A few weeks ago, I expressed my feelings that gaming needed more thematic variance, especially in the AAA space. I did an interview with Game Critic Hulk for the piece, and during our conversation I expressed hope that Spec Ops: The Line was going to deliver something new in the military shooter space. Did they?
We will get to the answer to that question shortly. First, a little background. Spec Ops: The Line is set six months after a set of catastrophic sandstorms left the city of Dubai in ruins. Players take control of Captain Martin Walker as he leads his Delta Force squad into Dubai to find out what happened to the “Damned 33rd,” a regiment that remained in Dubai in order to help survivors, and to help evacuate the city.
For a game set in a sand-covered city, Spec Ops has the full range of color available to it. Deep blues and purples, as well as bright reds and oranges fill the areas that make up each of the game’s 15 chapters that cover its 4-6 hour campaign. The models are well-designed and detailed, and the player is able to see Captain Walker’s face contort and change as the game goes on, and the character endures horrific sight after horrific sight. Texture work is good throughout, although it takes a bit of a hit in the competitive multiplayer, no doubt in service to the framerate. Lighting effects are well done, and a highlight of the game are the sandstorms themselves, which fill the screen with a deep reddish-brown hue, as the player attempts to find a covered area. The cityscapes of Dubai are rendered beautifully, as the shiny towers belie the true ugliness of what’s happened on ground, hundreds of feet below.
Nolan North leads the voice acting cast, and does an admirable job distinguishing Captain Walker from the “Nolan North effect,” giving him his own unique voice that, while recognizable, gives character to him. The rest of the Delta Force squad, Lugo and Adams, also have good voice acting, and in general the voice work is strong throughout. The gun sounds are not as satisfying as other games in the genre, lacking the low end boom that demonstrates their power, but the soundtrack more than makes up for it, with a melancholic orchestral suite, as well as a licensed soundtrack that is delightful in its usage, both in terms of song choice and timing.
The game also offers up competitive multiplayer that is pretty boilerplate, with one exception. The sandstorms from the campaign make their way into the multiplayer, dramatically changing the battlefield at random intervals throughout the match. The players are not bullet-sponges, so careful maneuvering is rewarded, but the lack of a true kill-cam ensures that camping and sniping may be a problem for the game in the long-term.
Honestly though, there’s one reason to buy Spec Ops: The Line. It isn’t how it looks or sounds, how the multiplayer works, or even the gameplay itself. No, Spec Ops: The Line is going to succeed on the back of its narrative. And what a narrative it is. There’s an overwhelming sense of dread that permeates Spec Ops: The Line, and each encounter gives the player a new situation that feels impossible to resolve cleanly. There are things that Captain Walker is forced to do that will resonate with players for years, things that take the tropes of the modern warfare genre and show the player the dark underside of them. This is highlighted by the events of Chapter 8, which take what is usually a time for rest in a modern shooter, and turn it into the ugly, terrible thing it is. The ramifications of these events haunt the entire squad, and they react realistically to the situation, with infighting mounting as Captain Walker presses on with his mission. The best thing about the narrative is that there’s no real villain. Even Colonel Konrad, who takes on a Walter Kurtz-like mystique as the game progresses, is only guilty of doing what he thought was right. Spec Ops: The Line is a game about hubris and best intentions, and how sometimes seemingly heroic men are thrown into impossible situations, and forced to do what they can to survive, no matter the cost.
There’s no glorification of war in Spec Ops, no jingoistic “America, F*ck Yeahs” to go around. No hoo-rahs. Nothing to make what you’re doing in the game seem like anything but the true terror it is. Other games have tried and will try to show the ugliness of war, but none will go as far as Spec Ops: The Line in pushing the player to the extreme. You will feel worse about what you’re doing with every kill, but you will press on. The characters in the game will comment on the terrible things that you’re doing in the name of your “mission,” but you will press on. Walker himself will deteriorate from the stress of the situation (more masterful work from Nolan North: as the game goes on, Walker’s speech becomes much more gruff and angry, as compared to the calmness he displays early on), yet you will press on. That is what we have been taught to do, and when the game pulls the rug out from under you at the very end, only then will you appreciate the true horror of the situation that you’re in, and of the things you’ve done. The game weaves a tale that is a modern-day Apocalypse Now (which was a huge influence to the game), appropriate and mature for today’s gaming and political landscape.
Spec Ops: The Line isn’t fun in the traditional sense.
It’s better than that.
A copy of Spec Ops: The Line for Xbox 360 was provided to us for this review by 2K Games.