers over a field of corpses. But where this game really shines is in making you question the core mechanic around which this entire genre operates.
A movie can only make you feel bad for other people – a game can make you feel bad about yourself. The lesson your character, Captain Walker, must learn is that you are still responsible for your actions, even when you didn’t have a choice. Hopefully, you the player, unlike Walker, can learn this before it is too late.
Spec Ops: The Line was released on June 26th, 2012 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Review is based on the PS3 version.