Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person military man-shoot with all the trappings. You shoot from the accustomed sanctuary of knee-high cover, brutally execute unarmed enemies, boot down doors in glitzy slow motion and make heads disappear in a dramatic red haze. But hold on, don’t go anywhere yet. Somewhere between tear-assing through Dubai and granting the 250th .50 calibre kiss of death – fun as that absolutely is – Spec Ops: The Line recalls it’s drawing on more than just the paradigmatic beating heart of the classic military romp. It’s also trying to be our very own Heart of Darkness.
Stifle those guffaws, it does a half-decent job of it.
The story begins in Dubai. You take the reigns of Captain Martin Walker, chief of a trio of U.S. marines sent on a reconnaissance mission into the sandy sprawl. Spec Ops’ Dubai is governed by sand much in the same way that Enslaved’s powerful vision of New York was governed by foliage, providing the game with both a suitably isolated world to anchors its story and a quirky little mechanic (more on that in a moment). Buffetted by aggressive storms, it’s a world cut-off from the rest of humanity – the perfect place to examine Walker’s frail state of mind.
There are shades of Rapture about Spec Ops’ Dubai too. It’s another lost city ruled by a madman in which your exploits are accompanied by the goading ramblings of a vaguely helpful enigma; a DJ whose voice is boomed out over loudspeaker. It’s an intriguing, oppressive world full of madness and madmen and, sand aside, little else. Ravished by sandstorms, estranged out in the desert with a 360 degree bulwark preventing your escape, you may as well be at the bottom of the ocean.
But you’re not, and Walker and co. arrive in a bid to determine the fate of a U.S. battalion caught in the throes of who knows what? They begin life as U.S. MARINES and developer Yager paint in broad strokes. They spew cocky one-liners soaked in hubris, swear blind patriotism and dispatch tangos with borderline glee. But as the kill-count stretches up into triple figures they become less like the soldiers typified by Call of Duty and its ilk and more like real human beings wrestling with the horrors of war laid bare in front of them.
Throughout a decent-length campaign Spec Ops paints a compelling image of three men contending with the psychological ramifications of ending lives and witnessing what they are each capable of. It’s the smallest changes that are the most disturbing. Enemies referred to as “tangos” at the outset become “fuckers” later on and routine military-shooter barks intended to aid your allies become roars of “die motherfucker” shot through with raw hatred.
Elsewhere, executions get more grisly – prolonged white-of-the-eyes affairs – and Walker’s temper flares too. Even by videogame soldier standards he folds to violent tendencies more quickly and it all culminates in one of the most thoughtful finales to a game about shooting dudes that I can recall. Sure, it owes a fair debt to Heart of Darkness, but you can hardly argue that watching Walker’s humanity devolve into that of a man who has seen with his own eyes the atrocities only men know how to commit doesn’t make for compelling viewing.
The game does a semi-decent job of making you feel accountable for some of its atrocities too, offering a fistful of choices that feed in to the nastier stuff witnessed over the course of the campaign. But Yager never quite manages to make the guilt stick. Its attempts are often clumsy and they’re too quick to force your hand in a bid to make you squirm. Some of the worst crimes are unavoidable – a truth that, at best, shatters any sense of guilt and at worst threatens to undermine the whole experience.
Elsewhere it can’t rival the unhinged madness of Apocalypse Now, nor can it prompt a similar metaphorical examination of the human psyche. It certainly succeeds in making you feel uncomfortable, but it’s hampered by the fact it’s still a game about shooting people.
And there lies its chief problem. Shooting people in Spec Ops is just too much fun; watching heads rupture as a result of the .50 cal thump met with accustomed satisfaction. And while we can certainly feel for Walker and his cronies, we can’t feel for the enemies who aren’t a great deal different to Call of Duty’s national threats. Spec Ops’ bad guys are American, but it’s hard to muster much sympathy after so many years spent dispatching Middle Easterners and Russians.
Remove the story and you’re left with a competent third-person shooter. It’s not as thumping as Gears of War, nor does it flaunt the cinematic acumen of something like Call of Duty, but the gunplay is ferocious, the team-tactics lend it an extra level of depth its first-person contemporaries lack and it’s refreshingly grounded in reality. “I think we’re clear but keep your eyes peeled”, Walker announces after a battle draws to a dramatic close. It’s the difference a single word makes; one word imbuing them with a real-world trait we can all appreciate: apprehension. Spec Ops: The Line is, if nothing else, a well-written war game.
And about all that sand. There are times when you can use it to your advantage, burying enemies by shooting out conveniently placed glass panels, for example, or using a sandstorm as cover. It’s an interesting gimmick bolted to the side of an otherwise familiar – at least in terms of gameplay – third-person romp. But Yager never make a great deal of it. For the most part, it just helps make Dubai a particularly gorgeous place full of things and people that are anything but.
Spec Ops lurches between being the interactive Apocalypse Now it so wants to be and the traditional third-person shooter it needs to be to survive the wrath of this cutthroat market, relaying the grotesque during the quieter moments that punctuate the routine third-person duck hunts. As a result, it can feel at times as though you’re trudging through the game to get to the good stuff.
But it’s a game with the temerity to suggest that there’s more to war than seasoned braggadocio, pro-imperialist undertones and ghastly overworked virility and it proves that there’s room in this one-note genre to marry fun with meaning. Spec Ops: The Line asks that you bring your brain along to the party, not just your trigger finger, and in the zeitgeist of the military shooter that alone makes it worthy of your attention.