How Spec Ops: The Line attempts to shock jaded, desensitized gamers

We pull the trigger on our Xbox 360 controller, which is actually shaped like the trigger on an assault rifle. Signals are sent to the controller, then to the system, and within milliseconds our on-screen avatar pulls the trigger on his assault rifle, which is actually shaped like the trigger on our Xbox 360 controller. Digital bullets stream from the barrel spraying towards the digital character cowering ahead. We see his head snap back and the game slows down time for a moment, letting us revel in our victory. We watch as digital blood sprays from digital heads onto digital sand. And we continue moving on. We’re monsters. Every last one of us. We’re jaded. Desensitized. Monsters. That’s what Spec Ops: The Line wants us to know, first and foremost. We’re horrible monsters.

Above: Walker's mission gets more complicated every minute he spends in Dubai

That’s what it felt like as we stumbled through a few hours of the game. We entered Dubai, completely ruined by sandstorms, in an attempts to find the cleverly-named U.S. Army Colonel John Konrad, a hero of our Nolan North-voiced protagonist, Captain Martin Walker. But there’s a war going on in Dubai, unbeknownst to everyone on the outside. Konrad’s men are doing battle with natives. And maybe the CIA, too; it was never made completely clear. In fact, the misty, hazy battle lines were important to the story, which felt like it did a fantastic job turning the sand-covered Dubai into a confused, deadly warzone.

2K used this setting to its advantage in order to craft an incredibly dark story, one that feels like it’s attempting to genuinely bring a deeper moral message to the genre. This narrative is weaved between large, set-piece battles which had us seamlessly sliding between cover and taking down enemies with the game’s strong, tight controls. It doesn’t reinvent the Gears of War-style shooter, but it does a good job of aping it and adapting it to the setting. Walker’s two companions are more-than-capable allies, taking down enemies on their own and following our occasional commands while feeling like well fleshed-out characters.

Above: The sandstorm buried most of the city, leaving beautiful buildings underground

On a few occasions we were given the option to destroy windows, walls, and other barriers holding back the sandstorm’s remnants, and while it never provided dynamic or especially strong gameplay it always looked cool and cleared a room in a fantastic display of nature’s wrath. We're hoping there are more inventive uses later in the game, as it feels like there can be more to it than that.

But the gameplay wasn’t what impressed us about Spec Ops. It was competent, sure, but the setting and tone is really what set it apart. It’s a gloomy story, showing the darker side of war without succumbing to the clichés of action movies. We’re not sure that we’re playing as heroes. We’re there to save people, and to save our country’s citizens, but at what cost? We don’t know. Spec Ops made us question our actions when it gave us a choice – which it did on a few occasions.

Once we were asked if we wanted to attempt to rescue a person of interest or attempt to save a handful of citizens. We took down the targets and tried – and failed – to save our contact. We weren’t sure if it was the right decision to make. It didn’t feel like it was. But if we had gone the other way and tried to save the people, we feel like it might have ended the same way. Later we saved one of Konrad’s men from a CIA operative that was torturing him. He pointed a gun at us next, and we could have taken him down. We didn’t. He got away. Soon after, his allies started attacking us. Shouldn’t he have told them that we saved him? Did he trust us? Would we have trusted us?

Above: We found executed soldiers in several locations

We trudged on, killing our fellow men in uniform because we had to. Our characters screamed desperately at them, “We’re not CIA!” They’d keep firing. We’d shout again, “Doesn’t the term friendly fire mean anything to you? Stop shooting!” But they didn’t. They wanted us dead, so we had to kill them. Eventually we came to a group too large to fight through, at least without some heavy armaments. One of our squad mates pointed to a nearby weapon: white phosphorus.

Earlier we came across innocents who had this weapon used against them, their bodies scorched, their flesh aflame.

“We can’t use this on them, they’re US soldiers” one of our teammates pleaded.

“We don’t have a choice,” Walker replied.

We walked over and took control, raining down fire on our enemies. Though it looked like the AC-130 mission from Call of Duty it certainly didn’t feel like it. It wasn't fulfilling. They didn’t stand a chance. There was no satisfaction.

Above: Mercy killing has little in-game purpose besides silencing screams and gurgles

As we walked through the battle zone, watching our fellow citizens scream for mercy, we couldn’t help but put them out of their misery. We weren’t shooting them because they were a threat. Or because we had to. We just wanted to stop their screaming – digital or not, it was chilling. For a moment, we thought the segment would have been a lot more impactful if the game didn’t make us do it. If it had given us the chance to just fight through the enemies without the torturous weapon, then we might feel worse about our inhumane slaughter. 

And then we realized something horrific: we would have used the white phosphorus either way. In fact, we didn’t even wait to find out if we had to. We may have had a choice. We didn’t check. We just walked over to the gun and started shooting. Pulling our trigger-shaped buttons and slaughtering defenseless soldiers.

