Spec Ops: The Line takes place beneath a sea of sand, deep within the Arabian Desert. In the game’s fiction, the once-opulent city of Dubai lays in ruins, stripped and wrecked by the wrath of nature. (And I mean: The hubris of this place! Maybe Dubai kind of had it coming.)
This evocative, provocative setting isn’t the only thing that sets Spec Ops apart from the globe-trotting, timeline-jumping antics of its militaristic video game peers. The game also tells a bold and often subversive story that is in many ways a deconstruction of the modern war video game.
Wait, really? Well, yeah, really. Spec Ops: The Line is a distinctly, consistently flawed game. But despite the many things it does poorly or with at-best-bland competence, it deserves consideration for the risks that it takes, and for the chutzpah with which it takes them.
Things start off unremarkably enough. Spec Ops tells the story of Captain Martin Walker, who leads a three-man Delta Force team consisting of two clichéd and undeveloped teammates: Lugo (tech guy) and Adams (black guy). Dubai has been entirely swallowed by massive, raging sandstorms, and is mostly abandoned, save for a couple of thousand refugees. (It’s all kind of purposefully vague.)
A distress signal has come from the city, sent by Colonel John Konrad. “John Konrad”, of course, being a less-than-subtle reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, from which the Spec Ops narrative broadly cribs. Konrad’s platoon has gone missing in Dubai, which prompts the Delta Force higher-ups to send Walker and his team into the city to find what became of Konrad’s unit and to get any survivors out.
Things do not go according to plan, and before long Walker and his squadmates are fighting for their lives against foes they do not fully understand — refugees, civilians, and mostly, other American soldiers. Bodies start to pile up. The word “evacuate” is used both correctly (in reference to buildings and cities) and incorrectly (in reference to people). Konrad remains something of a mystery figure for much of the game, and the question of who he is and what really happened in Dubai gives the narrative its thrust.
Spec Ops‘ artistic design is lovely — one minute you’ll be fighting through a sun-scorched, sand-buried boat graveyard, the next you’ll crash through a glass ceiling into a vast, buried performance hall. Dubai is a perfect setting for this kind of game, a real-world utopia that could easily become BioShock‘s Rapture; a real-life testament to the arrogance of man buried beneath a sea of sand. Despite what some of the sand-dusted promotional screens may suggest, Spec Ops is a welcomely colourful game.
Unfortunately, from a functional standpoint, the level design rarely if ever matches the art design. The skyboxes in the background are sprawling and evocative, but the action in the foreground is channeled and linear. I was never surprised or engaged by a combat encounter — if you’ve played a third-person cover-shooter, you will be unmoved by any of the combat encounters in Spec Ops.
Levels leave little to no room for experimentation; there are some rudimentary squad controls for your teammates, but they’re largely unnecessary, and the combat encounters are never open-ended enough to encourage tactical gameplay.
In fact, some odd tactical inclusions hint at a game that was at one point meant to be much more ambitious than it wound up being. A couple of sections encourage you to use silenced weaponry, though true stealth gameplay never materialises — players simply shoot one foe, maybe two, before every enemy in the area is alerted.
Enemy artificial intelligence is lacking, but foes compensate with aggressive tactics that can be bracing and surprising. Enemies will sometimes charge your position with little regard for their own safety, forcing aggressive play. But most of the time, enemies will act predictably, content to stand immediately on the other side of your cover, firing away even though you’re safely out of reach. This turns most engagements into cover-based shooting galleries in which you simply mow down wave after wave of enemy until they’re all gone and you can move on.
Spec Ops: The Line also suffers from a distinct lack of variety. However lovely your backdrop may be, you’ll always be engaging the same basic enemy types in one of what amounts to two basic shooter encounters:
• Shooting dudes from behind cover.
• Shooting dudes from a turret.
The violence is an issue as well, or at least, it was for me. As the hours tick by and the bodycount increases, it all becomes something of a horrifying spectacle, scene after scene where you’ll cut through dozens upon dozens upon dozens of men. By the sixth hour of playing the game, I was deep in the throes of shooter fatigue — reverberant smashes of .50 calibre machine gun fire echoed through my apartment as death piled upon death. I’m getting too old for this shit, if I was ever young enough for it.
But OK, let’s pause. This all sounds like a drag, doesn’t it? And so you might be looking at the green “Yes” on the side of this review and be wondering what I’m on about. Basically: There are aspects of Spec Ops: The Line that are truly interesting, and for them, I believe that this game is worth playing. Never have I been gladder that our rubric asks, “Should you play this game?” Yes, you should play Spec Ops: The Line. Should you buy it? Rent it? Wait for a Steam sale? That’s up to you.
So, let’s talk about what the game does right. For starters, Spec Ops: The Line tells a considered, personal story, and it’s a story that the game feels it was specifically designed to tell. That may sound like faint praise — aren’t all games designed to tell a story? But the majority of military shooters, from Ghost Recon to Call of Duty, don’t actually feel like they were designed to tell a story. Their narratives feel like “this is what works,” where a given scene is mostly just a means with which to shunt players along to the next shooting gallery.
