For as long as I can remember, games have always kept the body count high but haven’t ever been too successful about making us ponder any moral quandaries. Ninja Gaiden 3 and the Call of Duty games have dipped a toe into the sticky subject but have failed miserably. How can I feel anything when the main gameplay is mercilessly obliterating everything and anything that dares to move? Such a concept is oxymoronic at its core and games have always struggled with balancing the narrative and gameplay in harmony. Spec Ops: The Line aims to change that predisposed failure with a lofty goal of delivering a cover-based third-person shooter capable of making you actually care about the actions you take. With a forgotten intellectual property and a lengthy development cycle, this almost had its GPS set to missing the mark, but something very different occurred. Not only is playing Spec Ops: The Line engaging, but it delivers a story that becomes one of the best in gaming, let alone the shooter genre.
The city of Dubai may be a beautiful place nowadays rife with tall skyscrapers and artful landmarks, but it has been trashed due to the sandstorms done by Mother Nature. Many died and few evacuated, leaving the city to become a memory rather than a destination. Some were left in the wake of destruction and war hero Colonel John Konrad volunteered his heavily decorated 33rd Battalion to help with an evacuation. Something only a saint would do, right?
However, that was six months ago. All was thought to be lost until a cryptic radio broadcast was received from Konrad, prompting the United States to send a Delta Force to do some reconnaissance. Delta Force is your squad, consisting of Captain Walker, Lieutenant Adams, and Sergeant Lugo.
The trip begins almost like a vacation, with the squad making constant gags and bantering back and forth to lighten the mood. They quickly discover that something went terribly wrong as they find dead United States soldiers and are promptly attacked by local insurgents. A reality check is in order because they slowly realize that they are in far over their heads and some horrific acts have taken place.
As the team progresses from point A to point B, they gradually get more and more grizzled by the events in front of them. While this isn’t a huge war, conflict can bring out the worst in humanity, and that’s what The Line tries to show. Other games like Homefront were drastically unsuccessful because of the lack of build up to the shock moments and disjointed effect on the story at large. They were seemingly thrown in there just because and it was blatantly obvious. The Line treats these moments with significantly more care and has them become moments of actual sadness, anger, or shock.
Moments like these are dependent on other factors that weave together and magnify their impact as a result. Character development plays a key role in this process. All three squad members are people to care about right off the bat and have you become invested from there on out. Not only are their performances well done, but they are constantly in communication in both cutscene and gameplay to reinforce their constantly shifting personality. They didn’t feel like wooden solider caricatures but more like actual people thrown into an uncontrollable situation that meld accordingly from the pressure. Emotions run rampant as they show off the whole spectrum from happiness to downright outrage, rounding them out and having them feel three-dimensional in the process.
Walker, Lugo, and Adams are radically altered people by the time the game meets its conclusion. To reflect the harshness of the environment, their character models gradually look more damaged, similar to how a Mortal Kombat fight looks just before a fatality. Rugged, bloody, and burnt, these guys go through a literal hell and the small touch of showing that helps dramatically. Being in third-person and actually seeing this happen was also a small yet smart choice.
Voice commands degenerate in a similar fashion. In the beginning, Walker casually shouts military-like orders like “Tango behind the bus!” but by the end it morphs into “I want that motherfucker dead!” complete with the vigor of a complete psychopath. It may seem like a small detail, but it works well on driving home what actually happened. Had these not been features, it would have created an odd disconnect between gameplay and the narrative.
The squad’s gradual mental instability was not only apparent on them, but it began to weigh on me as well. On multiple occasions throughout the game, I was carrying a tangible sense of guilt for the actions that I caused. This was my fault. All of it. I did this. Lugo, Walker, and Adams crumble under the pressure in different ways and each was terrifying and made me worried for each of them. Their obvious distraught transferred to me, the player. Such a burden is difficult to convey, especially one with a heavy emphasis on gunplay but it was made possible by all the contributing factors listed above and below.
You may be thinking that this much murder would cause some sort of cognitive dissonance. It almost has to, right? The Line is exempt from this sort of label because of how it handles the enemies. It isn’t ever “Fuck yeah! More killin’ shit!” but more of situations that they are forced in and have no choice in the matter. They rarely take the offensive and when they do, it usually doesn’t work in their favor. Most of this was intentional and might have you reconsider whether you are actually doing the right thing or not. I found it to fit the themes present in the game and I’ll leave it at that.
I focused on the periphery of the plot and storytelling, but the actual content of the narrative is worth the attention. Pacing is a true star because, contrary to the sand covered environment, the story never goes dry for too long. After and during almost every conflict, another layer of mystery is added to the plot and even more questions get developed. Moments of true shock are peppered in and, surprisingly, feel right at home in this place of misery. The men gradually unravel more all the way until the game’s multiple finales, all of which are fantastic ways to bring things to a close. Even though there were about three endings, not a single one got the short end of the stick. The endings stuck with me long after I turned off the console and made me critically think about what happened and what everything meant. The game is closed enough to remain satisfying but leaves enough symbolism, mysteries, and metaphorical statements open to keep speculation going long after you quit playing. Outside of Silent Hill and Mass Effect 3, few games have that sort of right.