We’re horrible monsters.


Ops Spec


  • SlowOctopus - February 21, 2012 6:10 p.m.

    Damn, I'm looking forward to this one. It'll be tough to wedge it in somewhere between Mass Effect and BioShock, but I'm gonna try. Nice writing by the way Coop.
  • Hobogonigal - February 7, 2012 12:28 a.m.

    I have always been interested in this game since I first heard about it. Firstly for the slick cover system but latter on for the awesome moral decisions. I definitely think I might get this game when it releases.
  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - February 6, 2012 6:42 p.m.

    It almost sounds too good to be true.
  • thelazymackenzie - February 6, 2012 6:06 p.m.

    I had no interest in this game until now, time read everything about it! Also, great writing in this article.
  • ChaseByKO - February 6, 2012 5:28 p.m.

    Good read, Highlander. Always wanted a true dark and gritty shooter. War shouldn't feel so fun. And that in itself will create drama. Sounds great. A++ Would read again
  • elppa284 - February 6, 2012 4:40 p.m.

    "We entered Dubai, completely ruined by sandstorms, in an attempts to find the cleverly-named U.S. Army Colonel John Konrad, a hero of our Nolan North-voiced protagonist, Captain Martin Walker. But there’s a war going on in Dubai, unbeknownst to everyone on the outside. Konrad’s men are doing battle with natives. And maybe the CIA, too; it was never made completely clear." haha. Konrad? unbeknownst war? battle with natives? Holy sh*t a heart of darkness in video game form. I'm completely sold.
  • IceBlueKirby - February 6, 2012 4:17 p.m.

    Based on what I've read here, which is the first thing I've read about this game, it sounds like it'll certainly deliver on it's promise. But, like others, I'll still wait until reviews are posted to see if it holds that kind of tension all the way through. I'm still more interested in this game now than I was before.
  • winner2 - February 6, 2012 4:14 p.m.

    Definitely interested now, if this game is as good as it's sounding to be, I'll take it over Modern Warfare any day.
  • Dman3981 - February 6, 2012 2:16 p.m.

    Sounds good, I was almost scared that this game got canned because I haven't heard anything from it for a while. For those who haven't seen the reveal trailer or the E3 trailer here you go:
  • AxiamWolfe - February 6, 2012 1:52 p.m.

    One can only hope that this lives up to its reputation and not fail due to things like sloppy game design or such.
  • Sinosaur - February 6, 2012 12:57 p.m.

    I'm hoping this game continues to look up, because I remember tons of previews for games that will completely change everything that end up releasing with ratings between 5 and 7 and not actually living up to the hype. This is a difficult topic and video games are a medium that's not always very good at dealing with morality and complex situations, especially not serious, morally ambiguous situations. However, I'm hopeful that this game may prove to be an exception.
  • atrox12 - February 6, 2012 12:09 p.m.

    This is great, Hollander... hummm... Would you mind telling someone to fix this game's info, It says that it will be launched in late 2010. Also, this game was apparently released on 2009 according to this search results. Cheers!
  • TheHalfanese - February 6, 2012 11:26 a.m.

    Just when I thought war games would never change, I discover this. This game sounds like something I could get behind. Thank you for the good read.
  • alanmeades - February 6, 2012 10:27 a.m.

    Didn't we have the similar moral wrangle in homefront? I'm not knocking it though, I'm all for greater reflection while playing... If only there was the option to not use the phosphorous and still get past them?
  • Grif - February 6, 2012 9:32 a.m.

    Bravo Hollander, you conveyed what (hopefully) will be a very dark and interesting game extremely well.
  • ObliqueZombie - February 6, 2012 9:31 a.m.

    Well written, Mr. Cooper. I very much enjoyed the way you decided to tell this review. The dark of the review REALLY reflected the supposed dark tone Spec Ops is claiming to have. I've been having my eye on it for a few months now, and this is really shaping my decision to purchase this game.
  • BladedFalcon - February 6, 2012 8:44 a.m.

    I've been keeping an eye on this game ever since it's been announced 3 years ago. Mainly because it always promised to tell a dark, different kind of war story, and because the game-play looked fun and solid enough. It's good to hear that so far it's delivering. I will also most likely wait for the reviews though, like someone pointed out, Homefront Also had a brilliant premise, and it's thanks to the reviews that I avoided it. Let's hope though, that with this game the reviews will confirm my hopes rather than drive me away.
  • StrayGator - February 6, 2012 8:37 a.m.

    Le Witcher: Modern Warfare.
  • ultimatepunchrod - February 6, 2012 8:11 a.m.

    I'm going to wait for reviews, but every preview I've read has me really interested in this.
  • taokaka - February 6, 2012 6:34 a.m.

    I wasn't even remotely interested in this game before reading but now I want to know more.

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