It is a rare military video game that actually has something to say about war. Most games of this ilk are content to simply throw players into a simulation of battle, crank up a sniper mission, make a few blasé statements about trusting the men by your side more than any government, and call it a day. But Spec Ops: The Line is unafraid to well and truly step outside of the bounds of that traditional shooter framework. While it doesn’t always nail the execution (and at times really flubs it), it is a work worthy of discussion, and worth your time. I would be glad to see more big-budget developers and publishers take risks like publisher 2K did by publishing this game. Hopefully at some point, “risky” games will feel actually risky, instead of merely interesting. But for now, I’ll take interesting.
I’ll keep the spoilers light here, since many of the game’s neater tricks are best experienced fresh. The story of Spec Ops: The Line plays out over a couple of days’ time, with no breaks and minimal time-lapse — much like Arkham City, it charts its protagonists’ descent into hell in a way that feels as exhausting as it looks. By the end of the tale, these men are transformed — beaten, bruised, burned and bloody, shells of the confident soldiers they were when they arrived in Dubai.
The writing is frequently good on a micro level, but flawed on a macro level. Dialogue goes from good to terrible in a heartbeat — some of the banter is a significant cut above most video games, but some of the later, tenser exchanges between the main characters don’t feel emotionally honest.
It’s unfortunate that certain aspects of the story’s setup — namely, that it’s a mystery — hinge on other parts not quite making sense. There’s a broad question looming large over the entire story — why are we here? How on earth could a group of soldiers this large go “missing” in Dubai? How am I to believe that a team of three Delta Force soldiers could cut down literally thousands of American troops? Some of those questions are answered, some aren’t. I’ll allow a certain amount of contrivance to get characters into a good story, but in this game it often feels as though rather than attempt to come up with convincing reasoning behind the setup, the writers of Spec Ops: The Line chose to leave things blank and hope we’d just come up with our own explanations.
Most video game stories would benefit from a bit (or a lot) more ambiguity, but seeing as how the Spec Ops story is personal and specific, its impact is somewhat diminished due to the vague context into which it is placed. At one point, a character explains that if Dubai is destroyed, “the region will declare war on us and we’ll lose.” Okay… wait, do you mean by “The Region?” You mean the United Arab Emirates will declare war on America? And we’ll lose? Wait.
But the story makes up for its frequent clunkiness with some moments of genuine trickiness and sly surprises, eventually providing a disconcerting take on video games themselves, on the idea that any hero could plonk down in a new location, kill a thousand or two people, and pat himself on the back for saving the day. In that way (and some other ones that I won’t spoil), Spec Ops is a surprisingly subversive work, and is helped along by a brilliant bit of casting in Nolan North’s role as Captain Walker.
North is best known for his affable everyman character Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series, but he’s played the protagonist in many other video games as well. Casting him almost feels like a meta-statement, a wink from the developers that says, “We knew exactly what we were doing on this one.”
In his role as Uncharted‘s wisecracking Drake, North is regularly the perpetrator of the sorts of mini-genocides that Spec Ops: The Line condemns so directly. In Spec Ops, North brings a fantastic energy to a role that sounds like it was quite demanding — as Walker’s mental and physical state deteriorate, North really helps you feel it, until eventually he’s screaming curses at the battlefield, at downed enemies, even at his weaponry. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Nathan Drake curse up a blue streak, this is your game.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned multiplayer. While it’s functional, there’s really not much to recommend it. The expected features are all here, various familiar modes like deathmatch, infiltration, and king-of-the-hill, along with persistent stats and unlockable gear. But the game doesn’t play as tightly as its current competitor Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, and nothing of what I’ve seen in the couple of hours I spent with multiplayer made me in the least bit interested in coming back. The movement controls aren’t as consistent or polished as in either Gears of War or Future Soldier, and the game just doesn’t feel mechanically sound enough for me to ever really trust it in player-vs-player gameplay. Furthermore, the multiplayer is vaguely presented as a part of the game’s fiction, which feels weird when placed against the weighty horrors of the single-player campaign. I found nothing noteworthy or rewarding in Spec Ops‘ multiplayer — the appeal of this game lies in its single-player campaign.
It may seem strange that I’m recommending a game even after rattling off such a laundry list of flaws. Spec Ops‘ story is its greatest strength, but even that is maddeningly flawed, bombastically unsubtle, ambiguous when it should be explicit, and often explicit when it should remain ambiguous.
Furthermore, as a video game exploration of Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops pales in comparison with Ubisoft’s Far Cry 2, just as I mentioned last week that I suspected it would. Far Cry 2 presented a much more sophisticated, satisfying take on similar subject matter, and it did so while being wicked fun to actually play, while the action in Spec Ops: The Line rarely moves beyond rote competence.
And yet when the closing credits rolled, I found myself thinking, wondering, analysing. I wanted to talk to people about it, I was engaged and invested. For that alone, Spec Ops: The Line is worthy of your time.