While the story is different to this medium, the gunplay is fairly predictable. Predictable isn’t a synonym for bland, as it takes some liberties and shows small intricacies that make it stand out a bit from other shooters. On a basic level, you are taking cover behind walls to avoid incoming fire from hostiles while popping up to dispatch poorly hidden foes. That much is familiar to us. Spec Ops is a bit more ballsy and takes cover seriously, making it mandatory in every firefight. Even on Easy, enemies will leave your blood on the sand if you mosey out in open sand for too long. I had noticed a trend of these so-called “cover-based” shooters slowly walking away from actually requiring cover so just that alone makes Spec Ops stand out.
Using cover works fairly well. Hiding behind a wall is a little different from some games, but after a short introductory period, it becomes natural and fluid. I rarely hit the wrong piece of cover or didn’t take cover when I wanted to. Button placement is to thank for that because the “vault” option is on a separate button. Some cover games are plagued with accidental vaulting, so this was a welcome, thoughtful addition.
A few other small details make the gun fights extraordinary. Plenty of weapons are littered throughout to pick from throughout the campaign that have different functions and add a sense of choice, even with a limiting two weapon system. Environments are often very wide and filled with multiple routes. Picking a different path after multiple deaths was a viable strategy because it seemed hand crafted so I could choose where I wanted to tackle the fight from. Moving from cover to cover is also faster and the roadie run equivalent is far more agile than others in its genre. A wide play area doesn’t go to waste because of the sheer haste of many of the movements, giving it a faster feel than games like Uncharted. Most foes also drop realistically with only requiring a few shots. If you are tired of bullet sponges like I am, you will be thrilled that a clip can take out more than two foes.
Walker isn’t exempt from these rules either; it doesn’t take much lead to be downed. This isn’t inherently bad and I felt it added a sense of urgency to the combat, but the checkpoint system doesn’t do this any favors. Checkpoints become coveted because of their rarity. In most games, firefights usually consist of about three or more distinct waves, usually with a checkpoint right after each. The Line doesn’t usually fall to this trend, only to have most checkpoints after each major conflict. There are easily parts where your subconscious would expect a checkpoint, but alas, the fine folks at Yager don’t have the same way of thinking. They aren’t ever completely terrible, just consistently mildly annoying.
Shooting is satisfying on the whole but that doesn’t mean it is perfect. Transitioning from wall to wall works well, but I would have loved to see some sort of cover transition between the same piece of cover. Moving to a perpendicular wall on the same piece of cover is oddly absent. Also given the frequency of grenades, it would have been great to have the ability to toss them back. It happened plenty of times on FUBAR difficulty but there were sequences where a grenade would land by my feet and it would leave me with a choice to decorate the walls with my innards or become Swiss cheese by a turret. Both are lose-lose. A dodge roll would be the last on my wish list. It’s omission is mysterious, seeing as it is a genre standard and pretty useful in a game with guns being so lethal. Spec Ops still delivers thrills in its firefights, but think of these as minor inconsistencies in the grand scheme of the game.
Despite the sandy blanket and being in shambles, Dubai still looks marvelous. A desert setting would probably heavily imply a boring art style, but the team over at Yager was determined on having it look good. Ventures inside of buildings often have plenty of color and attention to detail. Blues, greens, and other bright hues somehow sneak themselves in here and create a brilliant contrast with the brown exterior. Even the desert has personality with plenty of objects to avoid a desolate feel and human touches to make it feel like it had a personality. Sandstorms in particular look great, with wind picking up and the screen getting appropriately dark, damning visibility and looking solid in the process. While some textures can take time to pop (thanks Unreal Engine), it somehow never looked bland, boring, or outright terrible.
Sound always accompanies the visuals and Spec Ops has that covered as well as the sand has covered Dubai. Licensed music and original scores are found throughout the game and they do a fantastic job of reinforcing the hopeless aesthetic. Guitar strings and songs that would feel right at home in a Vietnam War era game mix together with every other facet to show how messed up the situation at hand is. Key songs pop in at optimal moments and get the prevalent message across even more. Most shooters put the music on the back burner in favor of gunfire and explosions, but The Line uses it as an instrument in its storytelling.
I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t enthusiastic about Spec Ops: The Line. I know I wasn’t looking forward to it. Miraculously, Yager showed us a brand new facet of game story telling that actually was capable of making the player feel emotions that don’t usually fit into games, especially ones where the gun is a main character. While it is a cover-based third-person shooter, and a marvelous one at that, it goes far beyond the genre’s staples and evolves into a story that seems like it should become a staple or inspiration for future titles. Some lines should not be crossed but Spec Ops: The Line showed me that I have to live with those consequences.
+Strong narrative powered by shocking moments and great characters that change over time
+Shooting feels a bit more strategic with wider environments and squadmates
+Soundtrack fits the grim mood along with bloody, dry visuals
-A dodge roll, cover transition, and grenade throwback would have been nice to have
-Checkpoints are spread a bit too far apart
Final Score: 9/10