Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games, Missing Link Games
Played on: PC
Release Date: June 25, 2012
Time Played (Steam): 8.8 hours
War is hell.
Now, certainly this shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone. As history continues to repeat itself over and over again, people continue to fight and kill one another, and the harsh, horrific realities of war are brought to the forefront of the public consciousness. Every person that dies may have had children. A spouse. Friends. At the very least, they had parents, whether they knew them or not. They weren’t just some faceless drone, waiting to be gunned down in the name of their country.
In video games, though, things are different. Every character is simply programmed to be there. Enemies have no real thoughts, hopes, or dreams. They will ruthlessly pursue you to the ends of the Earth, killing you over and over as you endlessly respawn, until you finally put a bullet between their eyes and end it.
This has raised an interesting question over the years: what are the ramifications of this interactive violence? So many games on the market expect us to mindlessly butcher hundreds, if not thousands of enemies, all in the name of the “greater good”, whether that’s saving our boyfriend/girlfriend or saving the world. It’s easy to justify going on a virtual murderous killing spree for hours on end so that we can save a fictional land, but what if it was all real? Would we still be seen as the hero at the end of the day? Or does there come a point where a line has been crossed, and redemption is rendered impossible?Enter Spec Ops: The Line. At first glance, it looks to be functionally identical to nearly every other grey-brown shooty-bang-bang military shooter on shelves. Team of American soldiers fighting to liberate a third-world nation and rescue a fellow officer? Check. Linear third-person shooter with regenerating health? Check. Enough guns, explosions, and bloodshed to make a lovechild of Michael Bay and Quentin Tarantino blush? Check, check, and check.
And then it changes. Suddenly, you’re not fighting foreign insurgents, but U.S. military. Then routine exercises begin to have horrifying consequences. By the time Walker (the protagonist) begins to have mental breaks from reality, it becomes pretty clear that this game is aiming to be anything but standard.
See, without going into spoiler territory, Spec Ops is designed to be a metaphorical mirror for the player. The game revels in letting the player carry out some action because it’s “the right thing to do” before shining a light on the actual implications of said action, often to unpleasant effect. At the risk of coming across as more pretentious than I already have, this isn’t so much a game that you beat as it is a game that beats you. It forces you to really examine what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and question if there was maybe a “good” option somewhere that you missed. Here’s a hint: There probably wasn’t.So the game pats you on the head and sends you off to war, rifle and handgun in tow. Playing as Walker, you progress through the streets of Dubai, mowing down your foes with pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and more. Headshots in particular are rewarded with a spray of blood as the target’s head is literally blown away. There’s no doubt that the game has no qualms with allowing the player to indulge in massive amounts of carnage. When the enemies begin to fire back, you can sprint and duck into cover, blind-firing over barricades and around corners or waiting for an opportunity to poke your head out. The setup will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played any of the increasingly numerous “modern military” shooters on the market.
Of course, that’s if the game allows you to do what you want to do. Walker’s sprint is incredibly annoying in that once you start, there isn’t really a good way to stop unless you get to cover. As a result, it’s less of “Pressing this button lets you move faster” and more of “Press this button to make a beeline for cover. Also, if you miss it, you’re just going to run straight into that guy with a shotgun. Have fun!” Additionally, the cover has a tendency to either be too sticky or not sticky enough. I lost count of how many times I died or got close to death because I tried to move along a piece of cover while staying hidden, and Walker just decided to stand up and stare at the twenty gun barrels immediately swivelling to face his head. Other times, I would be trying to run past a piece of cover or jump over it to get away from an enemy behind me, and Walker would just hunker down and proceed to get shot.Walker is accompanied by two squadmates, Adams and Lugo, both of whom end up taking various opportunities to play the “angel on one shoulder, devil on the other” game with Walker at different points in the story. During gameplay, you can command them to attack specific targets, heal one another (but not you, for some reason), and throw out stun grenades (only in certain scenarios, though). Unfortunately, they can be a bit hit-and-miss. Sometimes they can be helpful by allowing you to hide in safety while they pick off targets that are pinning you down. Other times, they can be hugely frustrating as you’re forced to run into the line of fire to heal one of them before they bleed out (which causes a game over if it happens). Also, the fact that you have squadmates means that Walker feels compelled to constantly scream at the top of his lungs at them, whether he’s reloading, killing an enemy, or throwing a grenade. Not only do these lines of dialogue get repetitive, but they are often far louder than all the other voices in the game, which I found were often drowned out by the action; it got to the point where I was missing bits of the story because they occurred during a firefight.
Other aspects of the game’s presentation are also a bit hit-and-miss. The graphics in some areas are pretty nice; the moody lighting in some interiors and the blinding sandstorms that occur periodically stand out. However, there are also places with very low-quality textures, including one section where I was sniping foes on a distant skyscraper and could clearly see the muddy, ugly textures that had yet to be replaced with higher-quality ones. Also, for some reason the game uses a mixture of pre-rendered cutscenes and in-game cutscenes. While not a problem in theory, there are two main issues here: 1) The pre-rendered cutscenes don’t look much better from a graphical standpoint than the in-game ones. 2) Even if the pre-rendered cutscenes did look better, it would be impossible to tell, because they’re so heavily compressed that they look kind of disgusting. In happier news, I found the soundtrack to be quite enjoyable, particularly the game’s use of licensed tracks to punctuate certain battles. So that’s something.Honestly, my biggest complaint with Spec Ops: The Line is that it just feels…generic. It’s an odd complaint to make, because the whole reason that the game works is because it’s so generic. It tricks the player into thinking that they’re playing yet another bog-standard shooter before flipping the table over and saying “JOKE’S ON YOU!” However, the problem with that is that everything underneath the surprisingly clever narrative feels like a slog. It’s not bad, per se, it’s just boring. I found myself getting annoyed whenever I wandered into a new area and saw chest-high walls scattered all over, because it meant that I would have to go through another ten to fifteen minute firefight before possibly being allowed to progress in the story. As much as a part of me wants to replay the game to see how some of the alternate scenarios can play out, I don’t want to trudge through hours of mediocre third-person shooting just to get there.
As an aside, the game also has a multiplayer mode and a co-operative mode. Despite not being able to play them for review, I will just say this: I already ran into a number of problems with the game’s mechanics while playing through on the “Suicide Mission” difficulty, as mentioned previously. I can only imagine how online multiplayer would exacerbate these issues. Frankly, I’d prefer not to find out first-hand. Honestly, I don’t think that this is a game that really needed these extra components anyway, and it probably would have been better served by foregoing them altogether. Plus, it kind of undermines the central themes of the game when a completely inconsequential multiplayer deathmatch mode is a few clicks away at any time.Spec Ops: The Line is an odd game. It critiques violence in video games while wholeheartedly embracing a lot of that violence. It shakes its head at the glut of samey first- and third-person shooters on the market while becoming one of them. At times, it seems like it’s at odds with itself, torn between being a big-budget shooter that can turn a profit at market and being a smart, emotional, narratively-driven experience. To its credit, it succeeds at part of its goal. The story is engaging, disgusting (in a good way), and had me thinking for quite a while afterwards. However, when attempting to criticize a medium in the way that Spec Ops does, a line is walked, and there is the risk of becoming that which you are criticizing. And unfortunately, Spec Ops pushes too hard and crosses the line.